Before we wrap up the 2012-13 NHL season, every hockey fan owes a word of thanks to Scot Beckenbaugh.
Beckenbaugh is the federal mediator who helped negotiate an end to the labor dispute that threatened to wipe out the 2012-13 NHL season. If not for his success in bringing the league and the players association toward an agreement, there might not have been a season -- and without a season there wouldn’t have been the splendid post-season pageant that ended Monday with the Chicago Blackhawks’ gritty, six-game triumph over the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.
Thanks, Scot, wherever you are.
The Blackhawks were the class of the league from the fabulous start they launched on Jan. 19 against the Kings at Staples Center until Monday’s frantic finish. The core was the same as on their 2010 Cup-winning team but many of the support players had changed in the interim, by necessity.
A salary-cap squeeze forced the Blackhawks to break up their championship team almost immediately, and it took General Manager Stan Bowman until this season to reassemble the character -- and the characters -- that had been so vital.
“It was tough to replace that depth. It took us some time,” Bowman told The Times in February.
“We've tried to develop some guys from within, and they're a little bit older now and have taken on bigger roles. And we've been able to acquire some other pieces from outside the organization. When you add it all up, I do think we've got that depth that kind of helped propel us to the Cup that year.”
In addition, their payroll is structured better now than it was in 2010, so this could be more than a one-and-done push. They’ll have to figure out a way to keep winger Bryan Bickell, whose playoff feats will make him a very rich young man if he gets to the market as an unrestricted free agent.
“The year that we won the Cup our three best players were also our lowest-paid players,” Bowman said, referring to Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who were on entry-level contracts.
“We knew they were going to jump way up. The same thing with Duncan Keith when he won the Norris Trophy. So those three players were not making much money the year we won the Cup, and that allowed us to have guys like [Dustin] Byfuglien and [Andrew] Ladd and [Kris] Versteeg on our third and fourth lines.
“But we don't have that phenomenon this year. Everybody's signed. There's a few restricted free agents, but we don't have any of our main guys getting $5-million raises.”
Goaltending was supposed to be the Blackhawks’ weakness but Corey Crawford had an MVP-caliber run. Patrick Kane, who won most valuable player honors despite laboring until the last two games of Chicago’s Western Conference final series victory over the Kings, agreed that Crawford was more deserving.
“There are other guys that could have won it,” Kane said. “You look at Crawford, he probably got snubbed a little bit.”
The Bruins were worthy adversaries. They were plucky in rebounding in Game 7 of their first-round series against Toronto, relentlessly physical and solid defensively. Courageous too. Patrice Bergeron, the best two-way forward in the league, played through the pain of a broken rib, torn cartilage and separated shoulder. Defenseman Zdeno Chara, noticeably slowed, did his best despite an injury the team wouldn’t disclose on Monday.
The Blackhawks had their share of bruises. Center Michal Handzus reportedly played despite a broken wrist. Winger Marian Hossa had a back injury that caused numbness in his leg. Toews suffered an apparent head injury in Game 5 and played in Game 6. As tempting as it is to admire him, it’s also irresponsible to glorify what he did because of the potential long-term damage caused by head trauma.
There was no doubting either team’s passion, making the final a fitting end to a compacted and intense season that saw the NHL landscape change a little bit just before realignment changes the look of the league quite a lot.
The Kings got deeper into the playoffs than any defending champion had in a while, and they should be able to keep their core together. The Columbus Blue Jackets, led by regular-season MVP Sergei Bobrovsky, made a playoff run and are on an upswing. The New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators made the playoffs after long absences, and the Maple Leafs gave the Bruins a serious scare in the first round, showing signs of a long-term revival. The Detroit Red Wings, though battered, took Chicago to a seventh game in the second round.
There was much to cheer for this season and much to look forward to next season -- which begins on Sunday with the entry draft. Thanks again, Scot. The pleasure was ours.
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