Monday, June 15, 2015

The Reign of a Dynasty

Sports fans are often concerned with perception, bot contemporaneous perception and historical perception of any given team. Pub and talk radio discussions often center on discussions about historical greatness, namely the term "dynasty". The older definition of a sporting dynasty was three consecutive championships in any given sport, and in the past dynasties were not only common, but almost expected. Every sport has had it's dynasties, but as money has been pumped into the game and the playing field has been artificially leveled, sports fans have to re-define what a dynasty is in the modern game.

Such is the discussion now centered around the Chicago Blackhawks, Are their three Stanley Cup victories in six seasons a dynasty, a modern equivalent, or an insult to the term? The context of the Blackhawks greatness lies in the constraints of their time; namely an increasingly restrictive salary cap that has prevented them from keeping Cup winning teams together. After their 2010 triumph, out went Brian Campbell, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Antti Niemi, and in came two consecutive first round exits as they rebuilt. By their second cup in four seasons, in came new faces like Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Michael Frolik, etc., and the Hawks came out on top again. The core of Kane, Toews, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Hossa, Sharp, Seabrook, et al stayed intact. 

Now as they are crowned champions for a third time in six seasons, they once again face a cap crunch that will see many faces depart for pastures new by force, not by choice. But with the core that they've kept together despite the cap ceiling rapidly approaching them, they've been as dominant a team as hockey may ever see in the salary cap era. The Los Angeles Kings, one of the few teams to find a way to beat the Hawks in this run, missed the postseason after two cup wins in three seasons, and the Rangers nearly became the first teams since 2008-09 to make the Final in back-to-back seasons, but they were foiled by the up-and-comers from Tampa Bay.

Maintaining a playoff team in the cap era is not as difficult as it seems, even though turnover is part of the game every season. Maintaining a consistent cup contender is incredibly difficult. The Blackhawks have found this out, so have the Bruins, so will the Kings. Team construction has been changing and become as malleable as ever even as the styles and systems individual teams play have become more and more homogenized, which makes Chicago's consistent reloading of complementary pieces almost unheard of in the modern era of hockey. They've won with the same coach too. The Red Wings won their Cups with different coaches, so did the Devils. 

Nick Leddy's move to the Islanders was a precursor of moves to come this offseason as the cap barely climbs and the salary burdens of Toews and Kane increase rapidly. The Blackhawks have made five Conference Final appearances in seven years, which is the best appearance rate since the Avalanche made seven straight from 1996-2002, and they only won two titles in that period. Even the Devils from 1995 to 2003 had early round exits and even missed the playoffs one year despite winning three titles in nine years. 

With the brilliant managing of Stan Bowman, it's entirely conceivable that the Blackhawks are back in a similar position next season, making their claims to dynastic status even stronger. But regardless of what the new look Hawks do in the future, what they've done in the last seven years can qualify as a dynasty, since it's entirely possible no one tops it any time soon.

Winning back-to-back championships is almost nigh-on impossible in modern sports considering the artificial parity enforced by salary caps, luxury taxes, consistent player movement, advanced scouting methods and rapidly rising player salaries. Hockey is a team sport where every player has a role to play and an important one at that, which is why the bloodletting that took place after the 2010 championship meant two "lean" years for Chicago. Maybe more will come as the Western Conference adds a generational talent to its ranks, but that is rendered irrelevant at this very moment, when the hockey world is celebrating a great, maybe historic champion.

The old definition of dynasty is as antiquated as where the term originated from, but by the changing definition of the term, these Blackhawks are a dynasty. What came before them and what will come after is not relevant now.

Winning consistently, as the LA Kings have found out, is incredibly difficult. The Blackhawks have made it look easy for all of these years. For that, they should be awarded the crown. 

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