Updated: December 12, 2013 11:23PM
Stan Bowman leaned back in his chair in the press box high atop American Airlines Center in Dallas and stretched his legs. His top two goalies were out with injuries, a pair of rookies manning the most important position in the game. His $16-million power forward was, too. His two biggest stars are due for monster contract extensions at the end of the season, and his team is leaning heavily on a few relatively unproven young players as it defends its Stanley Cup.
Yet Bowman looked and sounded quite comfortable as he discussed the present and the future of the Hawks. And why not? His Blackhawks lead the league in points. His next generation is acquitting itself well while having to replace proven veterans. And a 12-year, $4.9 billion TV deal in Canada is expected to bump the salary cap as high as $71 million next season, and even higher after that, which gives Bowman — who’s been locking up core pieces of his team left and right — ample space to ensure that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane aren’t going anywhere when their current deals expire after next season.
From up here, the future looks every bit as bright as the present.
“I’ve never thought it was going to be a drama,” Bowman said of Toews and Kane, who are signed through next season but are eligible for contract extensions on July 1. “My stance has been very consistent, which is we want those players here, we’re going to keep them here. They’ve been here since we drafted them, and they’re going to stay in Chicago, and we’ll worry about the specifics of it when the time comes.”
Bowman has signed Corey Crawford (six years, $36 million), Bryan Bickell (four years, $16 million), Niklas Hjalmarsson (five years, $20.5 million), and Andrew Shaw (two years, $4 million) to extensions, and already has Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook signed to long-term deals. Brandon Saad and Antti Raanta will be needing new contracts for next season, too. Bowman said he’s not sweating the cap number, but that the new Canadian TV deal will be a huge boon to the Hawks and to the league as a whole.
“You can’t get too high or too low in terms of what the cap number’s going to be,” Bowman said. “It’ll be what it is, and we’ll get it done. But that’s not really my focus right now. For sure, the TV deal is great news, but it doesn’t really change my approach or my outlook on things.”
Bowman’s focus is on the ice, on the here and now. While he said he’ll sign or trade for a goaltender if the fit is right, he’s willing to give Raanta and Kent Simpson a chance to hold down the fort while Crawford recovers from a groin injury. That fits with Bowman’s M.O., which has been to throw young players into the fire right away. He pointed to Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Saad and Shaw as recent examples. This year, he singled out fourth-line winger Ben Smith as a guy who’s making a name for himself.
Still, it’s a younger, less experienced team than last year. Last year, veterans such as Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo were scratched each night, while Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg manned the third and fourth lines. This year, the Hawks aren’t scratching healthy forwards, and players such as Smith and Jeremy Morin are playing on a nightly basis.
Joel Quenneville doesn’t feel his depth has taken a hit, though.
“We want a four-line team, and with the scheduling and back-to-back games, you want to make sure you’re fresh,” Quenneville said. “We’re pleased, no matter how old the guys are, that they’re coming ready to play.”
Bowman said the Hawks’ system is designed to ensure young players are NHL ready when they get to Chicago. Of course, it helps having a deep veteran team that allows them to keep prospects in the AHL for two or three years to develop. It also allows the Hawks to be extra patient with players such as Brandon Pirri.
On another team, maybe Pirri would still be in the NHL. With six goals and five assists and an easy chemistry with Kane, Pirri certainly proved he’s got the offensive skill to play at the highest level. But Pirri went eight games without a point, his defense wasn’t up to Quenneville’s standards, and his ice time dropped dramatically. So he was sent back to Rockford, which raised some eyebrows among fans.
“I don’t look at it as a disappointment, I look at it as the way the system works,” said Bowman, one of Pirri’s most ardent supporters over the summer. “When you go some games when nothing happens for you offensively, it’s understandable that you want to get your confidence back, and that’s a hard thing to do in the NHL. It’s a little easier in Rockford, when you’re still getting the big minutes. Even if you go through a slump down there, your ice time doesn’t change. That’s the model we have. When you’re up here and if it’s not going good for you for a few games in a row and you play less, how do you get out of it?
“So I’m very comfortable using Brandon at any point. It’s just that currently, we don’t need him.”
In other words, it’s just the way the Hawks do business. And — with Pirri eventually returning more confident and capable, with Raanta becoming a better backup for the experience once Crawford returns, and with enough money to go around for Toews and Kane and a loaded core — business continues to be very good.