The NHL trade deadline was just days away when everything changed for the Chicago Blackhawks. Patrick Kane broke his left collarbone in a win over Florida, and general manager Stan Bowman had to make some difficult choices in a hurry.
While paying a steep price for help, Bowman bet on his team.
The Blackhawks acquired center Antoine Vermette, defenseman Kimmo Timonen and winger Andrew Desjardins in three separate trades before the deadline, and the quick response to Kane's injury helped Chicago get to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in the past six seasons.
Game 1 is Wednesday night against Tampa Bay, which is aiming for its second NHL title after a series of deft moves by general manager Steve Yzerman helped the Lightning return to the final for the first time since 2004.
"When Patrick went down, he was probably the best player in the league," Bowman said Tuesday. "That was a bit of a blow there, but I think we were able to rally around that. Some other guys stepped up. The players we brought in have all contributed in different ways."
The trades for Vermette and Timonen were particularly costly, and each of the three new players struggled right after they arrived in Chicago. Young defenseman Klas Dahlbeck and the Blackhawks' first-round pick in this year's draft went to Arizona in the Vermette deal, and Bowman parted with two more draft picks to get Timonen from Philadelphia.
But Vermette has stepped up his play in the postseason, scoring the winning goal in Chicago's double-overtime victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against Anaheim. Desjardins, who came over in a deal with San Jose, has teamed with Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw to form a successful fourth line.
Timonen, trying to cap a 16-year NHL career with his first Stanley Cup title, was scratched for the final two games against the Ducks, but he has made 15 appearances in this postseason for Chicago.
"I think when you make moves, you're trying to give yourself depth and options," said Bowman, who became the Blackhawks' GM in 2009. "You never just say, 'We're getting this one player, he's alone going to make the difference.' Things evolve over time, whether it's the player's individual play, team play, injury, happenstance, guys can emerge in different roles.
"All three of the players we have have been important in getting to this point. You can break it down into the nitty-gritty, but certainly I'm happy that we have the depth that we do."
Kane's time on long-term injured reserve provided some wiggle room with the salary cap that played a key role in the deadline deals. Then he managed to return for the start of the playoffs, making for an even stronger hand for coach Joel Quenneville than before Kane's injury.
"For me, it's giving Joel options," Bowman said. "He's got a great ability to kind of put the right combinations together and make things work. That's what the coaches are so good at."
Yzerman became the general manager of the Lightning in May 2010. Tampa Bay made it to the conference finals the following year, but then missed the playoffs for two straight seasons.
After a sweep by Montreal in the first round a year ago, Yzerman made a couple of important moves that helped set the stage for this year's run.
Fresh off the New York Rangers' run to the final, defenseman Anton Stralman (five years, $22.5 million) and center Brian Boyle (three years, $6 million) signed with the Lightning in free agency. Key forwards Ryan Callahan, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat each got new deals with the club.
While Chicago was trying to make up for the loss of Kane, Yzerman acquired defenseman Braydon Coburn in a deadline trade with the Flyers.
"There's no quick fixes, no real solutions," Yzerman said, describing the route back to playoff success after a couple of lean years for the Lightning. "You kind of just stick with the process. Really trying our best to hang on to your draft picks, try to make good choices, then give them time to develop."
Yzerman is looking to add a Tampa Bay title to his four championships with Detroit. The Hall of Fame center won the Stanley Cup three times during his 22-year playing career with the Red Wings, and then got another ring during his time in Detroit's front office.
While Yzerman was a solid playoff performer with the Red Wings, he knows there isn't much he can do in the postseason as an executive.
"Really after the trade deadline, as a general manager, you make sure you're there for support and help out wherever you can," he said. "Much like a fan or a parent or whatever, it's hard to watch because you really don't have a lot of impact on a day-to-day basis. Stay out of the coaches' and players' way. Again, the emotion of winning and losing, I think it's pretty much similar. I'm 50 years old. I can't live in the past. I enjoy this role."
Cohen reported from Chicago.