30 Thoughts: No ‘last stand’ for Blackhawks

Elliotte Friedman takes an in depth look at the resurgence of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Chicago sports scene.

Maybe it wasn’t just an opponent the Chicago Blackhawks defeated in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. Maybe it was an idea.

The conventional wisdom (and I’m as guilty as anyone) is this is “The Last Stand” for these Blackhawks as we know them. Painful decisions are coming, as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews combine for a $21 million cap hit beginning next season.

The last time Chicago had to dismantle its roster was after the 2010 Stanley Cup victory. Out went Adam Burish and Antti Niemi (then 26-years old), Ben Eager (25), Dustin Byfuglien (24), Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg (23). The Blackhawks then had the worst two-season stretch of their 21st-century revival, back-to-back first-round playoff defeats in 2011 and 2012.


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They won the Cup again in 2013, lost in Game 7 of the Western Final (in double overtime) to the 2014 champions and now have a shot at their third Stanley Cup in six seasons. In the salary-cap era, that qualifies as a dynasty, and there is potential for more.

You have to believe Chicago is coming back next season with a skating core of Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad (“We’ll get him signed,” GM Stan Bowman told The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc last week), Andrew Shaw and Jonathan Toews. In Games 6 and 7 of the Anaheim series, those players combined for nine of the Blackhawks’ 10 goals and 10 of their 18 assists.

Only two of them, Keith (31) and Hossa (35), are older than 27. Hossa is still a two-way force and Keith is so mutantly immune to fatigue that Professor X was probably waiting at his home Sunday morning.

It’s a group that consistently elevates its game just beyond the reach of their opponents. The Predators, Wild and Ducks all felt they were so close to victory, only to see the Blackhawks find a way to push past them. (You might be surprised to see Minnesota mentioned considering it was swept, but one of those players said Saturday the most infuriating thing was he and his teammates felt every game was so close.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise to opponents is how successful Chicago’s been at recruiting intriguing young prospects.

“They are going after everyone,” one rival exec said. “And they are getting them. It’s clear they are telling these players there will be room to play.”

For example, there was real doubt they could hold on to Michael Paliotta, a 2011 draft pick who blossomed at NCAA Vermont and was eligible for free agency. They did. They landed Artem Panarin, a sought-after KHL scorer, and Kyle Baun, a desired college free agent. They are expected to be a contender for Mike Reilly, who recently informed Columbus he would test the market.

The Blackhawks already own some real talent at AHL Rockford, led by Teuvo Teravainen, now with the big club. Not all of these players will make an impact, but there’s enough volume to believe some will. Whatever happens against Tampa Bay, they are better prepared to reload.

The biggest question is the future of the player who scored the one goal not accounted for from those listed above: Brent Seabrook. Seabrook is such a critical piece. His regular-season averages of 0.09 goals per game and 0.42 points per game jump to 0.17 and 0.53 in the playoffs. It seems like every one of those post-season goals is an absolute heartbreaker for opponents.

There are other clubs hoping they can trade for Seabrook before he hits unrestricted free agency next summer. But, if the Hawks convince him to stay at a good number, it’s brutal for everyone else.

 

30 Thoughts

 

1. The best thing that could happen to Anaheim right now is media-relations wiz Alex Gilchrist emailing some David Poile comments to his own boss, Ducks general manager Bob Murray.

“Our team is just about there,” the Predators’ GM said at Saturday’s Music City Sports Festival in Nashville (courtesy predators' website). “We’ve got to be a bit better but I like what we have right now, and I would like to see a majority of this team come back next year and see how we compete against all the top teams in the League.”

That’s what the Ducks, deep and youthful, need to do, too. Yes, this was a painful defeat. But it comes against the elite of the elite and, is it really wise to overreact with a team that went 15 playoff games until losing in regulation?

Murray tried to sign Matt Beleskey at the deadline, so you know he’ll take another run at that. But if he wants, he can put off several important contract decisions — Frederik Andersen, Simon Despres, John Gibson, Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen — until next summer.

There is time to take another run with this group and see what you’ve got. Now, I do think the Ducks planned to talk about an extension with Kesler and another exec said he “would be shocked” if Anaheim traded either of its goalies this summer, so we’ll see if the result changes any of that.

2. It’s ridiculous to think Bruce Boudreau could be in any trouble after getting within a win of the Stanley Cup Final, but the relationship between he and Murray is… let’s go with “strained.”

Yes, he's 1-6 in Game 7s, but he's won his division (and made the playoffs) in seven of his eight years as a coach. It’s harder than ever to get into the playoffs. He gets you there; the Ducks need to remember that. In the aftermath of Saturday’s loss, a couple of coaches remarked how similar it looked to last year’s 6-2 Game 7 defeat to the Kings.

The Ducks panic and break down, as both Los Angeles and Chicago strafed them with odd-man rushes. As one of those coaches pointed out, that pre-dates Boudreau.

“Even with Randy (Carlyle), they were not at the defensive level of Los Angeles, Phoenix or San Jose (in their old division),” he texted. (We're talking post-Niedermayer/Pronger.) This stands out, because the knock on Boudreau in some of those deciding-game defeats is he gets tense, which can rub off on the team. But he struck me as calmer this year, especially since he stuck with a struggling Andersen, when his history indicates a quick trigger with goalies. This problem goes right into the roster, and, if I ran a team, I’d try to work with players and a coach who consistently give me a chance to play for the big prize.

3. Boy, did Tampa Bay impress some Eastern rivals with the way it closed out the Rangers.

“They’ve evolved,” said one GM. “They didn’t defend like that during the regular season, but went to a new level.” (No one quoted in this blog is used as an anonymous source.) Take out the third period of Game 6, and they finished as well as a coach could demand. The Lightning only had nine games of 20-plus blocked shots during the year, but are at five in the playoffs — including 24 in Game 5 and 20 in Game 7, both road shutouts. (Their season-high came in Game 1 vs Montreal, 27 in double-overtime.) In the last 6:50 of the clincher, New York’s only shot on goal was a 99-footer by Chris Kreider with one second left. The Rangers had four missed shots, and four more blocked.

4. Meanwhile, another coach paid tribute to Steven Stamkos.

“Think about it,” he said. “How many star players would agree to switch positions as easily as he did that late in the season? Very impressive and unselfish.” (Stamkos did take nine face-offs in Game 7, his highest in nine games.) Moving to the wing allowed Valtteri Filppula to go between Stamkos and Alex Killorn, which was better for the Finnish centre, the captain and the team’s offence.

By the way, in Tampa’s two Game 7s, Killorn’s led all Lightning forwards in ice time.

5. When Martin St. Louis asked to be moved, he made it clear the Rangers were the only team he wanted to go to. I’ve written before about The Blueprint, a book about the New England Patriots that Detroit GM Ken Holland advised me to read, and there are passages about how dangerous it is to be sentimental in a cap system. New York is tight, with restricted free agents Jesper Fast, Carl Hagelin, JT Miller and Derek Stepan. I never thought I’d be asking this question, but, even at a reduced rate for St. Louis, can they do it? And if they don’t, would New Jersey take a run at him? Close to Manhattan, the Devils will need short-term veterans to bridge the gap, and he could be a good trade-deadline piece for extra picks or prospects.

6. Can’t see the Rangers allowing assistant GM Jeff Gorton to interview in Toronto. The Maple Leafs want to talk to him, but, as I’ve speculated here, he seems a logical successor to Glen Sather.

7. There were reports Saturday that Phil Housley was in the lead for the Devils’ coaching job (I'd heard a similar rumour, although not as strongly worded), but that came with some pretty strong denials. It’s always difficult to predict what New Jersey will do, but it does appear as if something is coming within the next day or so. I do believe AHL Wilkes-Barre coach John Hynes is a finalist, but a couple of sources indicate there is at least one other person in the mix.

8. In addition to what should be a frenetic, high-speed Stanley Cup, there is some important business off the ice this week. There’s the NHL combine in Buffalo and two key meetings.

The Competition Committee sits down Thursday in New York City. Peter Chiarelli, Ken Holland, Don Maloney, David Poile and Ed Snider represent the league (with Colin Campbell in a non-voting role). Mike Cammalleri, Cory Schneider, Kevin Shattenkirk and Daniel Winnik represent the Players’ Association (with Mathieu Schneider in a non-voting role). David Backes was supposed to be there, but he’s got more important things to worry about: his wife is due. It is possible another player joins, since the NHLPA will be holding its own meetings in advance of this one.

9. The committee will vote on the GM recommendations from March, including a coaches’ challenge and three-on-three overtime. From what I gather, the players may ask to try it in the exhibition season, which would mean it doesn’t get introduced for another year. No one wants a repeat of the no-touch icing craziness, when the rule was not adopted until less than 24 hours before the season began. But, as Damien Cox reported two weeks ago, what could be more interesting is a potential discussion about how to increase scoring. One source said there is no desire to do anything major or game-altering, but see if smaller tweaks can help. Will the size of goalie equipment come up? That’s probably the easiest way. One goalie coach blamed Filppula’s Game 7 winning goal on NHL senior manager of hockey operations Kay Whitmore, saying his work to decrease goalie pads allowed room for the shot to squeeze past Henrik Lundqvist.

10. That other NHLPA get-together, a Board meeting beginning Monday, is pretty important. Players are tight-lipped, because this will feature discussion about the “growth factor.” They have the right to increase the cap by five per cent, which they have done every time but one since 2005. The problem is, that growth increases escrow, which saw an average of 15 percent removed from each paycheque last season. They are torn, tired of that number being withheld, understanding that a lower cap hurts free-agency and job security. Earlier this season, amidst rumours the players would reject their option, the league hinted it had the power to do it anyway. Last summer, the cap was going to be at $68M, but the two sides had the ability to raise it by $2M because of the new Rogers deal. They played Solomon, splitting the difference, going up $1M. That’s the rational solution (and one that several sources indicate they expect), the growth factor being negotiated at 2.5 per cent for next year’s cap. We’ll see.

11. One last note about meetings: expect to see some clarification on the compensation issue when the GMs and Board of Governors sit down in Las Vegas. Some of the biggest supporters of the idea didn’t expect it to involve Dan Bylsma or Peter Chiarelli, who were fired by their previous teams. Mike Babcock? Yes. No question. The wildcard in all this is one exec said Commissioner Gary Bettman made it very clear he wanted a black-and-white rule without controversy, which didn’t happen. Could he scrap it altogether? Not sure, and, right now, he’s got other things to worry about. I also wondered if it’s possible Buffalo and Edmonton could get their picks back, but there’s no answer at this point. But I do think the fired-employee issue gets cleared up.

12. Ken Holland made it very clear no announcements about Jeff Blashill’s future will occur until after Grand Rapids is finished its playoff run, but it sure sounds like the Red Wings’ AHL coaching search is underway.

13. Speaking of Blashill, is it possible Babcock does something in Toronto that was done with those two in Detroit? When the former was first hired by the Red Wings, he was the latter’s assistant with the NHL club. After one season, Blashill moved to Grand Rapids, where he’s finishing year three. Does Toronto take a young, promising coach, put him next to Babcock, then send him to run the AHL Marlies? Gord Dineen did a good job with Toronto’s prospects. He’s still in the organization, too.

14. With Julien BriseBois out, and my belief Gorton is out, that leaves Mike Futa, Mark Hunter and George McPhee as the known candidates for Toronto’s GM, although it would not be a surprise if there are possibilities we haven’t discovered yet. But, people have to stop thinking about this as a traditional manager position. The power rests with Brendan Shanahan and Babcock, with Kyle Dubas, Hunter (especially in amateur scouting) and Brandon Pridham in major roles. What the GM is going to do is have a voice, then take the plan and find ways to implement it. Dave Nonis did a lot of this last season, using his connections and knowledge to lay the groundwork for trades. Scott Howson would be another person who fits this mold. So, if it takes awhile, such as after the draft (which would be the case with Futa), it’s not the biggest deal, since Hunter would run that anyway.

15. Another name getting play for a position in Toronto is Kelly McCrimmon: owner, GM and head coach of the WHL Brandon Wheat Kings. Initially, I’d thought he would be added to fill a role if Hunter moved to the GM spot. But I don’t think that’s correct -- they are interested in him whatever the case. There are connections here, as Kelly’s late brother Brad coached with Babcock in Detroit and the two share a friendship with Tim Speltz, GM of the Spokane Chiefs. McCrimmon’s next team in Brandon is supposed to be loaded, though. May be tough to leave with a shot at the Memorial Cup.

16. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Colorado would be looking for a defenceman to play with Erik Johnson. It’s well-documented Columbus is also looking. You can add San Jose, too. Doug Wilson despises July 1, but the Sharks need a goalie and at least one defenceman. Does he dip in, or stick to taking a big cut in the trade market?

17. Can’t confirm, but it doesn’t sound like the Devan Dubnyk contract talks began last week, as we’d believed. Nothing to worry about, just a matter of aligning schedules. One GM who is looking for a goalie wasn’t counting on Dubnyk getting to free-agency.

“They sound too happy with each other,” he said, laughing.

18. Another one with no confirmation: that contract talks are underway with Washington and restricted free agent Braden Holtby. He’s their top priority. GM Brian MacLellan and agent David Kaye did not return messages, but another source described opening conversations as optimistic. Holtby is two seasons from being unrestricted, but the belief is the Capitals are more than willing to buy into those years.

19. In his season-ending media conference, MacLellan said he was looking to add a top-six winger. Word is out, though: Don’t even ask about Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

20. Dan Bylsma said he watched Buffalo “quite a bit” last season and talked to GM Tim Murray before the World Championships, then during the event. He said both agreed there is no use signing anyone “just to win one more hockey game next year. Let’s develop and get younger players on the roster.”

Bylsma confirmed a suspicion that the more he saw Jack Eichel in person, the more he wanted to coach him at the NHL level.

“Right away in the tournament — versus Finland, versus Russia — he showed he could play against men, 16-18 minutes,” the new Sabres coach said. “There were times he skated right by them…special plays from a special player.”

Bylsma was especially impressed at how Eichel made life difficult in the bronze medal game on Tomas Plekanec, a thorn in the side of the Penguins over the years.

21. Bylsma saw first-hand the strength of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their early years. Both of those players are bigger and more powerful-looking than Eichel. Does he see the upcoming number-two pick having a more difficult transition?

“From what we know, (Eichel’s) power numbers are extremely good. His vertical, again from what we know, would be the second-best among the Sabres…so there’s a powerful base. He still needs to work on strength and to get bigger, but what he generates is an enormous amount of power. The way he can accelerate, you don’t see someone do that every day.”

Question: “Wanted to clarify. His vertical, would that be second-best among his age group, or the entire roster?” Answer: “The entire roster.”

22. When the Sabres traded for Evander Kane, a couple of scouts/executives wondered if he would be a match for an Eichel or a Connor McDavid because Kane likes to carry the puck, and the centre would need that responsibility. Bylsma sees that could be an issue. But, noting Eichel and Kane’s speed, he added, “If that can work, imagine it coming at you.” Bylsma sat down with Kane for three hours after taking the job and spoke to former Jets coach Claude Noel, too.

What did Noel say?

“There is probably not a guy who is more competitive than Evander Kane,” Bylsma replied. He was not going to reveal anything else.

23. Last season, Bylsma did an interesting interview with NHL.com’s Dan Rosen where he admitted he was studying the benefits of carrying the puck in the offensive zone versus chipping it in. He believes, for example, making defenders turn and chase is more uncomfortable for them, especially if a powerful forechecker (like Kane) is breathing down their neck. His Pittsburgh teams were known for chipping and creating a footrace.

What did he learn? That carrying the puck in increased your percentages of getting a shot, but “what that means offensively, I’m still coming to grips with," he said.

"I know what it means defensively, that if you don’t let them carry-in, you know where the shots come from… Playing offence, you want to create a ‘grind factor’ on a defenceman. What’s hard on them? Frankly, carrying the puck in does not make it hard on defencemen.”

He laughed about testing it out on his 16-year-old’s team. Back to the big boys this fall.

24. Finally on Bylsma: what else did he work on during his season off the bench?

“I wanted to take a look at different teams and coaches, the cadence of their line shifts, patterns, tell signs, implementation of personnel. Do they match forwards and defence, or just defence? Zone starts. It was kind of an out-of-body experience, not looking at anything the way I watched it before,” he said.

With more time to watch, he looked pretty deep. Will be interesting to see if it changes any of his own habits.

25. Blues GM Doug Armstrong talked at length about his “two cores” this week.

There’s the group of forwards who’ve owned the key minutes (David Backes, Patrik Berglund, TJ Oshie, Alexander Steen) and the group that’s coming hard (Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and hopefully Dmitrij Jaskin).

“There’s the Bell Curve of a career,” he explained further on Thursday. “The data is being redefined. Age brackets pre-expansion were older… The slower game allowed longer careers. Now, the maturity of young players, with strength coaches at age 15. It’s tending to a younger man’s game every year. There's anomalies to all of this; every player says they are the anomaly… That’s what makes them great. But young players are driving the bus at an earlier age of their career.”

What’s also happening — and these are my words, not his — is the Blues realize the previous core has hit its limit. Things started to turn over last season, with younger players getting ice time in key situations previously taken by veterans, and that will only increase in 2015-16. For example, Tarasenko spent eight seconds per game as a penalty killer. That will grow.

26. Armstrong was careful about the team’s disappointing first-round loss and why it happened.

“There was more ebb and flow than we were used to,” he said.

So, what needs to be done?

“Paul Stastny needs to be a bigger part of our group. He’s our highest-paid player, we need him to be a bigger and better part of our team.”

Did you see something last year that made you understand why it didn’t start as well as it could have?

“I won't go into it…but we have a greater understanding of the man now.”

The Blues feel they have to attack better.

“Zone time is not enough,” Armstrong said. “Zone time equals winning is not as prevalent in the playoffs as in the regular season. We have to do a better job of creating rushes off our blocked shots.”

Then he laughed and said, “We need a Shea Weber or an Al MacInnis to break some feet and spread out the defence.”

27. One of the reasons Armstrong played it safe with his comments is he was disappointed some of the internal issues went public.

“What happened with us is not different than in 80 percent of the league," he said. "Coaches have a difficult job. He has to put players in uncomfortable positions. It’s his job to come up with a plan, it is your job to play. All three groups — players, coaches, management — have to evolve.”

28. This led to my toughest question: Without mentioning any specific names, does anyone have to be traded now that Ken Hitchcock will return?

“No,” he answered immediately. “Unequivocally no. Not everybody gets along. Good teams find a way.”

29. The one thing I sense, though (and again, this is me talking, not Armstrong), is he’s looking at his roster and deciding if any of the veterans will be unable to step back. That’s the player/players who get(s) moved. Robert Bortuzzo and Petteri Lindbohm will get long looks on defence, Ty Rattie up front.

“We told him we expect to see a highly-conditioned player competing for a spot here in training camp,” Armstrong said, adding he liked that Rattie’s best games were against the Blackhawks.

The GM’s history is not to rush young forwards, but Robby Fabbri, injured on the cusp of making it a year ago, “will get a chance in exhibition games to be a prime player on a prime line to see if he has that level.”

As for Jake Allen, the Blues were proud that he didn’t hide after a tough playoff, standing up and accepting fault.

“You can't run from those things, you have to own that and so do we. There a maturing goalie in there ready to do what he has to to overcome.”

They believe he can do it.

30. Finally, circled back around Zach Hyman, the Michigan forward who informed Florida he will become an unrestricted free agent in August. Normally, teams don’t try to trade for this kind of player, knowing they can get him for free in a little more than two months. But there does appear to be some interest (maybe to wine-and-dine him in advance, who knows?) from the likes of Detroit, San Jose and Toronto, among others. No doubt the Panthers would love to get a pick out of it, if possible.