After being forced into dismantling nearly half of a championship roster throughout the summer of 2010, Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has made all the moves necessary to build a team that could be the NHL's first cap-era dynasty.
"He continues to keep the core of his team together and he's got good contracts," NHL Network analyst and former general manager Craig Button told NHL.com. "I think they're in position now to be that team for the next five, six, maybe seven years, somewhere in that range, that is in the conversation as Stanley Cup contenders. Can they win two, three, four, five? I don't know. But I do know that they're positioned perfectly."
After watching Bowman craftily maneuver his way through this celebratory offseason, it's hard to disagree with Button. The Blackhawks are at least one championship away from being called a dynasty, a concept that seemed unimaginable when the NHL's salary cap was born eight years ago.
The parity created by the salary cap was supposed to hamper guys like Bowman, builders of championship teams with young players entering their prime and approaching contract years. The cap was supposed to force him to pick and choose who stays and who goes with some undesirable decisions along the way. It was supposed to bring the best teams back to the pack.
That happened to the Blackhawks in 2010; they didn't win a playoff round in 2011 or 2012.
But Chicago won the Stanley Cup last season and could do so again -- maybe multiple times -- in the near future because simultaneous to losing some of the players from the 2010 title team Bowman identified the players he deemed irreplaceable, signed them to long-term contracts, and rebuilt the depth around them with complementary players on favorable contracts.
Right wing Marian Hossa signed his 12-year, $63.3 million contract in July 2009.
Right wing Patrick Kane, center Jonathan Toews and defenseman Duncan Keith had long-term contract extensions kick in starting with the 2010-11 season. Kane and Toews are playing on contracts worth $31 million over five years; Keith is three years into a 13-year, $72 million contract.
Earlier this summer, left wing Bryan Bickell signed a four-year, $16 million contract, six days before he would have become an unrestricted free agent. This week, Bowman locked up defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and goalie Corey Crawford to contract extensions of five and six years, respectively.
Hjalmarsson will start to earn a reported $4.1 million annually in 2014-15, a $600,000 raise from his current contract. Crawford is due to earn on average $6 million per season starting in 2014-15, a hefty raise from his current $2.67 million annual salary, but he earned the respect and trust of his teammates and coaches last season when he played his way into the Conn Smythe Trophy discussion and became a Stanley Cup champion.
As it stands now, 14 players from Chicago's latest championship team are signed for at least the next two seasons at a total of approximately $59.7 million, according to Capgeek.com. Forwards Andrew Shaw and Michal Handzus are signed for next season.
"Part of the plan is determining which of your players are key and critical to the success of your team and then making sure you have them for a long time," Bowman said.
Part of the plan is betting on the salary cap to go up, but with the lockout in the NHL's rearview mirror that's not necessarily a gamble but more an educated assumption.
The cap rose year-over-year from 2005-06 to 2012-13. It was reset to $64.3 million for this season because of last season's lockout.
"Traditionally it's risen," Bowman said of the cap. "If the game continues to go the way it is, it should continue to increase. Grade of increase we can debate all day, but over time it does go up."
Provided League-wide revenues increase at the rate they did prior to the lockout, and the salary cap returns to more than $70 million, the Blackhawks' cap situation should not be a problem going forward, not even with Kane and Toews due to receive raises from their current average annual salaries of $6.3 million after the 2014-15 season.
Helping matters for Bowman and the Blackhawks is a large stable of top prospects waiting their turn. Button called Chicago's prospect pool, including goalie Antti Raanta, forwards Brandon Pirri, Teuvo Teravainen and Mark McNeill, and defensemen Adam Clendening and Stephen Johns "an embarrassment of riches."
The Blackhawks don't have to rush any of them.
"The biggest thing about Stan is he's not caught up in what could be or chasing anything," Button said. "He's got a really measured approach. Too many times people chase things. There's no question in my view that the cap is going to go up, so [contracts for] Toews and Kane will become, I don't want to say easier, but ones he can accomplish."
The Blackhawks are set for at least the next two seasons, especially because forward Brandon Saad will be on his entry-level contract through 2014-15.
The challenge of keeping Toews and Kane in Chicago for the rest of their careers is one Bowman can tackle next summer, when they're eligible to sign contract extensions and he has a real idea of the percentage rise of the salary cap. Following that he'll have to look at Seabrook, whose current contract expires after the 2016-17 season.
Sharp, Hossa, Bickell, Keith, Hjalmarsson and Crawford have contracts that go beyond that.
"They've proven they can win," Bowman said. "They are winners."
They could be part of a dynasty.
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