Blackhawks' formula relies on young players
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks are on the precipice of becoming a full-fledged dynasty and they don't plan to break from the formula that's gotten them there.
They are the first team in the NHL's salary-cap era to win the Stanley Cup twice, and they did it by depending on a lot of young players, both stars and role-fillers. Chicago had the deepest team in the NHL in 2010 and 2013, and the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup each year.
They didn't get that way by accident. It took scouting, drafting and player development, which has become the Blackhawks' calling card.
"What I've noticed with the good teams is they don't have to rush their players," Scotty Bowman, Chicago's senior adviser for hockey operations, said Saturday at the Sixth Annual Blackhawks Convention. "We were fortunate [in 2007-08] because both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane made the jump [to the NHL] … but [the Blackhawks] already had players like [Duncan Keith] and [Brent] Seabrook, who were pretty young guys but already had experience in the League -- and that's what I see with us happening now."
Chicago had to jettison a few lineup stalwarts via trades and free agency from this title-winning roster, so there will be a few spots open for rookies at training camp this fall. The defense is set, with the same seven players who won the Cup, but there are forward roles up for grabs, including the coveted spot of second-line center between Patrick Sharp and either Marian Hossa or Kane.
First dibs on that role, according to coach Joel Quenneville, could go to a young player like 20-year old Brandon Saad, who played left wing on the top line for almost all of 2012-13 and worked on faceoffs following practices in the latter half of the season.
"It's something we talked about as a staff late in the year," Quenneville said. "It's something going into the season we could be exploring. We had him out there on our own end with [Toews] and [Hossa]; a lot of times we'd just leave him out there knowing if we lose a faceoff or Johnny gets tossed, [Saad] can go in there for the draw. That was in place almost all year, so you're comfortable with that scenario."
Quenneville and his assistants have learned to become comfortable with a number of scenarios involving younger players, situations that might make other coaches and general managers cringe. The key, according to Bowman, is Chicago's young core of stars absorbing a lot of pressure.
"When we add these three or four new players next year, they're going to come in and they're going to find their niche and hopefully develop into real good NHL'ers, but the pressure is not on them to carry the team," Bowman said. "They'll come in and hopefully become regular players, and that's what I see good organizations do. They don't have to rush every player."
Four names in particular come to mind for next season: Ben Smith, Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and Jimmy Hayes. Each has spent the bulk of the past two or three seasons playing for Rockford in the American Hockey League and has dipped his toes in the NHL water a time or two.
None will be getting rushed if they make the Blackhawks roster and each should be ready to contribute. Pirri, the AHL's leading scorer in 2012-13, might play his way into the top six in that second-line center role.
"They're ready to make the jump," Mark Bernard, Blackhawks general manager of minor-league affiliations told a group of fans in a session Saturday. "Not all of them are going to be able to make it, so it's going to create some great competition in training camp. It's not an easy organization, obviously, to get your foot in the door at the National Hockey League level, because we have done a good job of keeping the nucleus of the team together."
Once they do get that foot in the door, the odds are pretty good they'll make an impact. It all boils down to Chicago's organizational formula for winning in the salary-cap era. If the Blackhawks are going to repeat as Stanley Cup champs, they'll again count on a number of new, young faces in supporting roles.
"We have a strong nucleus that has won two Stanley Cups … but we're also going to have those young players," Blackhawks assistant general manager Norm Maciver said. "Those young players hopefully will give us the energy on those nights when it might be difficult for some players to really ratchet their games up. Factoring in those two things, we feel pretty strong about what we have going forward."