For the past 12 hours or so, the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans have been understandably despondent. The Hawks’ Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Kings dashed Chicago’s hopes of being the first repeat Stanley Cup-winner since the Detroit Red Wings did so in 1997-98. But although no words posted on this blog can soothe the sting of coming so close to another championship and falling short, the franchise can take solace in one thing: back-to-back titles in the NHL’s salary-cap era are next to impossible, but there’s every likelihood the Blackhawks will be making another deep playoff run next season.
In many ways, what happened to the Hawks this year is what happened to the Kings in the 2013 post-season. L.A. was the defending champs heading into the lockout-shortened campaign and were well on their way to getting there when in the Western Conference final they ran into a Chicago team determined to return to their Cup-winning ways of 2010. The Kings had virtually as much talent as they did in 2012, but they couldn’t handle the Hawks and their tweaked lineup that had next to no weaknesses.
With a few differences, that’s basically what took place in this season’s conference final. Kings GM Dean Lombardi augmented his core with a handful of new pieces (Marian Gaborik and a few rookies) and the team was even more formidable because of it. The same process will take place in Chicago this summer – GM Stan Bowman will target a second-line center, and some second-tier veterans may be shipped off to make room for more cap-friendly youngsters – and the Hawks will be just as dangerous, if not more of a threat, than they were this season.
That said, it won’t be a walk in the park for Bowman, as no team has less cap space to use in 2014-15 than Chicago, which has just $1.167 million to spend. But the Hawks’ flourishing farm system prevents the organization from getting caught up overpaying veterans or hanging onto them too long. The core is the key and the Hawks’ core is as solid as any Cup frontrunner. That’s not changing.
As noted off the top, these words will be small solace to Chicagoans who rightfully recognize the golden opportunity the Hawks had to do something even more special than winning two Cups in four seasons. But there are reasons why teams don’t repeat as champions anymore: you need good health and ample depth to win 16 playoff games; you need your goalie to be consistently above-average and your superstars to perform as advertised; you need a bit of good fortune in terms of referee calls and puck bounces; and you need contributions from throughout your lineup.
If so much as a single one of those elements is askew and not working in your favor, you’re going to be in tough against any opponent for whom the stars are aligning at the right moment. But in assembling a first-rate core that almost any other GM would kill for, the Blackhawks have assured themselves of being in that group of elite teams for years to come.
In today’s NHL, that’s as good as it’s going to get.