The 2015 Stanley Cup Final is a clash between the NHL’s current dominant franchise and a promising team poised to challenge for that crown.
The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning are two of the NHL’s elite teams. Their series could be one of those rare Cup Finals in which we witness a true changing of the NHL guard, something that last occurred in the 1984 Final between between the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers.
Since 2009, the Chicago Blackhawks have been the closest thing to a dynasty under the NHL’s salary-cap system. They’ve advanced to five Conference Finals and three Stanley Cup Finals, winning two championships in 2010 and 2013. They’re on the verge of making it three Cup titles in six years. Given the difficulty of maintaining a Cup contender under the constraints of the salary cap, the Blackhawks’ performance over the past seven seasons is quite impressive.
Over that period, only the Los Angeles Kings came closest to challenging the Blackhawks as the NHL’s dominant franchise. Between 2012 and 2014, the Kings marched to three straight Western Conference Finals and two Cup championships. Cap constraints, however, proved the Kings’ undoing this season, as they missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Given their limited cap space over the next three seasons, the Kings could find it difficult to remain a legitimate Cup contender.
The Blackhawks are no strangers to grappling with limited cap space. Following their first championship run in 2010, GM Stan Bowman had to move several players in salary-dumping deals to ensure his club was cap compliant for 2011-12. Fortunately, the ‘Hawks core talent (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook) was retained as a foundation upon which to rebuild from within their system and via trades and free agency. Though the Blackhawks lacked sufficient depth for championship runs in 2011 and 2012, they remained competitive over that period and never fell out of playoff contention.
Cap constraints are once again an issue for the Blackhawks, which will again result in another round of offseason cost-cutting trades, though perhaps not on the same scale as in 2010. Once again, their core players won’t be touched, and there’s some promising young players currently on their roster and within their farm system to replace the veterans who depart this summer via trades and free agency.
Because the Blackhawks’ turnaround from their last salary purge occurred within three seasons, there’s an assumption among some observers that they’ll once again quickly return to Cup contention. While that’s possible, several factors could make it more difficult this time.
For one, those core players are now five years older. Toews and Kane were in their early-twenties during the last salary purge, while Keith and Seabrook were in their mid-twenties. Toews is now 27, Kane 26, Keith 31 and Seabrook 30. While still within their playing prime they could find it more physically demanding to carry the franchise through another transition period.
That’s especially true if management fails to adequately restock their roster depth over the next several seasons. Some of their promising youngsters could fail to play up to expectations, creating potential depth problems in the coming years.
Still, it must be acknowledged the Blackhawks’ current crop of young players appear promising. Forwards Brandon Saad (22), Andrew Shaw (23) and Marcus Kruger (25) are established players, with Saad having blossomed into a reliable scoring winger. 20-year-old center Teuvo Teravainen has shown considerable potential during this year’s playoffs.
Defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (23) could develop into a top-four blueliner. David Rundblad, 24, could become a decent depth rearguard. Backup goaltender Scott Darling, 26, was very good in his brief appearances this season and could perhaps challenge veteran Corey Crawford for the starter’s job, creating the possibility of moving Crawford’s $6 million annual cap hit if more cost-cutting is required.
The biggest issue, of course, is the salary cap. Following the Blackhawks last salary purge, the cap ceiling increased by an annual rate of $5 million, providing more cap space to bolster their roster. Thanks to a weak Canadian dollar over the past two seasons, the cap has only made marginal gains. Next season’s original cap-ceiling projection of $73 million has been reduced to around $71 million. It could be lower than that if the NHLPA membership votes against employing its annual five-percent salary escalator clause.
Should the Canadian dollar remain weak in the next several years, increases in the cap ceiling could prove sluggish. Modest cap increases could hinder Bowman’s efforts to rebuild the club as quickly as in the recent past.
That creates the possibility for a rising, hungry team with a core of good young talent to supplant the Blackhawks as the NHL’s consistently dominant franchise. A team like their 2015 Stanley Cup Final opponent.
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s remarkable rise in just two short years from non-playoff club to Stanley Cup Finalist is the result of years of recovery from the disastrous tenure of former ownership OK Hockey. Under current owner Jeff Vinik and GM Steve Yzerman, the Lightning have been significantly rebuilt.
No one remains on their roster from their 2004 championship club and only two players – captain Steven Stamkos and top defenseman Victor Hedman, the only notable picks from the previous management – are left from their 2011 Conference Final club. Yzerman also brought in a solid collection of experienced veterans (Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman, Valtteri Filppula, Jason Garrison, Brian Boyle, Braydon Coburn and Brenden Morrow) to augment the young talent which formed the core of their current roster.
All of their top forwards – Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Odrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn – are 25 or younger. Promising winger Jonathan Drouin is 20. Hedman, their best blueliner, is 24. Many of their supporting cast are also 25 or younger. Starting goalie Ben Bishop is 28, backed up by Andrei Vasilevskiy (20) and Kristers Gudlevskis (22). Putting it all together is head coach Jon Cooper, who molded his roster into a swift puck-moving club that is difficult to contain.
Given their depth in young talent, the Lightning could be poised for annual Cup contention over the next several years. A Stanley Cup championship this year could be the first of several for this promising team.
As with every Cup contender in the NHL’s salary cap world, it won’t be easy for Yzerman to keep this roster intact. Stamkos is due a huge raise next summer. Kucherov and Killorn are also free agents next summer. In 2017, Bishop, Hedman, Palat and Johnson will be in line for significant raises. They could also feel the pinch of a potentially sluggish cap ceiling by then.
Yzerman faces the same challenge as his counterparts in Chicago and Los Angeles. The moves he makes in the coming years will determine if the Lightning emulate the Blackhawks by remaining a dominant franchise for years or struggle like the Kings under the burden of maintain cap compliance.