CHICAGO - Looking to the future, the surging Chicago Blackhawks signed three of their top players - Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith - to lucrative contract extensions Thursday.
Kane and Toews, both 21, signed five-year deals worth US$31.5 million each. Keith, a defenceman, got a 13-year contract worth $72 million, making it the richest in team history and surpassing the 12-year, $62.8 million given to Marian Hossa in the off-season.
"We are a close group of guys and there's no individual player who is bigger than the team," Keith said. "I would certainly rather have these two guys up here at the same time, as well, and take a little of the spotlight off. I don't mind that at all."
The 26-year-old Keith is in his fifth season with the Blackhawks and is known for his durability and speed. He leads the team in average ice time at 26:44 and has five goals and 18 assists to go with a plus-nine rating.
Kane, the first pick overall in the 2007 draft, leads the team with 26 points - nine goals and 17 assists. And Toews, the team captain and the Blackhawks' first-round choice (third overall) in 2006, has six goals and 10 assists. He missed six games this season with concussion-like symptoms after taking a hard hit from Vancouver's Willie Mitchell on Oct. 21.
Asked how much pressure the new deals would bring, Kane acknowledged there would be some but it wouldn't affect play.
"You don't think about that stuff when you are on the ice. You are trying to play for the love of the game and for your team," he said. "Obviously there is pressure, but with that comes responsibility. We know we have to pick it up."
Kane and Toews not only are two stars on the ice, but they are the young faces of the organization and the focus of the team's massive marketing campaign. Chicago made it to the Western Conference finals last season and currently leads the Central Division with a 17-6-3 record.
"To me it's not about the business side and all of that stuff. I'm just happy to know that I'll be part of the organization for a while longer and hopefully much longer after that," Toews said.
General manager Stan Bowman said the lucrative contracts would not affect the salary cap situation this season because the deals kick in for 2010-11. But he acknowledged that Chicago could have a busy summer perhaps juggling its roster and payroll after committing so much money to the future.
"There will be changes between this year and next year but there are every year," Bowman said.
He said the deals have been in the works for a while and that the team consulted with the NHL to make sure all three contracts conformed to regulations. And he stressed that the negotiations with Kane and Toews, who have the same agent and are both currently in their third seasons, were done separately.
"We tend to package them together because it's been Toews and Kane, Kane and Toews since they came in together," Bowman said. "They are individual players and they were treated as such."
Kane said the unique situation of having all three players sign at the same time was important.
"I worked hard my whole life since I was a little kid to get up to this day, so I feel it is well deserved," Kane said.
"I don't remember two guys that signed at the same time, let alone three. For all of us it would have been kind of weird walking around the dressing room if you had signed and the other two guys had not or if two of you were signed and the other wasn't. I think it's even more special."
Teammate Patrick Sharp said it was no surprise the Blackhawks zeroed in three of their top players who help form the Blackhawks' core.
"They are three important players to the team and the organization. It's tough to say a player is deserving of that much money, but in hockey terms they are as deserving as anybody else," Sharp said.
The length of Keith's contract was startling.
"It is quite a deal. ...He's earned it," said Brent Seabrook, Keith's good friend and fellow defenceman. "He's a special player. He's quick, he's fast, he's dynamic with the puck, he can make plays and he reads the rush well. ...He isn't afraid of anybody."