Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup Window Might Have Closed

Matthew Jordan

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 4:07 PM UTC

Tuesday, Jul. 25, 2017 4:07 PM UTC

The Chicago Blackhawks have been the model franchise in the NHL this decade with three Stanley Cups, but their window for winning another might be shut for a while thanks to economics.

Salary Cap Killing Blackhawks

While this past season’s Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in the salary-cap era, the title of “Team of the Decade” still belongs to the Chicago Blackhawks. Led by the superstar duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane along with Coach Joel Quenneville, the Hawks have made the playoffs every season and won a league-high three Cups.

So why does it feel like the window of true contention might have shut on the Blackhawks? Bovada oddsmakers disagree, though, as Chicago is a co-third favorite to win the 2018 Cup at +1200 on NHL futures. Pittsburgh (+700) and Edmonton (+1000) are the only teams ahead of the Hawks.

The economics of the salary cap have hit the Blackhawks harder than perhaps any team in hockey. After winning that first Cup in 2010, the team had to sell off some key players because of the cap. Chicago lost in the first round of the playoffs the next two seasons.

Following another Stanley Cup in 2013, the sell-off wasn’t quite as bad and Chicago came as close as it has to repeating, losing in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the LA Kings.

The Blackhawks added their third Cup in 2015 but haven’t been past the first round since. This past season’s sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators made history for all the wrong reasons as it was the first time a No. 8 seed had swept a No. 1 seed (Chicago led the West in points) in modern playoff history. It wasn’t an upset, either, as Nashville looked younger and faster.

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Bowman Wasn’t Standing Pat

GM Stan Bowman is usually a mild-mannered guy but called that loss a “complete failure” and promised changes. He has delivered on them. Toews and Kane will surely be Hawks for life, but Bowman shockingly traded arguably the team’s best pure defenseman, Niklas Hjalmarsson, to Arizona for defenseman Connor Murphy and center Laurent Dauphin. That was largely a salary dump and an effort to get younger as Murphy is just 24 and Hjalmarsson 30. But there’s no question that Hjalmarsson is the better player right now. The defense remains an issue on the Hawks.

Bowman wasn’t done making waves, trading last year’s second-leading scorer and 2016 Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin to Columbus for ex-Blackhawk Brandon Saad. That was also an attempt by Bowman to get younger, plus both Toews and Kane said how much the team missed Saad. He was traded in a salary dump to the Blue Jackets following the 2015 Cup victory. Panarin had 31 goals and 43 assists last year, while Saad had 24 goals and 29 assists. So slight loss for Chicago.

Meanwhile, Hawks No. 1 right winger Marian Hossa is out for the entire 20-17-18 season because of a progressive skin disorder. He had 26 goals and 19 assists in 73 games last year. Defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft, and Marcus Kruger was dealt to the Golden Knights in another salary dump (Vegas ended up flipping both to Carolina).

In addition, excellent backup goaltender Scott Darling was traded to the Hurricanes because Chicago would have lost him in the expansion draft and couldn’t afford to re-sign Darling as a free agent regardless. Darling had better overall numbers than starter Corey Crawford did in 2016-17.

Despite all these moves, the Blackhawks are still tight against the salary cap, although they are expected to place Hossa on long-term injured reserve once the season begins. That would allow the team to go above the salary cap by $5.275 million, which is his cap hold. So Chicago could be active in the trade market once the season starts.

Quenneville is likely bound for the Hall of Fame at some point, but don’t be surprised if Bowman fires him should Chicago get off to a slow start this coming season. The GM has thrown down the gauntlet for everyone. The Hawks open the season at home against the defending champion Penguins on Oct. 5.

This will still be a playoff team, but there is little depth so the Blackhawks must stay healthy in 2017-18 to have any shot at perhaps one final Cup run with this group.

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