Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 19, 2015

Against The Odds, Bowman Builds A Dynasty

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is traveling, and this post was delayed by some unexpected Internet connectivity issues. Thanks for your understanding, and see you Sunday.

When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stepped onto the ice at the United Center Monday night, the first thing he did was present the Conn Smythe Trophy to defenseman Duncan Keith of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The award is the league’s prize for the most valuable player of the postseason, and none could question the worthiness of the 31-year old Winnipeg native. Keith tallied 21 points in more than 700 minutes of ice time during the playoffs, displaying both a high level of skill and amazing endurance. He also scored the Cup-winning goal in Game 6 of the Finals, breaking a scoreless tie late in the second period by skating in on Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop and burying the rebound of his own first shot taken from 30 feet out. Little wonder that Keith was the unanimous choice for the Smythe.

But only because of the trophy’s criterion that it be awarded to a player. For even as an estimated two million Chicago fans came out on Thursday to cheer their heroes and celebrate the Blackhawks third championship in six years with a parade that wound through the city and culminated in a rally at Soldier Field, the greatest praise for the creation of this new NHL dynasty was due the roster building work of General Manager Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks front office.

There will be a handful of pundits who will argue that this Chicago team isn’t a dynasty at all since unlike the Canadiens of the ‘60s and ‘70s, or the Islanders and Oilers of the following decade, the Blackhawks have yet to successfully defend a championship. But all that narrow argument does is reveal the extent to which those who make it fail to understand the realities of the modern NHL. It has been seventeen seasons since a team last won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Since the Detroit Red Wings swept the Washington Capitals in the 1998 Finals to defend the title they won by sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers one season earlier, the sixteen championships (there was no Stanley Cup awarded in 2005 because of the NHL lockout) have been won by eleven different franchises.

Three teams have won a pair of titles, but the in the case of New Jersey and Detroit the victories were several seasons apart. The only franchise with a record over this period remotely comparable to Chicago’s is Los Angeles. The Kings sandwiched a pair of Cups in 2012 and 2014 around a 2013 loss to the Blackhawks in the Conference Finals. But as if to remind fans just how hard sustained success is in the 21st century NHL Los Angeles failed to even qualify for the playoffs this year. In contrast Chicago has made the postseason seven straight years. In addition to their three Cups the Blackhawks have played in two other Conference Finals during that streak. The NHL Commissioner was right when he told the cheering crowd at the United Center, “you have a dynasty.”

Bettman should know, for the financial realities of the NHL are largely of his making. The current collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association, forged through a pair of lockouts that wiped out the 2004-05 season and shortened the 2012-13 campaign to 48 games, eliminates the possibility of a free-spending owner scooping up a disproportionate share of high-priced talent. The first lockout resulted in a salary cap and the second lowered and tightened it. This past season the cap was $69 million, less than 7 percent higher than three years earlier. The expectation is that next year’s cap, which is calculated as a percentage of the previous season’s league revenue, will inch up to about $71 million.

While that sounds like no small change, the reality is that top-line stars in the NHL command annual salaries approaching and often topping $10 million. It doesn’t take too many of those to eat up a lot of cap space, while leaving many supporting roster roles to fill. The result across the league is high player turnover and the frequent release or trade of a key player for nothing more than cap considerations. More than is the case in our other major sports, every assessment of each NHL team’s chances necessarily includes an analysis of their salary cap issues.

No one has mastered the complexity of cap management more capably than GM Bowman. The son of the legendary head coach who led three different franchises to nine Cups, Stan Bowman is second generation hockey royalty. Following three years as an assistant he assumed the GM role in July 2009, and the following spring Chicago ended a 49-year championship drought. In the course of that first title run Bowman inked stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to long-term extensions, locking the skaters into Chicago’s future before they could become free agents.

Bowman has since built around that core. Goaltender Corey Crawford was a minor leaguer and occasional backup when the Blackhawks returned the Cup to Chicago after that long hiatus. Since then he’s grown into one of the premier backstops in the league. This year young players like Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad played key supporting roles through the playoffs. Next year it may be the likes of 20-year old Teuvo Teravainen. Called up just in time for the playoffs, the youngster from Finland scored the tying goal in Game 1 of the Finals and later set up the eventual game-winner.

Like every GM, and more than most, Bowman will be challenged this off-season. The Kane and Toews contracts will each count $10.5 million against next year’s cap. Crawford is owed $6 million, and defensemen Brent Seabrook and Conn Smythe-winner Keith together add another $11 million to the ledger. In all Chicago’s obligations to just 14 players bring the Blackhawks to within about $7 million of the projected 2015-16 cap.

That means the one certainty is that when the Blackhawks raise their newest banner at their home opener next fall, there will be a markedly different group of skaters on the ice than there were during last Monday night’s celebration. Yet no seasoned NHL observer is ready to discount Chicago’s chances for another deep playoff run. Old NHL or new that remains the surest definition of a dynasty, and for that fans in the Windy City can thank Stan Bowman.

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