With aging, expensive core Blackhawks’ window is closing fast


For the seven year stretch between 2008-09 and 2014-15 there was not a more successful team in the NHL than the Chicago Blackhawks. They played in the Western Conference Finals five times and won three Stanley Cups. They did it with a remarkably strong core of top-tier players that were all in the prime of their careers and that they were able to keep together at all costs, even if it meant gutting their depth when they were pushed to the limits of the league’s salary cap.

Because they always seemed to have a pipeline of talent coming through the organization they always seemed to be able to replenish that depth and continue to compete for Stanley Cups.

Until recently.

Despite a lot of regular season success the Blackhawks have not won a playoff series since their Stanley Cup win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2014-15, and more than a quarter of the way through the 2017-18 season find themselves sitting on the playoff bubble in real danger of actually missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season. They are not the dominant possession team they used to be, they have gone from being one of the best shot suppression teams in the league to one of the worst, and they don’t boast anywhere near the overall scoring depth they used to have.

Missing the playoffs at this point is legitimate concern, and combined with back-to-back first-round exits in the playoffs it’s worth wondering if the Blackhawks’ championship window with its current core is starting to come to a close.

If it hasn’t already closed completely.

The popular consensus with teams like the Blackhawks is that it is just too hard to compete when a team invests a significant chunk of money into a small number of players. This is ot a new thing for the Blackhawks, and it is not a new thing for Stanley Cup winning teams. I have beaten this drum for years when it comes to the salary cap and the Stanley Cup but every team that wins puts the majority of its allotted salary cap space into a small number of players. You need superstars to win, superstars cost money. The Blackhawks, even when they were winning, were always pressed against the salary cap and always had to make cuts elsewhere on the roster.

The same has been true for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings, the other two teams that have been most successful in the league’s salary cap era.

As long as those players are at the top of their game and among the game’s elite, the money is literally no factor. You can find another third-line center. You can rebuild your fourth line. You can’t find another peak Jonathan Toews or Duncan Keith or Sidney Crosby or Anze Kopitar, and you can not win without players like them.

The problem the Blackhawks are running into is the players they have committed to are starting to get old and are no longer at their peak.

And it is happening fast.

The Blackhawks have seven players signed through the 2020-21 season. Those seven players (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Artem Anisimov, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy) already account for more than $50 million in salary cap space for each of the next four seasons. Add in Corey Crawford‘s contract over the next three and that’s more than $56 million to eight players.

Again, as long as those players are in their prime and producing among the league’s elite, that is not a big deal.

The problem is they no longer are, and that is not likely to reverse itself.

First, just for comparisons sake, let’s look at the past 10 Stanley Cup champions, a list that is made up primarily of the aforementioned three franchises. What this table shows is each team’s salary cap commitment to its top-seven players, what percentage of the league’s salary cap that commitment is, as well as the average age of those players.

The important thing to keep in mind here as it relates to the Blackhawks is the age category.

Other than the 2007-08 Red Wings, the overwhelming majority of them had their top players all between the ages of 27 and 28.

How are the Blackhawks looking this season? They have 66 percent their salary cap space going to their top-seven players.

The average age of those players this season: 30.

All of those players are signed for at least three more seasons, while six of them (Kane, Toews, Anisimov, Saad, Seabrook and Keith) are signed for at least another four. Four of them (Kane, Toews, Seabrook and Keith) are signed through at least 2023.

(Keep in mind, none of this includes Marian Hossa‘s contract that is still on the books through 2021 as well.)

At this point we obviously don’t know what exactly the NHL salary cap will look like in future seasons, but let’s just try to ballpark and assume it increases at a rate comparable to the past four seasons (about a $2 million increase per season). Here is what the Blackhawks could be looking at over the next four years.

Their cap commitments to their top-seven players are either higher, or at the same level as the highest cap commitments of any Stanley Cup winner over the past decade, while their average age is significantly higher than just about all of them with the exception of a Red Wings team from a decade ago.

The problem here, again, is the age and what the current players are going to be capable of in the future because a lot of them are already starting to slow down.

How good is a 31 or 32 year old Artem Anisimov going to be? Brent Seabrook, currently in his age 32 season, is already a shell of his former self and he is signed for nearly $7 million per season until he turns 38. Duncan Keith is still an outstanding defender, but he is already in his age 34 season and is signed for more than $5 million per season until he turns 39. Father time is undefeated and will eventually claim victory over Keith.

I realize it is sacrilegious to say anything about Jonathan Toews that is anything other than effusive praise but he will count more than $10 million against the salary cap through the end of the 2023 season. His offense has already started to decline, and since the start of the 2015-16 season is 44th in the NHL in scoring and is currently on pace for what could be — by a significant margin — his worst offensive season in the NHL. Is that offensive trend going to reverse as he crosses into his 30s? Is there any amount of defensive ability from a forward that justifies a $10 million salary for a good, but very far from elite offensive player?

These are the issues facing the Blackhawks moving forward.

So how can they fix it?

First, it would be a huge boost if a player like Alex DeBrincat becomes the superstar it looks like he has the potential to be.

Getting an impact player like him — especially over the next few years when the salary cap situation is what it is — at an entry level price would be a game-changing development.

They also need a player like Kane to maintain his current level of production because he remains the one player that can drive the offense. If his production starts to decline things could really start to fly off the rails. He is probably not going to be a 100-point player again like he was a couple of years ago when he won the scoring title, but if he falls too far below the point-per-game pace he has been at the past two years there is really nobody else on the roster (other than potentially DeBrincat) that can be a go-to player offensively.

It would also help to shed one of those mega contracts one way or another.

This is going to be easier said than done for a number of reasons.

Not only do the Blackhawks seem to have a ton of loyalty to the core players they won with (look no further than trading Artemi Panarin to bring back Brandon Saad; the various reunions with Brian Campbell and Patrick Sharp over the years) but it is going to be awfully difficult to find a team that not only wants to take on a contract like, say, Brent Seabrooks, but to also find a team that a player like Seabrook would be willing to accept a trade to.

In terms of on-ice success the past decade has been one of the best in the history of the Blackhawks’ organization.

They kept the players they needed to keep to make that happen and you can not really blame them for doing so, even if it meant creating a salary cap mess right now. But it seems as if that group has finally hit its wall.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Bruins’ David Backes suffers leg laceration in collision (video)


A scary scene unfolded in the first period between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the visiting Boston Bruins on Saturday night.

David Backes and Yanni Gourde came together in the Lightning crease, with Gourde’s skate appearing to cut Backes on the outside of his right leg.

Backes was able to make his way to the Bruins bench on his own, but he was clutching the back of his leg before getting some help down the tunnel.

Backes did not return to the game.

The Bruins said that Backes suffered a laceration above his right knee, which required several stitches to close.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Dundon, Hurricanes suspend search for new GM: report


The Carolina Hurricanes’ search for a general manager is on hiatus.

Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported Saturday that the process of replacing former GM Ron Francis is being put on hold for the time being, citing that owner Tom Dundon needs more time.

“Tom hasn’t had the time he needs to do face to face interviews and feels that waiting will pay off,” Shannon wrote in a tweet.

Francis was removed from his post as GM on March 7 and “promoted” to a new role as president of hockey operations. There was only one catch: whoever replaced Francis would bypass the Hurricanes’ legend and report directly to Dundon.

The search, thus far, hasn’t been going that well, with three potential targets already withdrawing any interest they were thought to have had.

Part of that problem could be how hands-on Dundon appears to want to be. Part of it could just be timing. Fenton, for instance, could be on his way to a Stanley Cup ring this year in Nashville.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman touched on the situation in a recent 31 Thoughts column.

“I think what I’m looking for, is we have to be comfortable with each other. That’s the most important thing,” Dundon told Friedman when asked what he wants in a new GM. “I actually like to disagree and argue. I don’t want someone to come in and just do what I say, and I don’t want to make decisions. Someone to create a structure of how something is a good idea, and now we are going to get it done.”

You can add Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin to the list:

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that Dundon wanting his hands all over the team — including whatever the GM is doing — isn’t the best selling point.

There’s some good, young talent on the Hurricanes for a new GM to come in and build around, but there’s also some dead weight, including what’s turned into a bad contract with goalie Scott Darling.

No GM wants to play puppet for an owner.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun said the Hurricanes will suspend their search until the summer when a larger crop of candidates reveals itself.

Still, you have to wonder who’ll be willing to take that plunge. Someone will, of course, but people haven’t exactly been lining up to fill the role.

UPDATE: On Headlines on Saturday, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that the salary being offered to a prospective GM in Carolina is $400,000, to which he said he doesn’t see any GM taking as it’s too low. Friedman, meanwhile, believes the search for a new GM is not on a complete hiatus.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

St. Patrik Laine has Jets looking like perennial contender

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The Winnipeg Jets can thank their own St. Patrik for their success this season and potentially for years to come.

Patrik Laine was the consolation prize in the 2016 NHL draft behind generational talent Auston Matthews. But he has been a cause for celebration in Winnipeg as a franchise-changing superstar at age 19.

Mathieu Perreault saw the power Alex Ovechkin had to alter the direction of the Washington Capitals and turn them into a perennial playoff team and Stanley Cup contender. When Laine arrived from Finland, the winger started doing the same things in Winnipeg.

“The organization wasn’t having a whole lot of success, and then they get Ovi as a young kid and he starts scoring goals, and all of a sudden the team starts winning,” Perreault said.

“They became a very dominant team for many years. So you kind of sense that here, where the team’s been struggling for many years, not making the playoffs. And then you get this young kid coming in and scoring goals for your team and helps your team win games. I think coming up in Winnipeg we’ll have a dominant team for many years.”

That’s because Laine is already a dominant player. With 16 goals and eight assists in his past 14 games, Laine has the longest point streak by a teenager and already passed Wayne Gretzky for the most goals by a player before turning 20.

The best part for the Jets? Laine is just getting started.

“It’s really impressive when you factor in he’s still learning the game,” coach Paul Maurice said. “His scoring has taken off of late, but so has his game, his all-around game. … He’s an impressive young man at 19. At any age, those numbers would be elite. But at 19, that’s pretty exciting because there’s lot of room as he physically matures, for his game to change and become a power forward and a big, strong man who can score off the rush. Take pucks to the net. There are lots of places Patty is going to improve over the years.”

Laine is drawing comparisons to Ovechkin for his shot, which teammates and opposing goaltenders say is even more deceptive than the Russian 600-goal scorer ‘s blast. Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who has taken Ovechkin shots in practice for years, said Laine’s long stick changes the angle of where the puck is going.

“He shoots it, he pulls it in a little bit weird – long stick – and makes it really hard for us to read,” Grubauer said.

As much as Laine looked up to Ovechkin as a kid, the respect is now mutual. When Ovechkin scored twice Monday to reach 600 and get to 42 this season, Laine answered with his 41st and showed he has what it takes to go goal-for-goal with hockey’s best.

“He’s a great talent and still young and still can produce lots of dangerous (chances),” Ovechkin said.

Laine said it has always been a goal to win the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer, and he’s in the race to do that. Entering Saturday, he’s one behind Ovechkin and one ahead of Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.

“It’s always been one of my dreams to win it,” Laine said. “It’s good motivation for me.”

Laine is also motivated by trying to help set the Jets up for the playoffs and make a long run this spring. Winnipeg has been banged up and secondary scoring has been hot and cold, but Laine’s scoring pace has his teammates believing anything is possible.

“You give him one opportunity and it’s in the back of the net,” Perreault said. “Right now every shot it seems goes in. It helps us win games when he scores like that. It’s been fun to see.”

Maurice doesn’t know what he sees as Laine’s ceiling, but doesn’t think it matters. As Laine’s game rounds out, he’ll face different kinds of defensive challenges, and then it’ll be up to him to prove he can sustain scoring the way Ovechkin has over the past decade-plus.

“The overall game Patty will play will become far more important than whether it’s 40, 50 or whatever that number (of goals) ends up being,” Maurice said.

“At some point, Patty is going to play 20 minutes a night. Maybe not at 19, but when that happens, he’ll be playing against the `A’ group. It’s not as easy to keep scoring like Ovechkin has when you move up the lineup and you play more minutes and you play against the other teams’ best.”


This stick save by Roberto Luongo is absolutely incredible


The Florida Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the NHL and desperately trying to make an improbable run for one of the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Great goaltending will go a long way toward getting them there, and Roberto Luongo is still one of the best in the business even in his age 38 season.

On Saturday afternoon against the Edmonton Oilers he made one of the saves of the year when he did this to help the Panthers hold on to a 2-1 lead in the second period.

That looked like it was going to be a sure goal for Anton Slepyshev.

Luongo has been limited to just 26 games this season but has been absolutely spectacular when he has played, carrying a .926 save percentage into Saturday’s game.

Unfortunately for the Panthers that save by Luongo was not enough on Saturday as they ended up giving up three consecutive goals to fall, 4-2.

The Panthers entered the day three points out of a playoff spot with games in hand on the teams they are chasing. They are still 16-5-1 win since Jan. 30, but if the New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets pick up wins on Saturday their playoff chances are going to take a pretty significant hit, even with the games still in hand.



Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.