CHICAGO — When Rocky Wirtz took over the Chicago Blackhawks six years ago, they were among the worst teams in the NHL.
Fast forward to Tuesday, when the owner mingled with fans and friends hours after the Blackhawks flew home with the Stanley Cup for the second time in four seasons. It's been quite the turnaround, and the 60-year-old Wirtz thinks there is more to come.
"I think we're going to see a lot of good years ahead of us," he said.
It sure looks that way.
Unlike in 2010, when the title-winning team underwent changes because of salary-cap issues, the Blackhawks will be able to bring back many of their top players next season when they try to become the first repeat Stanley Cup winner since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998.
Forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are all under contract for at least two more seasons. Brandon Saad, one of the finalists for the Calder Trophy given to the NHL's top rookie, is years away from restricted free agency.
"I think there's something about our core," said Kane, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. "Hopefully we can stay together a long time, because that's two Cups in four years, and we seem to only be getting better and better as players as time goes on here."
The Blackhawks lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, but general manager Stan Bowman decided to stay the course.
He kept Joel Quenneville in place even though the coach was hired by his predecessor, Dale Tallon. Corey Crawford was given time to develop in goal, and he rewarded the organization's patience with a terrific performance in this year's playoffs. Kane matured into one of the NHL's top players.
Ask Wirtz and team president John McDonough about the Blackhawks' turnaround, and their response often includes some variation of hire the right people and then stay out of the way. The steady leadership in the front office is one of the reasons Chicago is the first franchise with two titles since the NHL instituted a salary cap in 2005.
"I think Stan Bowman and Al MacIsaac and Norm Maciver and everybody in our hockey operations, they do a meticulous job," McDonough said, "and they've been planning for this offseason as we did before for months and months, so we'll be ready for it.
"We're going to do everything we can and try to keep as many of these guys as we can and just keep this rolling."
But with the salary cap dropping to $64.3 million next season, it's going to be next to impossible for the Blackhawks to bring everyone back.
According to CapGeek.com, forwards Bryan Bickell, Michal Handzus, Viktor Stalberg and Jamal Mayers, defenseman Michal Rozsival and goalie Ray Emery are eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Bickell is likely headed for a big pay day that would put him out of Chicago's reach unless it decides to shed salary to make room for the physical winger. The 6-foot-4 Bickell had nine goals and eight assists in the playoffs, including the tying score at the end of the third period in the Blackhawks' title-clinching 3-2 victory at Boston on Monday night.
Stalberg and Emery probably won't be back, as well. Stalberg was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs after he had nine goals and 14 assists in his third season with Chicago. With Crawford's emergence, Emery didn't make a postseason appearance, and the Blackhawks also signed Antti Raanta of Finland in June.
"What you're going to have with a hard salary cap, you have to keep bringing in younger players all the time," Wirtz said. "You can't just go up the free-agent market and buy a team. You have to do it the old-fashioned way and it's developing it."
They certainly made all the right moves this year, when the Blackhawks stormed to the league's best record for the lockout-shortened season. They earned at least one point in the first 24 games, setting an NHL record.