EDMONTON – You could assemble the core of a contending team from the players that the Chicago Blackhawks had to jettison within weeks of winning their 2010 Stanley Cup.
Winnipeg captain Andrew Ladd. Washington power forward Troy Brouwer. Fitness freak Dustin Byfuglien, the highly skilled Jets defenceman. San Jose’s No. 1 goaltender Antti Niemi. Defenceman Brian Campbell, who spent one more season in Chicago before his contract was unloaded on Florida.
Adam Burish. Kris Versteeg. John Madden. Colin Fraser. Ben Eager…
“We knew it was coming, and the guys who left knew it was coming,” one of the survivors, Patrick Sharp, recalled this week of the salary cap-induced, Blackhawks roster rinse.
“It was tough, because it happened so quickly after the season. You battle with those guys… For two or three years we had that team together. We went to the conference Finals one year, won the Stanley Cup the next year, then three, four, five days later, half the team is gone.
“At least we have a ring and a championship to celebrate.”
Just one, for now.
But as the Blackhawks today celebrate their first Presidents’ Trophy since 1990-91 – when Steve Larmer and Jeremy Roenick were one-two among the ‘Hawks’ scorers – one thing appears certain:
Chicago has recovered from The Great Purge, and will enter the playoffs as the prohibitive favourite out West.
“We’re feeling good. We’re happy with where our game is,” said defenceman Brent Seabrook. “Look at those players around the league – they’re all top players on their respective teams. It’s tough to replace them right away.
“You need depth to win in the playoffs. Look at the last four, five winners. We’re happy now with our depth here.”
In Ladd, Brouwer, Byfuglien and Eager, the Blackhawks watched players walk away that averaged 6-foot-3 and 230 lbs. That size cannot be replaced through the trade market today, in a game where big players who can skate and play are worth their weight in gold.
Campbell runs a pretty fine powerplay and Niemi, though we all had our doubts, was goaltender enough to bring home the silverware.
So you might forgive a Game 7, overtime loss in Round 1 of the 2011 playoffs to the Vancouver Canucks. Or even last year’s six-game exit to Phoenix, an opening round series in which the first five games went into OT.
Chicago was that close – a stunning Roberto Luongo OT save on Sharp in ’11; a break or two in extra time last spring – to winning playoff rounds in 2011 and 2012. They’ve retooled now, with younger (and mostly smaller) players like Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, and a tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery in net.
The result? A record-setting 21-0-3 start and just six regulation losses through 46 games thus far. That is five less than Pittsburgh’s 11 regulation losses.
This has been the best team in hockey from wire to wire this season, Penguins or no Penguins. A Pittsburgh-Chicago Cup final would be epic and a recipe for dream TV ratings after a nightmare lockout season for the National Hockey League.
“Going into the (2010) playoffs there were still question marks about the goaltending. This year, goaltending has been one of our strengths,” said Patrick Kane, by way of comparison.
Kane went off the rails post-Cup, stretching his celebration to long after the ticker tape had been swept off of Michigan Ave. So, perhaps the re-set had to wait for No. 88 to complete his victory tour, which by all accounts is now in Kane’s (far more) sober rearview mirror.
Today, Kane is that virtuoso talent he has always been, but with a focus and commitment much more in line with Jonathan (Captain Serious) Toews. Kane is fourth in league scoring with 54 points and sees a supporting cast that reminds him of three seasons ago.
“There is a lot of spread out scoring, secondary scoring. A lot of depth,” he said. “There are players who aren’t playing who could probably be in the everyday lineup on other teams.
“We lost our starting goaltender (after the Cup run). A lot of players who were big parts of our playoff success. I guess it’s not just going to turn around one year after that.”
No, it takes time. That time, however, may now have arrived.
Mark Spector is a senior columnist for Sportsnet.ca Follow me on Twitter.com @SportsnetSpec