It was October 19, 2007, and the Colorado Avalanche were playing in Chicago. The Avalanche were in the early phase of a "down" cycle, coming off a season in which they had missed the NHL play-offs for the first time in more than a decade. But they still had their core of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote – players who had won two Stanley Cups in Colorado. And if they were a faded power, then the Chicago Blackhawks were no power at all.
The Blackhawks were long-time laughingstocks, fourth-worst team in the league the year before, a team who had missed the play-offs in eight of the prior nine seasons, a team that had not won a play-offs series since 1996. A bad team.
Seven minutes into the Colorado game, no score, and then a bolt from the blue: the Chicago rookie Jonathan Toews stick-handled through three Colorado players and the goalie, too, then pushed the puck home for his second goal as an NHLer (see bottom).
A spectacular goal and he made it look easy.
The Avalanche TV announcers were thunderstruck.
“This is the kind of talent,” said Peter McNab, the colour commentator, “that can bring a franchise back from death.”
Seven-and-a-half years later these Blackhawks are far, far from their deathly days. They have won two Cups and a third is in their sights. But this could be where the “up” cycle ends. We might be at Peak Chicago.
The Hawks within days begin the Western Conference final against the Anaheim Ducks. Win, and Chicago will be favourites in the Cup final no matter which Eastern team they face.
“There’s no satisfaction in this group,” Toews said after the Hawks’ second-round sweep of the Minnesota Wild. “When we get in a good situation we keep pushing for more.”
More wins, and more money, too. Success inflates salaries, and the Hawks’ treasury has been stretched thin. The team have 15 players under contract for next season at an estimated cost of US$65.8 million (Dh241.7m). With the league’s salary cap for next year expected to be around $73m, the Hawks would be left with only $7.2m to pay the other eight men on their roster.
Brandon Saad, the power forward who is Chicago’s rising star, is in line for a big raise, probably to the $3m range from his current $764,000.
Hard decisions must be made if the Hawks want any semblance of roster balance.
Toews, Saad and the defenceman Duncan Keith are untouchable. The club could clear cap space in two ways: by allowing several players with expiring contracts to leave, among them Antoine Vermette, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards and Michal Rozsival; or by trading away some of their better players, with candidates including Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp – and perhaps even the scoring star Patrick Kane or the goalie Corey Crawford.
The other problem is that the Hawks are getting old. Toews might look like a wide-eyed 12-year-old kid but in the autumn he will embark on his ninth NHL season. Same for Kane. For the forward Marian Hossa, it will be his 17th time around. An 11th time for Keith and Seabrook and a 13th for Sharp. With each year they grow a little slower, and injuries not only are a greater risk but may require more time for healing.
For Chicago, the beginning of the end looms. Which could be all the motivation they need to win one more Cup while they still have the chance. Once more to the mountaintop, once more before the avalanche.
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