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With aging, expensive core Blackhawks’ window is closing fast

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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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Stanley Cup Final: Blues vs. Bruins full schedule, TV info

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The St. Louis Blues have eliminated the San Jose Sharks in six games, and now the the 2019 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set.

Beginning with Game 1 on Monday, May 27 at TD Garden, the Blues will battle the Boston Bruins.

If a Game 7 is needed, it will take place on Wednesday, June 12, in Boston at 8 p.m. ET.

The Bruins are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2013 and are trying to win it for the first time since 2011. The Blues went to the Cup Final in each of their first three years in the NHL, with their last appearance coming in 1970. They are looking for their first championship.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire series

(All times ET, subject to change).

GAME 1 
Monday, May 27: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

GAME 2

Wednesday, May 29: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET,  NBCSN

GAME 3

Saturday, June 1: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN

GAME 4

Monday, June 3: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*GAME 5

Thursday, June 6: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*GAME 6

Sunday, June 9: Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*GAME 7

Wednesday, June 12: St. Louis Blues at Boston Bruins | 8 p.m. ET, NBC

*If necessary

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Is Patrick Roy good fit for Sens?; Flyers need a center

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Patrick Roy and Sens GM Pierre Dorion were spotted leaving a hotel in Montreal on Tuesday. (Ottawa Citizen)

• TSN’s Travis Yost breaks down whether or not Patrick Roy is a good fit for the Ottawa Senators. (TSN)

• Should women’s hockey align with the NHL? It may not be as good of an idea as you think. (The Hockey News)

Brandon Carlo‘s first Stanley Cup playoff has been pretty positive. (NHL)

• Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson is leaving the Boston Bruins to sign in the Swedish Hockey League. (Stanley Cup of Chowder)

Brett Kulak went from being a minor leaguer to a key contributor on the Canadiens’ blue line. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Find out how soccer could be the key to fixing officiating in the NHL. (NBC Sports Washington)

• What should the Flyers expect from Sean Couturier next season? (Broad Street Hockey)

• The Flyers should also add a number two center this offseason so that they can move Nolan Patrick further down the depth chart. (Philly.com)

• Can the Tampa Bay Lightning find the cap space to bring Erik Karlsson into the fold. (Raw Charge)

• Pens forward Dominik Simon has been an offensive force for the Czech Republic at the Worlds. (Pensburgh)

• What should the Avalanche be targeting in free agency and how much money do they have to spend? (Mile High Hockey)

• Sportsnet breaks down seven teams that are in salary cap trouble. (Sportsnet)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Bruins, Blues meet in Stanley Cup Final 49 years in making

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Seeing the famous photo of Bobby Orr scoring the 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal to beat his St. Louis Blues doesn’t bring back bad memories for Scotty Bowman.

”Not really,” the legendary coach said. ”Because we didn’t have a big opportunity to win that series.”

Orr and the big, bad Boston Bruins swept Bowman’s overmatched, expansion-era Blues in that series. Now 49 years later, Boston is in its third final in nine seasons and St. Louis is back for the first time since 1970, but this Bruins-Blues rematch is a showdown between two of the NHL’s best teams since Jan. 1.

”Now it’s more level,” Bowman said. ”(The Blues) don’t give a lot of room in their end, and of course their goalie’s been lights out.”

Coming off a sweep of Carolina in the Eastern Conference final, the Bruins are favored in the series that begins Monday in Boston. Goaltender Tuukka Rask is the front-runner to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Brad Marchand is playing some of the best hockey of his career with 18 points in 17 games, and there’s a mix of veterans from the 2011 Stanley Cup-winning team and fresh players eager to get their names etched on the trophy.

”I think as you get older, you appreciate it even more, and you realize how hard it is to get to this point and advance and be thankful and stay in the moment,” center Patrice Bergeron said. ”But then it’s back to work, and there’s a lot of work in front of us.”

Unlike in 1970, when the Bruins essentially just had to step on the ice to take the final, these Blues won’t go away. They woke up last in the league Jan. 3 before winning 30 of their final 45 games to roll into the playoffs, where they beat the Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks.

Bowman, who has coached a record nine Cup champions, only in recent days realized the Blues hadn’t been to the final since he was there. He met his wife, Suzanne, when she was a nurse in St. Louis and he has a soft spot for this team because of connections to former players of his: consultant/assistant coach Larry Robinson and ambassadors Bob Plager and Brett Hull.

He also likes the size of the Blues’ blue line.

”They’re all big, every one of them,” Bowman said. ”Their defense is very big and the right type of aggressiveness. They don’t take a ton of penalties.”

The Blues and Bruins are among the most disciplined teams in the playoffs, which has helped them reach this point. Now they’ll have to deal with another issue: idle hands with so much time off.

Boston will have a week and a half between finishing off Carolina and Game 1, and even St. Louis will go six days without playing. Bowman during his coaching career recalled making his players scrimmage at night to keep them in a rhythm, but there’s no real substitute for the grind of the playoffs.

”I can’t believe how long they’re going to have to sit out,” Bowman said. ”It’s quite a trick because they were on such a high.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues reach first Stanley Cup Final since 1970

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  • For the first time since 1970, the Blues are going to the Stanley Cup Final. Remarkably, they’ll face the same opponent in the Bruins. To make it to Round 4, they had to dispatch the Sharks, which they managed in Game 6 on Tuesday.

St. Louis Blues 5, San Jose Sharks 1 (Blues win series 4-2; 2019 Stanley Cup Final begins on Monday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC [full schedule and TV info])

Once again, the Blues raced off to a hot start, with David Perron giving them a 1-0 lead just 1:32 into Game 6. They ended the first period up 2-0, and while the Sharks put up a stubborn fight on Tuesday, it didn’t really feel like the contest was ever in doubt. Any time the Sharks seemed to push to make things closer, the Blues either stomped out their scoring chances or scored a gut-punch of a goal. San Jose simply ran out of gas, although St. Louis would argue that it was because they emptied the Sharks’ tank.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Ryan O'Reilly

“ROR” generated three assists in Game 6, and none of those helpers came on the empty-net goal.

It was a strong all-around effort from O’Reilly even beyond the scoring, as he finished Game 6 with a +2 rating, went 12-6 on faceoffs, and delivered a hit during 18:28 TOI. O’Reilly had been kept off of the scoreboard for three consecutive games, so this is a nice outburst for the two-way center as he readies for what’s sure to be some tough matchups as St. Louis pivots to preparing for the Boston Bruins.

2. Jordan Binnington

Thanks to some great play from the likes of Colton Parayko, the Blues were mostly able to keep the battered Sharks to the perimeter. There wasn’t a whole lot of room to work with, which remains consistent to the way St. Louis has played for most of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and really how the Blues have played for the last few months.

Binnington’s steady presence in net is the number one reason that can work, though.

For most of the third period, the Blues sat on what began as a 3-1 lead, while the Sharks desperately pushed for goals by way of a 10-3 shots on goal advantage during the final 20 minutes. None of their attempts worked well enough to bring them back into the game, as Binnington ended the night making 25 out of 26 saves, including some key late stops against Evander Kane and especially Logan Couture.

Can the remarkable rookie win the goalie duel against Tuukka Rask? It figures to be one of his toughest tests yet.

3. David Perron

This was a great team effort for the Blues, making it tempting to place someone like Parayko as one of the three stars.

Yet, it’s worth mentioning Perron, particularly since he’s one of those forwards who keeps putting up points, yet continues to be overlooked. Perron helped the Golden Knights make it to the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, and now he’s back in Round 4 during his latest run with the Blues.

Perron finished Game 6 with a goal and a primary assist, with his goal being especially important. Again, it was the 1-0 tally very early on, allowing the Blues to nurse (and enhance) another 1-0 lead quickly into a contest. The Blues are tough enough to score against when all things are even, but become even more oppressive when they have a lead. This is now the fifth time they’ve scored a goal within the first two minutes of a game during this run, and the Blues are 5-0 in those games.

Bigger names like O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jaden Schwartz have been heating up lately, but Perron is the type of player who might be able to swing what could be a tightly matched series versus the Bruins.

Factoids

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final takes place in Boston at 8 p.m. ET on Monday. Click here for the full schedule and TV info.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blues move to Stanley Cup Final after sinking Sharks

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The last time the St. Louis Blues made it to a Stanley Cup Final, it was all the way back in 1969-1970. They were swept by the Boston Bruins during that long-ago visit, with Bobby Orr’s famous leaping goal putting a bow on things. So, the current-day Blues hope that this … “rematch” goes far better.

To get this far, the Blues had to beat the San Jose Sharks, the team that most recently knocked them out of a Round 3 series back in 2015-16.

An injured Sharks team just didn’t have enough to push through the bruising Blues in Game 6 on Tuesday, as St. Louis won 5-1 to win the series 4-2. With that, the Blues will take on what’s sure to be a well-rested (maybe too rested?) Bruins team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

An empty-netter inflated the score in Game 6, and Tyler Bozak‘s 4-1 insurance tally happened fairly late in the proceedings, so this one was pretty close at times. That said, the Sharks ultimately only got so close before the Blues pulled far ahead.

Game 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final takes place in Boston at 8 p.m. ET on Monday. Click here for the full schedule and TV info.

Tough start, and finish, for Sharks

Being without Joe Pavelski, Erik Karlsson, and Tomas Hertl was already a tough way for San Jose to start Game 6, and didn’t really get better from there, as David Perron deflected a puck past Martin Jones to make it 1-0 for St. Louis just 1:32 in. Things looked pretty dire for the Sharks heading into the first intermission, after Vladimir Tarasenko‘s power-play goal made it 2-0.

Credit the Sharks for continuing to fight, but credit the Blues for taking it to the Sharks to give San Jose little hope of actually winning that fight.

Dylan Gambrell ended up being one of the Sharks who drew into action thanks to all of those injuries, so he made for a great story by scoring his first NHL goal in his first playoff game. The Sharks embraced that added life, briefly, as Logan Couture almost scored before Colton Parayko cleared the puck from Jordan Binnington‘s crease. But it remained 2-1, and Gambrell’s goal ended up being a fun footnote instead of a turning point.

Not long after that brief surge, the Blues got their two-goal lead right back. Brayden Schenn‘s been agonizingly close to scoring for a while now, so he was clearly relieved when he scored the 3-1 goal on the power play. Maybe that goal drought explains the creativity of Schenn’s sword-sheathing celebration?

Blues, Binnington shut the door

It wasn’t just Schenn who was struggling to score late in this series. The Sharks, as a team, were just as cold when it came to piercing the Blues’ defense, and during the rare moments when they found space, Binnington was usually up to the task.

The Blues were clearly content to sit on their 3-1 lead during the third period, and Binnington made sure that such a strategy worked out. He made some tremendous saves against Evander Kane and Logan Couture, including stopping Couture on a semi-breakaway, earning a big cheer from an appreciative crowd in St. Louis.

The Blues won Game 4 by a score of 2-1, then handed the Sharks a disastrous 5-0 defeat in Game 5. So, during these last three games, San Jose only managed two goals overall. Heading into the postseason, it seemed like Martin Jones would be the problem if the Sharks fell short. While Jones faced his highs and lows, the Sharks’ seemingly explosive lineup simply ran out of firepower.

***

Now, the Sharks must face an uncertain offseason with Erik Karlsson, Pavelski, Joe Thornton, and Gustav Nyquist heading toward unrestricted free agency. As much as this run has been about the likes of Hertl and Timo Meier (a pending RFA) emerging as the future of the Sharks alongside Couture, the Sharks’ path ahead seems a little murky. This was a memorable and exciting run for the Sharks, yet it ends with that all-too-familiar empty feeling.

The Blues, meanwhile, face a straightforward future, but one that likely brings plenty of bumps in the road. Beat the Bruins and win that first-ever Stanley Cup, or repeat decades-old history.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.