To find the pillars of Chicago’s Stanley Cup champions, just look at the playoff MVPs for each of the Blackhawk’ three Cups in the past six seasons: center Jonathan Toews (2010), center Patrick Kane (2013) and defenseman Duncan Keith (2015).
In order, that’s the all-around player and leader; the slick something-from-nothing offensive magician; the defenseman who can run the power play, kill penalties, be matched five-on-five against an opposing No. 1 line, jump up into the rush, foil opposing odd-man rushes and play more minutes than Bruce Springsteen.
To answer how many of those pieces the Panthers have, logic says just ask Panthers general manager Dale Tallon, whose role in constructing Chicago’s core as general manager there is well-documented.
“We’ve got a lot of assets that are similar,” Tallon said. “We’re big up the middle, that’s the difference.”
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He’s referring especially to Panthers centers Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov, who go 6-6 and 6-3, respectively. Toews and Kane stand 6-2 and 5-11.
The Panthers took Barkov, who began discovering his offensive game this season, No. 2 overall in the 2013 draft instead of consensus top-ranked North American skater, defenseman Seth Jones. Most teams that bypass a 6-4 defenseman of Jones’ talent don’t get a chance to take a 6-4 defenseman of even more talent the next year, but that’s what the Panthers got when they took Aaron Ekblad with the No. 1 overall pick a year ago.
Ekblad is a finalist, perhaps the favorite, for the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) to be awarded at Wednesday’s NHL Awards show in Las Vegas. Picking up 12 goals and 27 assists in 81 games as a rookie defenseman raises eyebrows, even for a No. 1 overall pick. The eyeball-exploding statistic: a team-high, plus-12 plus/minus rating for a team that scored exactly as many even-strength goals as it allowed (151) and zero shorthanded goals.
Star rookie defensemen come along more rarely than great rookie forwards or goalies. Perhaps the only rarer animal is the star rookie defenseman whose level of play doesn’t descend to a lower floor for the next season or three, sometimes never to rise again.
“You try to change them a little bit and make them more defensive-minded, more sound defensively and then they get to overthinking it and then they sort of dip a little bit and then they bounce back up,” said Tallon, an NHL defenseman for 10 seasons. “It’s the hardest position. It’s the same thing when you see guys that are really having success now; it’s taken them six, seven years before they become top defensemen in the NHL.”
Take Keith, who won his first Norris Trophy (best defenseman) in 2010 after two seasons in the minors and five seasons in the NHL. Montreal’s P.K. Subban, Norris winner in 2013, was in his sixth professional season. In fact, the only exception among Norris winners since the 2004-05 season-killing lockout is Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who was only 21 and in his third professional season when he won in 2012.
Although Tallon gushes about Ekblad and says he thinks Ekblad’s hockey sense should prevent a slide, he named 2012 first-round pick Michael Matheson as more of the Keith parallel. In 38 games for Boston College this year, the 6-2 Matheson scored three goals, picked up 25 assists and had a minus-4 plus/minus rating.
“In the blueprint, that’s the next piece,” he said. “That’s the guy who can skate like Duncan and can play like him.”
Tallon often sites the selection of Toews in the 2006 draft as the turning point for Chicago. Whether the Blackhawks captain personifies their heart or their will, results tell his worth.
Over the past six seasons, Chicago has won three Stanley Cups and lost to the eventual Western Conference champion twice on Game 7 overtime goals. The remaining year, when they became the first team since 1987 to lose a playoff series to the Phoenix franchise, Toews suffered from concussion issues and missed a career-high 23 of 82 games before playing all six playoff games.
“Barkov is the complete player. And he wants it like Jonathan does,” Tallon said. “Nick as well. We’re probably missing — [Jonathan] Huberdeau would be the scoring piece.”
Huberdeau, the Calder Trophy winner two years ago, led the Panthers in scoring with 54 points in 79 games. His puck-handling skill and moves can grant him powers of embarrassment, yet his finishing touch can be lacking as his 38 goals in 196 career games indicates.
Magic runs scarce. So do Stanley Cup-winning cores.