The Chicago Blackhawks have temporarily cemented their title as the top team of the salary cap era, pulling another Stanley Cup victory out before they enter cap hell this coming off-season. Tampa Bay made a valiant effort, but key injuries, a lack of production from key offensive contributors and just plain old luck thwarted them in the end.
With their third Stanley Cup win in the last six seasons, Chicago has set itself up as the model franchise to emulate in the NHL. They play a high paced, puck possession game featuring a core of defensively responsible forwards and elite puck moving defenders, who capably shelter some extremely skilled offensive weapons and effective goaltending.
Tampa Bay — losers in this series — gave the champs as hard a run for their money as any Eastern Conference team has since Boston defeated Vancouver in 2011. The Lightning look poised to join the elite of the NHL as they continue to develop and grow, though they obviously have gaps in their roster that need addressing before they can climb to the top of the mountain.
Duncan Keith was a work horse of epic proportions, playing over 50 per cent of the ice time available in the series and scoring the game-winning goal in the closing game to secure the Conn Smythe Trophy. The Hawks produced 51.5 per cent of the shot attempts when Keith was on the ice, and the ice generally was tilted in their favour as a result. With his Conn Smythe trophy he joined a fairly elite group of defenders with two or more Stanley Cups, two or more Norris trophies, and a Conn Smythe. That list includes Nicklas Lidstrom, Larry Robinson and Bobby Orr. Lidstrom is the only other one of the four to also have an Olympic Gold medal — Duncan Keith has two. Like the other three Keith is most certainly destined for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
In terms of the remainder of Chicago’s roster, the series became more of a war of attrition as it progressed and the Blackhawks relied heavily on its top-four defenders, despite Johnny Oduya suffering from an apparent hand or wrist injury. Meanwhile Kyle Cumiskey, David Rundblad, Kimmo Timmonen and Trevor Van Riemsdyk all played very limited minutes in a supporting role.
The discussion with Tampa Bay for much of the series revolved around injuries to starting goalie Ben Bishop (torn groin), top scorer Tyler Johnson (broken wrist), and then Nikita Kucherov (collarbone) in the final two games. While Bishop’s struggles were apparent to most fans watching at home, his play never really seemed to suffer significantly as he posted an .857 High Danger SV% and he shouldn’t really be blamed for the series loss.
Corey Crawford did eventually prove to be the more effective keeper in the series, closing out the victory with a shutout, and finishing the series with an .854 High Danger SV% of his own. Considering his overall HD Sv% in the playoffs was only .816, he definitely raised his game in the final. His play was a large part of what limited Tampa’s offensive production.
Up front for Tampa, Johnson’s broken wrist and its affect on his play in the final hampered the performance of his team. He wasn’t taking faceoffs for much of the series and in the end that played a significant role as Chicago’s faceoff dominance caused struggles from a matchup perspective for the Lightning. Cedric Paquette, who also sustained an injury in the series, struggled in particular. He only won 26.7 per cent of his faceoffs in the final three games of the series (including going 0 for 13 in Game 6), all of which ended as wins for the Hawks.
Steven Stamkos was switched from centre to wing on the top line due to faceoff and matchup issues in the first round against Detroit. That change saw Ryan Callahan demoted to the third line and Valtteri Filppula taking more draws on the top unit. Callahan dominated possession in a lesser role — even in the finals against the Hawks. As this series progressed, though, Stamkos was forced back into the middle with increasing regularity due to Johnson and Kucherov’s injuries. In the end that may have contributed to his inability to find his groove in the series. He finished the final with no goals and one assist and will inevitably have the same intangibles that were being credited for driving his team to the closing round questioned after coming up short.
Heading into next year Tampa Bay should come back with its roster largely intact. Rookie netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy will likely challenge Bishop for more of a role in net, while Jonathan Drouin, Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Nesterov likely will feature more in their lineup with another year of experience under their belts. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman look to be the key components on the blueline for years to come, and the top-end talent up front is very strong as led by Stamkos, Johnson, Kucherov and Palat. They will be Stanley Cup contenders for the foreseeable future and if healthy would likely have fought harder for this one.
Chicago is in a very different situation as its window to regularly contend for Stanley Cups with its current roster is coming to a close. Next year Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have identical $10.5 million contract extensions coming online and together they will consume around 30 per cent of the Blackhawks’ cap space. Other key roster components like Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa and Crawford are likely to return also.
Where questions arise for the Hawks is how they figure out deals for restricted free agents like Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger and Rundblad. They also have pending UFA’s in the likes of Antoine Vermette, Brad Richards, Oduya and Michal Rozsival. All of these spots need to be filled and the cap space to do so is going to be limited. This may lead to trades of key components from past Cup runs such as Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Bryan Bickell. It will be interesting to see what form the re-stocking takes in Chicago this time around. The last time Stan Bowman had to reconstruct a roster against the cap he had to ship out Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and Versteeg.
However Chicago sorts out its off-season salary concerns, for the next 10 days they can rest and relax knowing they’re Cup champions. The NHL draft is June 26 and the chaos of trading season and free agency will be upon us sooner than we think. No rest for the weary, but try to savour the moment as much as you can.