The Stanley Cup has been hoisted by the Chicago Blackhawks, the NHL has doled out its awards, a fresh set of 18-year-olds has been welcomed, and free agency is in full swing. Despite all the time that has passed, many Washington Capitals fans are still left yearning and badly bruised from the far too early first-round exit from this year’s playoffs. They are left thinking to themselves that could have been us, we do have a lot of the same qualities as the Blackhawks, and yet we didn’t go all the way. And yet, after what the Hawks have had to do in the last few weeks, do Caps fans really wish they were in the same boat as Chicago?
Washington has four top offensive producers in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin, who share many of the same qualities as Chicago’s Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Jonathan Toews. In fact, Washington’s big four may even be better than Chicago’s. Both teams have some of the best young d-men in the league. Chicago haa a blueline anchored by Keith and Brent Seabrook, and talented but inconsistent Brian Campbell. The Caps counter with the up and coming John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Mike Green. In fact, both teams even share similarities in net. Semyon Varlamov exploded on to the NHL scene in 2009 with a stellar playoffs and followed up with a great encore performance this year. To some extent Anti Niemi could be thought of as the Western Conference equivalent of Varly. He had a great regular season, supplanting Cristobal Huet, and the Hawks road him to the Cup finals.
Here, however, is where the similarities end.
The Caps have some great role players in Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble and Matt Bradley, but Chicago’s were just better, deeper. When Chicago’s first line struggled at the start of the Cup finals, offensive contributions came elsewhere. Role players are the glue that holds a team together. In hockey we know that superstars alone cannot win championships; there has to be a combination of talent, speed, goaltending, grit and above all chemsitry, commitment, and luck. Without a solid set of above average guys who can bang the puck home on the doorstep or sacrifice their bodies in their own end Stanley Cup aspirations are futile. Call this a blue collar ethos surrounding the skilled stars.
The Caps perhaps could have had a few more of those guys last offseason if they had gotten creative with their salary cap and signed guys like Ovi and Semin to long deals that resulted in small cap hits during their first season or two of the new contracts. Instead, they decided to be fiscally responsible and sign players to deals that made sense in the long term. Chicago on the other hand did not.
Due to their shortsightedness and fiscal ineptitude Chicago now has to essentially sell off a large part of the soul of their team. First it was the auctioning of Dustin Byfuglien, who is now an Atlanta Thrasher. Then it was young standout Kris Versteeg, who was sent to the Toronto Maple Leaf’s for the equivalent of nothing. The final trade in the first round of cuts was a deal that sent another younger winger in Andrew Ladd to the Thrashers. Brent Sopel and Ben Eager have also been jettisoned. Suddenly the glue that held Chicago together was softening.
Soon the Hawks will begin praying someone comes calling for Cristobal Huet. The franchise is barely $6 million dollars under the salary cap and still has to sign Niemi as well as fill out the roster, which will be a task in itself. In reality, Chicago is going to have to take the players that completed their team and virtually give them away. All of this is the result of the Blackhawks management mortgaging the future to win now.
Is that a hockey franchise Caps fans want to cheer for? In the grand scheme of things, is one Stanley Cup followed by years of fighting of mediocarity — or futility — worth it to Caps fans? There is really no way to swing this as a good way to manage a team. Of course, the Hawks do have that Cup that’s ever eluded the Caps.
Next season will roll around and, while most often defending champs are regularly picked to contend, objectively it will be difficult to do so with the Hawks. The reality is that Chicago will again likely return to being the little brother of Detroit while much of the rest of the Western Conference upgrades. Meanwhile, Washington will again be a lead favorite to win the Eastern Conference. Sure, there will be questions, apprehensions, but most teams have those at the beginning of the season. Wouldn’t fans much rather be in the Caps’ current predicament of having to decide whether Semin or Green is worth keeping in a year’s time instead of having to watch both of them leave? And more.
The short and sweet of it is, Washington should want nothing to do with Chicago’s managerial style. While ominous clouds circle over the Hawks’ Cup defense the Caps will keep building, winning, and gaining experience, working towards the goal of a championship. Key pieces are needed, yes, but just as importantly kep pieces don’t have to be offloaded like a summer yard sale.