In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players that consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.
With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players that could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.
After coming within a goal of their second straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the Chicago Blackhawks remain one of the teams to beat in the NHL next season and beyond. The Blackhawks are rife with long-term contracts and a group of players at the top of their lineup that rival any team's in the NHL.
Led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who each signed eight-year extensions this offseason, the Blackhawks have a young duo that form the very tight nucleus of an exceptional core. The new deals for Kane and Toews could put Chicago under a cap crunch starting in 2015-16 when they kick in and that could alter the complexion of the team's top end, but there is depth to support those kinds of moves.
How those new extensions for Kane and Toews impact the future of the roster remains to be seen, but Chicago is loaded for another Stanley Cup run in 2014-15. They may even be better than they were just a season ago.
Here's a look at the group that should carry the Blackhawks even beyond next season.
Core Values: Chicago Blackhawks
Players (Age, term remaining on contract): C Jonathan Toews (26, 9 years), RW Patrick Kane (25, 9 years), D Duncan Keith (31, 9 years), RW Marian Hossa (35, 7 years), D Niklas Hjalmarsson (27, 5 years), LW Patrick Sharp(32, 3 years), G Corey Crawford (29, 6 years)
Total cap hit for 2014-15: $34,103,462 (49.4 percent of salary cap consumed by seven players)
Average age: 29.2
Total point production in 2013-14: 131 goals, 231 assists, 362 points (50.7 percent of team's point production)
Chicago Blackhawks Player Usage Chart via ExtraSkater.com*:
*Circle size represents time on ice, shade of circle represents possession (5v5 Corsi For percentage -- total shot attempts for relative to total shot attempts against). Blue represents CF percentage of 50 or better. The darker the shade, the better the possession numbers.
About the Core
Jonathan Toews: A consensus top-five player in the NHL, Toews is widely considered one of the best two-way centers in the game today. He's also been lauded for his leadership skills, having served as Chicago's captain since he was 20 years old and leading his team to two Stanley Cups by age 25. He has 440 points in 484 career games, a Conn Smythe and Selke Trophy to his name and two Olympic gold medals to go with his two Stanley Cups have made Toews one of the most successful players in hockey. With he and Patrick Kane signing identical long-term contracts that will give them the highest cap hit ($10.5 million) in the salary cap era starting next season, Toews still has a lot to do in the game. It's no coincidence that the Blackhawks franchise turned around quickly after the arrival of Toews and Kane. How he was acquired: 2006 NHL Entry Draft, first round, third overall
Patrick Kane: The superskilled winger has become one of the league's most popular and most marketable players over the last seven seasons in Chicago. He burst onto the scene with 72 points as a rookie, winning the Calder Trophy, and has been lighting up scoreboards ever since. Kane has 493 points in 515 games over his career and is on pace to become one of the highest-scoring Americans in the history of the NHL. Kane won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP for the Blackhawks' 2013 run to the Stanley Cup and scored the Cup-clincher in 2010. The 25-year-old was a point-per-game player in an injury-shortened 2013-14 season and had 20 points in the playoffs, showing he may just be warming up. Maturity concerns plagued Kane early in his career, with good reason, but those have subsided over the last two years. With Kane and Toews locked down to long-term contracts, the two faces of the franchise should keep the Blackhawks trending up as one of the league's most popular and successful teams after years of just the opposite. How he was acquired: 2007 NHL Entry Draft, first round, first overall
Duncan Keith: A two-time Norris Trophy winner, Keith has been the Blackhawks cornerstone defenseman for nine years. His productivity offensively sometimes overshadows his terrific defensive ability, highlighted by his speed and defensive stick. He went through some of the leaner years in Blackhawks history, but is as much responsible for the club's revival as anyone else. In 686 games, he has 370 points, including two campaigns of 60 or more points (both of which he won the Norris after). Last season, Keith posted 55 assists and 61 points. Keith has averaged over 25:17 per game in his career, almost always leading the Blackhawks in ice time as the team's most reliable workhorse. He is under contract into his 40s, so it's likely Keith will remain a Blackhawk for the entirety of his career. How he was acquired: 2002 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 54th overall
Marian Hossa: The Chicago Blackhawks were trending in the right direction, but it wasn't until Hossa signed as a free agent ahead of the 2009-10 season that the club became the juggernaut it is today. Possibly the most important free agent signing in the history of the franchise, Hossa has put up 276 points in 315 games with the club and was a key piece to both Stanley Cup runs. Though Hossa is starting to get up there in years, he remains one of the finest two-way wings in the NHL. Last season, at age 35, Hossa put up his first 30-goal season in five years with the team. The Blackhawks are Hossa's fifth team in the league and while he doesn't produce like he did early in his career, he is still a high-impact player. It is unclear how long Hossa will be this effective as he'll be 42 when his contract expires, but it doesn't appear the vet is going to slow down any time soon. He needs just five points to eclipse 1,000 for his career. How he was acquired: Signed as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2009
Niklas Hjalmarsson: This might be a bit of a controversial choice over the popular Brent Seabrook, but if last season is any indication, Hjalmarsson is highly valued by the organization and plays one of the more important roles on the squad. Though Keith won the Norris Trophy last season, it was Hjalmarsson eating the bulk of the toughest defensive minutes and mostly excelling in them. Though the Swedish rearguard may be on the second pairing, he saw a lot of matchups against top competition and saw far more shifts start in the defensive zone than the top pairing. There's a reason the Blackhawks didn't blink when the San Jose Sharks signed Hjalmarsson to an offer sheet in 2010. Even then it was clear that Hjalmarsson was going to be a big part of the Blackhawks' future plans. His five-year, $20.5 million extension with the team will kick in this year. Given the role Hjalmarsson plays and his success in that role, he's a big part of what is happening in Chicago. How he was acquired: 2005 NHL Entry Draft, fourth round, 108th overall
Patrick Sharp: After leading the Blackhawks in scoring last season with a career-best 78 points including 34 goals, Sharp reasserted himself as an important piece of Chicago's lineup. He has been one of the team's most reliable goal scorers over the years, touching 30-plus goals four times for the club. Over his career with the team, Sharp has 468 points in 611 games and has helped the team build one of the best top-six forward groups in the league (and that's even with the black hole that has been the team's No. 2 center position). That hasn't protected Sharp from being the subject of trade rumors more recently, however. With three years left on his deal at a cap hit of nearly $6 million, he might be the kind of guy the team decides to move as younger players look ready to jump into that role (SEE: Brandon Saad). The fan-favorite shouldn't be going anywhere next season, but once the Toews and Kane extensions kick in, all eyes will turn to Sharp again and the rumors may have merit then. That said, he remains an important part of the team and will be as long as he is under contract with the squad. How he was acquired: Traded from the Philadelphia Flyers with Eric Meloche for Matt Ellison and a third-round draft pick on December 5, 2005.
Corey Crawford: This is one of those core additions to this list that is triggered more by the long-term deal he received from the team than it is subjective opinion. The Blackhawks hitched their wagons to Crawford on a six-year, $36 million extension after the team won the Stanley Cup in 2013. Then 28, Crawford was coming off a career year and was excellent during the Cup run. Last season, he fell back to earth a bit with a .917 save percentage in 59 appearances and a .912 mark in the postseason. That was all before the new deal kicked in. It starts this year, and it's that deal, perhaps moreso than the Kane and Toews extensions that could hamper the salary cap movement of the Blackhawks. Though the goaltending market is completely different from the rest of the league, the $6 million per year was an aggressive decision on a goalie who has had essentially one good year. Over his career with the Blackhawks, Crawford has put up a .914 save percentage in 211 appearances and owns a 2.36 goals-against average. With a team as deep as the Blackhawks, it's surprising that their slightly-above-league-average goaltender will be the third-highest paid player on the team next year. With what the Blackhawks are paying him, Crawford will need a bounceback year to help justify the weighty contract and his inclusion in the team's core group. How he was acquired: 2003 NHL Entry Draft, second round, 52nd overall
Who's next in line
As the core listed above would indicate, the Blackhawks have had great success by building from within. The team has drafted well, particularly in the later rounds and has been rewarded with a young group that could provide a second wave of talent.
That charge is being led by Brandon Saad, currently. The second-year pro has 74 points in 126 games so far and showed great improvement last season from his rookie year. Saad put up 47 points in 78 games last year including 19 goals. The team has been able to move him throughout the lineup quite a bit and the results were usually pretty good for whoever was playing with Saad.
During the playoffs, the team experimented (successfully) with Kane and Saad with Andrew Shaw. That trio played with speed and gave opponents fits. Could that be a combination next year? Joel Qunneville might have to consider it, even with the addition of Brad Richards.
Shaw could also be looked at as a future core player after posting his first 20 goal season last year. Though he plays more of an abrasive role, Shaw has speed and some quality skill. The grinders don't often get core status, but Shaw showed that there may be a little more to his game last season.
The same goes for defenseman Nick Leddy, who has shown improvement over his four years in the league. The gifted puck mover has seen his responsibilities on the team fluctuate over time, but he is only 23 years old and has shown strong puck-moving capabilities, which are at a premium in today's NHL.
The Blackhawks also have a few players in the pipeline who could be looked to as a key part of their future, not the least of which being former first-round pick Teuvo Teravainen who arrived in North America last year to great fanfare after a successful run in the Finnish pro leagues. Where he fits in next season remains to be seen, but it shouldn't be too long before Chicago starts counting on this highly-skilled forward.
The Blackhawks have developed a tremendous core. With five of the seven players acquired through the draft, Chicago has made the most of their picks. They got the can't miss guys at the top of the draft in Kane and Toews, which turned out to be the two players that helped change the course of the franchise. They also got mid-round steals in Keith and Hjalmarsson.
That has allowed them to gradually add to the team over time. In the Stan Bowman era, free agents have been added only to supplement the talent they already had. In the case of Hossa, which was the last big move of the Dale Tallon regime, the Blackhawks added a missing piece, but one that was going to help them over a long period of time. That one has paid off in spades.
What makes this core particularly interesting is that the Blackhawks have had to rebuild around it twice. After the 2010 Stanley Cup, the team had to be dismantled to stay cap compliant. Thanks to the established core led by Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson at that time, it only took three years to build back up into a Cup contender.
Now the team will face big decisions after signing Toews and Kane to long-term extensions. Their organizational depth may be tested a bit as the Blackhawks will have to fill the bottom of the lineup with cheaper alternatives to established veterans who are due more money. It's going to take some maneuvering, but it's worth rearranging if you can keep your two franchise stars for the long term.
Considering the core is as strong as it is without including players like Brent Seabrook and Brandon Saad, it says a lot about what the Blackhawks have built.
With only two years remaining on his contract, what happens with Seabrook next is cloudy. That's the biggest reason for leaving him off at this point. There's no question he's been a huge part of the organization and will continue to be at least for what's left on his contract. But the term remaining on his deal also makes him a bit easier to move as well, should the team seek some restructuring after this season to stay cap compliant. One of those bigger contracts is probably going to have to mvoe.
That said, with the uncertainty of how the salary cap will rise over the next few seasons, Chicago may not be in as big of a bind as it seems they could be now.
With the addition of Brad Richards to fill the No. 2 center hole this year, the Blackhawks are loaded up for another Stanley Cup run in 2014-15. What happens beyond that is going to be interesting, but considering how the last seven or so years have gone for the franchise, there's reason to believe they'll be able to maintain competitiveness for years to come thanks to key players being locked up on long-term deals and a prospect pool that has allowed the club to restock the bottom of the lineup more affordably.
It's this structure that has made the Blackhawks one of the model franchises of the NHL.