The Chicago Blackhawks recently locked up their two franchise players, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, to an eight-year contract extension, ensuring that the two young players wear the Indian Head during their prime playing years. The deals, identical $10.5 million a year extensions that pay the duo until 2023, are a large chunk of change for the Blackhawks to spend on two players in their 23-man roster. Some question whether these extensions will hurt Chicago’s chances to become the next great hockey dynasty, as it might limit the Blackhawks odds are picking up depth forwards in the future. While it is true that the future looks a little more murky for Chicago, there is one hard truth that lead to these extensions: A Chicago Blackhawks team with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane is better than one without.
Make no mistake. In today’s NHL, depth is the name of the game. Chicago proved that in 2010, when it won the Stanley Cup with a deep offensive attack that saw the likes of Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd play on the third line. Since then, the Cup has been won by the team that could roll a more balanced attack than their Stanley Cup Final opponent. However, while the depth of the Boston Bruins, the Los Angeles Kings, and the Chicago Blackhawks contributed to their respective Cup wins, the teams did not ignore their star players. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci led the Bruins, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams led the Kings, and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane lead the Blackhawks. It is a combination of depth and star power that leads to Cup wins. Having one or the other simply is not enough.
Look no further than the Pittsburgh Penguins. They won the Cup in 2009, when they were able to roll three forward lines centered by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal (who was drafted one spot ahead of Jonathan Toews in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft). Since then, money was spent on making the Penguins a very top-heavy team. As a result, their depth suffered. It has led to many frustrating early round losses for the Pittsburgh franchise, and has caused some unrest in Crosby and Malkin, as evidenced by last year’s public shouting match with then-Pittsburgh coach Dan Byslma. The Penguins will have to rely on the slowly rising cap to build their depth, or trade one of their top-heavy contracts in Marc-Andre Fleury or Kris Letang.
With the extensions of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks may have to do the same. The extensions do not kick in until the 2015-2016 season, giving time for the cap to rise a bit and time for the Blackhawks to make the necessary trades. Winger Patrick Sharp was rumored to be on the trading block at the NHL draft, supposedly in anticipation of these contract extensions. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson could also be on the move in the near future, if the Blackhawks feel they need to make the space to keep their depth in-tact. The Blackhawks learned their lesson after 2010, which saw them lose many of their depth players and struggle to find the same magic in the few years that followed.
Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman was in a tough situation this offseason. He could not let his two franchise forwards leave the team, or even have that thought raised in the mind of the fans. After all, Toews has captained the team to two Cup wins, and Kane won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2013. The two young players are the Chicago Blackhawks, for all intents and purposes. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place, essentially forced to give the duo a blank check, regardless of how it might affect the team in the future. For now, Blackhawks fans should be excited at the thought of watching Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane tear through the ice for years to come. As far as the depth of the team? That’s for the hockey gods to decide.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner