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|The Hawks won it all in 2009-10, but can they repeat despite salary-cap restraints?|
CHICAGO -- You might have forgiven long-suffering Chicago Blackhawks fans, confetti still stuck in their hair from the Stanley Cup parade, for staring incredulously when GM Stan Bowman began tossing bodies out of the United Center this summer.
The players' post-Cup parties were just starting to roll across North America and Europe when Bowman, trying to stay ahead of the salary-cap leak that threatened to capsize the Blackhawks vessel, began bailing.
By the end of the summer, the team's starting netminder, Antti Niemi; playoff scoring hero, Dustin Byfuglien, former rookie of the year nominee, Kris Versteeg; and ancillary pieces Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Adam Burish and John Madden were gone.
Did the Hawks' Cup window open and close just like that? Did we witness the rise and fall of the Blackhawks "dynasty" in the matter of a few weeks? Or did Bowman's yeoman work this summer in fact form the groundwork for more championships down the road?
Actually, Bowman told us that his team's fans didn't seem all that upset about the roster turnover.
"I didn't get that impression at all. Unless they were all B.S.-ing me," Bowman said.
I think it's going to be very, very difficult. If you're talking winning four consecutive championships, no way.” -- Detroit GM Ken Holland on teams' ability to repeat as champs in today's NHL
It's true that fans fall in love with players -- that's their job, Bowman pointed out -- but fans also love their teams to win regardless of who's in the jersey. Bowman now has to hope he's got the right players in the jerseys to make sure his team doesn't fade back into the mist, something that has so often happened to champions over the past two decades.
Can the Blackhawks get back to the pinnacle? Can they do something no team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings have accomplished in winning back-to-back Cups? Can anyone do it given the salary cap and the current free-agency rules that give players the opportunity to become unrestricted free agents after seven years, as early as 25 years of age? Or is the term "dynasty" obsolete, a kind of hockey Edsel?
"How do you define a dynasty?" Detroit GM Ken Holland asked rhetorically this week.
Fair question. Easy answer.
Think NHL dynasty and you think of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s and 1970s, the New York Islanders, the Edmonton Oilers. In Chicago, of course, they watched the Chicago Bulls win six NBA championships in eight years during the Michael Jordan era, twice stringing together three-peats.
If "dynasty" means just that, winning multiple championships in a short period of time, "I think it's going to be very, very difficult," Holland said. "If you're talking winning four consecutive championships, no way."
His colleagues, Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford and Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, both builders of Cup-winning teams since the end of the lockout, are in agreement. Using the traditional measuring stick for a dynasty, "I think those days are gone," Rutherford said.
What if we massage the meaning just slightly? What if we suggest that to be a dynastic means being an elite team every season, a playoff team that is a legitimate threat to make a long playoff run and one that embarks on such a run on a regular basis?
"I think you can do that," Holland said.
He should know -- his team does just that pretty much every season. But it's a task that challenges even those with the greatest hockey acumen.
Holland said he recalls talking to USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen after the lockout and predicted every team in the NHL would miss the playoffs at least once within five seasons. Holland believed the gap between top and bottom would be almost negligible and the ability to stay at the top would be so difficult given that players would become free agents at a younger age and the salary cap would put a finite number on the amount teams could spend.
|The Penguins built their team around stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and won a Cup as a result.|
He was close.
Since the return of playoff hockey in 2006 only three teams have managed to make the playoffs each season: San Jose, New Jersey and Holland's Wings. The Sharks and Devils have been playoff disappointments for the most part. After being knocked off by the eighth-seeded Canadiens in 2006, the Wings have won a Cup, been to the Cup finals again and have won 10 playoff rounds in the past four seasons.
Dynastic? Hard to argue against that descriptor, and the Wings will begin this season as a favorite to go deep in the playoffs again.
Perhaps the very idea of a dynasty is an overworked piece of nostalgia. What was appealing about pretty much knowing the Canadiens or Islanders or Oilers were going to have their way with 90 percent of the teams they faced every season? Sure, those monoliths became the benchmark against which all other teams could measure themselves and all other fans could dream. To be sure, there were legions of Habs fans that couldn't wait for the Oilers to stumble, the Islanders to wobble.
Now? Not many Anaheim Duck haters out there even though Burke & Co. won a Cup in 2007. Since then, they've won one playoff round. But the alternative is fans everywhere can imagine when their team might ascend to greatness.
"I don't think anybody can start walking around and say, 'We're going to be in the Stanley Cup final this year,'" Rutherford said.
The margin is simply too fine, and with that fine margin comes what can be incredible drama, both in getting to the playoffs and after. "You don't know, as a fan, you don't know who is going to win," Holland said.
The playoff races are wildly exciting -- witness the Philadelphia Flyers' dramatic shootout win in the final game of the regular season that earned them a playoff berth, followed by their push to the Stanley Cup finals. Still, there are enough teams that assembled a strong enough cast that they can capture the hockey public's broader imagination. And perhaps this suggests an almost perfect balance in the dynasty/no-dynasty debate.
"You can see teams bubbling and building toward a three-year run," Holland said.
Pittsburgh, Washington, Vancouver, Chicago and Detroit, perhaps?
There are a couple of constants when it comes to building these kinds of teams, though.
Burke pointed out that most teams that go deep in the playoffs have spent at, or near, the salary cap because that's what building a team with the depth to go to a Cup finals has to do. Spending at that level and having success is then usually followed by a period of shedding pieces.
"I believe you can be competitive year after year," Burke said. "But to do it means you have to do what Chicago did and that's strip it down."
"There's no right way or wrong way of building these teams," Rutherford said. Talking about the issues that faced Chicago this offseason, Rutherford said, "I don't necessarily think anybody did anything wrong. That's the system we have."
The Blackhawks may reflect one of the realities of the new system. Signing free agents, especially free agents that other teams covet, means you are competing for assets and end up paying more for them. And that sometimes means you have assets you wish you didn't have in three or four or five years.
It may go without saying, but no team is going to have success, dynastic or otherwise, without top players. Chicago, Pittsburgh and Washington have all built a base through top draft picks that were collected from periods of lousy on-ice performance. Detroit has bucked that trend for years with shrewd drafting and patient development, not having a top-10 draft pick since they took Martin Lapointe with the 10th overall pick in 1991.
Still, the key remains universal: once you get these elite players, the key then is to keep them.
"You can't win without great players and it's so hard to get them. Once you do get them, you've got to keep them," Bowman said.
Yet that is exactly what Bowman has done in locking up Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane. Penguins GM Ray Shero, a master at filling around the fringes of his team, has ensured his core will stay intact by extending deals for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang. Washington has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom locked up for years. Detroit, likewise, will have Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Kronwall for years.
The challenge then is in filling around those corner posts, which is what Bowman did this summer.
He said it wasn't easy to shed players who played integral roles in something special. But those are the kinds of hard choices that have to be made to get to the top and stay there.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.