SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Patrick Sharp is no LeBron James. First, he said it after the Chicago Blackhawks had won two championships, not before. Second, he said it in a quiet conference room at an NHL media event last week in New York, not in an arena at a pep rally like James once did in Miami. But the dream is the same, and the belief is the same, if not the bravado.
Not two, not three, not four …
“It was huge to win the first one,” Sharp said. “And then you win the second one, and it’s like, ‘Man, we could do this three times, four times …’ I don’t want to start sounding like the Miami Heat here. I’m careful when I talk like that. But we’ve got a core group, and the organization, it seems like everything’s coming in line. We re-signed our goaltender. We’re re-signing all these key pieces. It’s like, ‘Let’s stay together and try to do this again.’ ”
The Blackhawks are not the Heat. The NHL is not the NBA. The team people compared to the Heat last season, the Pittsburgh Penguins, got swept by the Boston Bruins in the third round. The Blackhawks, who started 21-0-3 and finished first in the overall standings, almost didn’t escape the second round. They survived a 3-1 series deficit, a third-period deficit in Game 6 and overtime in Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings. The sport is too crazy, the league too close, the line too thin.
The Heat just repeated. No NHL team has repeated since the Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997 and ’98. No NHL team has qualified as a dynasty since the Edmonton Oilers, who won five Cups in seven years from 1984-90. The Blackhawks don’t want to talk about a repeat, let alone a dynasty.
“You know,” said team president John McDonough, “a dynasty is something that is many more Cups than we’ve won over a much longer period of time.”
Yet the Blackhawks have what McDonough called a “humble swagger” as they open training camp at Notre Dame, the alma mater of general manager Stan Bowman. They feel entitled to nothing, but they want it all. McDonough considers their success a “small sample size.”
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In 2010, they brought the Cup back to Chicago, making hockey matter again in an Original Six city. Last season, they became the first team to win two Cups since the salary cap was introduced in 2005, separating themselves from the rest of the league. Now they can separate themselves further. They have the opportunity and ability to redefine the word “dynasty” for the cap era.
“I’m very, very proud of our organization, but we’re not satisfied with where we are,” McDonough said. “We’re not close to being satisfied. We need to get a lot better. I know that sounds absurd on the face of two Stanley Cup championships in four years, but this is an organization with lofty expectations.”
“We want to sustain this level of success, not just for this season or next season, but for a number of seasons,” Bowman said. “Ultimately, time will tell. But like John said, we’re just getting started here. I don’t feel any sense of contentment with where we’re at. Complacency’s not a word that’s going to be associated with the Blackhawks.”
Not two, not three, not four …
* * * * *
Management’s job is to plan for the long term. You’re not going to reach your goal every year in a cap system. The trick is to make your goal reachable every year and to take advantage of it when you have the right chemistry, health and puck luck.
No one knows more about sustaining success in the NHL than Scotty Bowman, Stan’s father and a Blackhawks senior advisor. He coached the Montreal Canadiens to five Cups in seven years in the 1970s, including four straight. He won back-to-back Cups with the Penguins in 1991 and ’92, the first as an executive, the second as coach. He coached the Wings to back-to-back Cups in 1997 and ’98, coached them to another Cup in 2002, then won another Cup with them as an executive in 2008.
One thing Stan learned from Scotty: Your best players are your bedrock. To win consistently, you need top-end players, and you need to get the most out of them. That was true before the cap, and it is true with the cap. So after rising to GM in 2009, Bowman signed stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith to contract extensions, knowing the cap would force major changes in the off-season whether the Blackhawks won the Cup or not.
Though Bowman did indeed dismantle half the team after the 2010 Cup, he still had his core and embraced the challenge of rebuilding the supporting cast. He stayed patient through two first-round playoff losses – not to mention a nine-game losing streak in the second half of the 2011-12 season. He didn’t panic, trade Kane and fire coach Joel Quenneville. He drafted, developed and promoted. He kept locking up key players. He made relatively minor moves in the trade and free-agent markets.
Bowman didn’t have to dismantle half the team after the 2013 Cup, even though the cap came down. He re-signed Bryan Bickell, Michal Handzus and Michal Rozsival and extended Corey Crawford and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Out went Dave Bolland, Ray Emery, Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg. But into camp come Nikolai Khabibulin and several promising young players, like center Brandon Pirri, 22, who won the American Hockey League scoring title last season. The Blackhawks don’t have enough roster spots for them all.
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“I just think you have to have faith that your top players are going to get you through those tough times, and that’s why we’ve made a commitment to those players over the years,” Bowman said. “You have to identify the guys that are really integral to your team, and then some of the other players you have to fill in around them.
“I’ve always said that sort of the way to sustain it is to have young players in your system. We’ve done that. We’ve been able to find some of these guys expanded roles over the last couple seasons. That’s the formula we’re going to take going forward.”
Remember: The Blackhawks’ core is young, too. Toews is 25, and Kane is 24. Keith is 30, and Seabrook is 28. The oldest are Sharp and Marian Hossa, and they are not old – 31 and 34, respectively. Imagine if the Blackhawks continue to develop guys like Brandan Saad, a 20-year-old who was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, or Andrew Shaw, a 22-year-old who scored five goals in the playoffs, or …
Not two, not three, not four …
* * * * *
The coaches’ and players’ jobs are to execute in the short term. They cannot afford to think too much about three or four or more. They cannot even afford to think about one at this point – the last one or the next one. The last one is in the past; the next one is too far into the future.
“When you win the Stanley Cup and you come in the following season – that’s happened to us twice now – the talk is always going to be about repeating,” said Toews, every bit Captain Serious. “We kind of understand that. But we know that we don’t really want to be talking about that yet. It’s a long ways away.
“We’ve got to focus on the start of the season and not make the mistakes we did last time. Once we get to building ourselves up as a team the way we did last year and preparing ourselves for a playoff run, we want to put ourselves in a position come playoff time to be that team that can compete for it again.”
The Blackhawks face the same issues all defending champions do. In fact, they might have it worse. Their summer was even shorter than usual because the lockout pushed back the schedule last season – the Cup final didn’t end until June 25, just 80 days ago – and the schedule will be condensed again this season because of the Olympics. They will have tired legs, and they will have to get up for early season games, and opponents will be targeting them. There are question marks: Can they finally settle second-line center? Can they fix the baffling power play? Can they replace Frolik on the penalty kill?
But the Blackhawks have a few things in their favor. Their roster is mostly intact this time. They’re healthy and fit, with no major injuries and Quenneville calling this the best conditioned team he has ever seen. Those who are locks for Olympic teams will want to be sharp for Sochi, and those who are on the bubble will want to make it. The NHL’s new realignment, new schedule matrix and new playoff format will keep things interesting.
Most important, the core has been through this before. The leaders have won a Cup and struggled afterward. They know which feeling they prefer.
“These guys, they love to win,” Quenneville said. “They want to be the best they can be. They have that ability to make people around them want to have that same type of an appetite, and I think guys coming into the room or guys that have been around the room, they all look up to these guys in the right way. These guys are never accepting being good enough.”
Not two? Not three? Not four?
“You start talking like you’re the best team in the league, you won two Stanley Cups, it’s going to be easy to win another one, that’s … You couldn’t have a worse attitude,” Sharp said. “You start talking like that, and you’re going to get beat up a little bit in the league. Teams are too good now.
“It’s like, any night, any team can win. That’s what makes our sport great to watch. So in Chicago, we have that respect for other teams in the league. We have that respect that nothing’s easy. I think that’s what makes us good.”
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