If ever a defending champion deserved to collectively hold its head up high, it’s the Chicago Blackhawks.
But there wasn’t a lot of that on display inside the Blackhawks dressing room Sunday night, where droopy noggins were a familiar sight as players stared at the floor in disbelief.
A gut-wrenching overtime Game 7 loss makes a player feel like the weight of the world is on his shoulders, not to mention a 300-pound anvil dangling around his neck.
Especially when there is a realization of how close the Hawks came to returning to a second consecutive Stanley Cup final.
As close as one fortuitous bounce, one kooky skip, one lucky deflection. Had one of those taken place, we would all be talking today about a potential Blackhawks dynasty, a team that was four victories away from a third Stanley Cup in five seasons.
But all it took was an Alec Martinez point shot that deflected off Blackhawks defenceman Nick Leddy to change all that. Now, thanks to the pinballed game winner that gave Los Angeles a 5-4 victory early in overtime, it is the Kings who are headed to the Stanley Cup final against the Rangers — not the Hawks.
“It’s hard to admit to ourselves this season is over,” captain Jonathan Toews told reporters afterward, knowing all the while that the dream of becoming the first team to repeat since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings had been eclipsed.
“It’s not a good feeling, especially given the circumstances, (with) how hard we fought (and) how badly we wanted to win this year.”
Cheer up, Captain Chicago. Your Blackhawks might be headed to the golf course for the summer after cleaning out the lockers on Tuesday but, from a hockey standpoint, your team isn’t going anywhere.
Because if any franchise is poised to contend like this season after season in the immediate future, it’s the Hawks.
Jonathan Toews is 26. Patrick Kane is 25. Brandon Saad is 21. Leddy is 23. Niklas Hjalmarsson is 26. From a purely age standpoint, none of these uber-skilled players has reached their full upside, which is scary for the rest of the NHL.
Add that to a cache of experienced leaders who are in their prime — Patrick Sharp at a youthful 32, Ducan Keith at 30, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford at 29 — and the Hawks have a foundation that is ready to win now.
Okay, next year, then.
This is not an aging bunch by any means. Michal Handzus, a pending unrestricted free agent at 37, likely won’t be back, but Marian Hossa, 35, is under contract through 2021 at $5.275 million per season.
The identical $6.3 million cap hits carried by Toews and Kane are part of deals that have just one season remaining, so expect the Hawks to try to get both locked up long term. Given that Anaheim’s dynamic duo of Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf each received extensions of $8-million plus, Chicago’s two terrors should get at least that — likely more.
According to capgeek.com, the Hawks have the least amount of cap space available in the league moving forward. With 19 players under contract, Chicago is projected to be $4,670,705 under the cap, a number that does not include monies to re-sign its own restricted free agents, let alone re-up Toews and Kane.
While the Kane-Toews-Keith-Seabrook foursome continues to form the heart and backbone of the franchise, the Hawks supporting cast has been ravaged since the team won the Cup in 2010. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Antti Niemi, Troy Brower and David Bolland are all players who were allowed to leave in order for Chicago to battle its cap issues.
With little financial wriggle room to woo big-name free agents, the Hawks will rely upon their youngsters to step up, much like Saad has during his first two seasons in a Hawks jersey. And even then, with an impressive roster already in place, the incoming kids will only need to serve secondary roles.
In the salary cap era that first kicked off in 2005-06, only one team — the Hawks — has won the Cup twice. The Kings can equal that mark if they can beat the Rangers in a coast vs. coast series that kicks off Wednesday night at the Staples Center.
In the end, we know this much: Chicago will be back as a favourite next year, There simply is too much heart, too much pride and too much skill in that dressing room for them not to be.