The big question in Chicago this week will not be the ongoing goalie Soap Opera (now starring a new player, unorthodox Finnish import, Antti Niemi).
It won't be the running debate between Hawk fans as to whether 2005 first round pick Jack Skille is the second coming of Bobby Hull or Ken Yaremchuk.
It won't even be rumored minor deals for the likes of Dominic Moore, Nik Antropov or Jeff Halpern.
It WILL be what the team does with winger Martin Havlat.
Havlat's contract is up this year. And as fate would have it, this has been his first truly healthy season in Chicago, a season in which he has also stepped up and proven himself as a truly elite, game-changing NHL hockey player.
Ask any knowledgeable Hawk fan will tell you: the difference in this year's team is not so much Brian Campbell or the continued maturation of many good young players (both of which have helped), but the amazing performance of the 26 year-old Czech winger in all three zones. Playing on the team's THIRD LINE, Havlat generates most of the team's offense, either scoring or setting up plays. He is nearly unstoppable down low, using his moves and hands and surprising strength to basically play keep away from opposing d-men. And playing on a true shut-down line, against other teams' top lines, with a center who loses the majority of his faceoffs (David Bolland), Havlat is +20.
At the beginning of the year, most in Hawk Nation, including the Hawk front office, shrugged and assumed Havlat would take his hockey bag and lengthy injury history elsewhere after this season. But somewhere during his amazing, bounce-back season, everyone realized how important he is to this team. Soon, there was talk from both Havlat and GM Dale Tallon of working out an extension to keep Havlat in Chicago. Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But today, March 2, two days ahead of the trade deadline, Havlat remains unsigned. Meanwhile, he continues to dominate literally every game he appears in. And his free agency value continues to climb.
Some Hawk fans foolishly assume Havlat will give the team a hometown discount in the off-season to return to this great, young team, paving the way for big paydays down the road for Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
First off, why should he? Though Kane and Toews are the darlings of Chicago and the Hawk marketing department, Havlat is clearly Toews' equal on the ice and superior to Kane. Hockey is a business. Havlat and his agent know as well as anyone that injuries end careers and livelihoods very quickly.
To think that no NHL team will bid big money for a player as dynamic, well-rounded and impactful as Havlat, injury history or not, is crazy.
And let me throw another scenario out at you. The one team the Hawks must arguably overcome in the next couple of years to achieve the Stanley Cup are their arch-rival Detroit Red Wings. If the Red Wings lose Marian Hossa in free agency (a real possibility) and Havlat is out there, you can bet dollars to donuts, they will go after Havlat hard. Ken Holland might even see Havlat as an upgrade over Hossa. Sorry, when you look at this year, that's an easy argument to make and win.
This scenario not only ensures the Hawks will be a significantly weaker team next year (as no possible replacement for Havlat currently exists on, or perhaps off, the roster), but makes a critical rival much stronger.
There is a school of thought that the Hawks should just ride the season out with Havlat and Nikolai Khabibulin (another very likely free agency casualty, Khabibulin is injured therefore much harder to deal), and go as far as they can in the playoffs. Yet, again, most knowledgeable, head-over-heart Hawk fans know this is a pipe dream.
This team is good, young and much improved, but, barring a pre-deadline major addition of proven talent such as Chris Pronger and/or a veteran center, lacks the consistency and physicality to even make it past the second round.
That's just a fact.
So in spite of all the hysteria among Hawk fans, especially season ticket holders dying to see playoff games, Dale Tallon is faced with a difficult, yet clear choice: sign Havlat to an extension before March 4, or deal him to the highest bidder, getting as much return as possible.
Tallon is more than smart enough to see this. As certainly is Scotty Bowman. WHich is whythey started talking extension with havlat a few weeks back. And that said, a contract extension, or a Marty Havlat to Pittsburgh, Montreal, Boston or New Jersey deal might yet happen in the next couple of days.
But if it doesn't, if the Hawks stand pat or just go for some minor deal involving a prospect or two for Nik Antropov or Dominic Moore, it tells us all something very disconcerting about the Blackhawk organization going forward.
In the past, under Bob Pulford and the late Bill Wirtz, the Hawks were poisoned by organizational infighting and small thinking. Faction fought faction. The front office was full of competing executives and titles. Short-term marketing (ticket sales) always won out over the on-ice product and building a team long term.
In these giddy days of Kaner, Tazer and a fourth playoff seed, the question must be
asked . . . is it happening all over again? Is Rocky Wirtz unwittingly lapsing into a new generation Bill Wirtz management-style: Organizational Chaos, that maintains a certain non-threatening status quo?
That's probably very alarmist. But the road to hell is also paved with good intentions. Look at all the hockey minds added to the Hawk staff ove the last few years: Rick Dudley, Dale Tallon, Scotty Bowman, Al MacIsaac, all with vague "Directorial" titles related to hockey. Who's in charge? Bowman? Tallon?
Or is it marketing director John McDonough, who has energized the fan base through a series of smart promotional/marketing moves (thus certainly earning a lot of juice with Rocky Wirtz). Strangely, Wirtz allowed McDonough to anoint MacIsaac as his personal hockey "proxy", a very, very curious mid-season move.
Does anyone think McDonough wants the Marketing Love Train potentially derailed by a pre-playoff trade of arguably the team's best player? I doubt it. McDonough came to the hawks from the Cubs, where as Team President, he okayed the gross overpayment of free agent dollars to Alfonso Soriano (something much more forgivable in un-capped baseball than in the NHL). Leading one to believe McDonough believes free agency can solve all of a team's ills. Perhaps even the exit of Marty Havlat.
But does anyone think Hawk fans will be as thrilled to find their "great young team" on the bubble at this point next season, and perhaps out of the playoffs again, because their best player left for free agency, with no compensation?
Even if keeping Havlat perhaps helped them make the second round of this year's playoffs, versus a first round exit (a distinction that will quickly be forgotten as summer fades to fall)?
No, the fans will be very angry. And they'll naturally blame Dale Tallon. Which is silly, since there are so many other "Directors" on the stage right now, it's ridiculous.
The real question is, are the Hawks organizationally gridlocked again? Will they quickly fall back into their old ways of day-late, dollar-short waves at competitiveness (which trading for Halpern or Moore would be)? Or are they looking at a realistic run at the Cup next year and each year for the next decade or so?
Are they really focused on, ironically enough, their McDonough-inspired marketing slogan, One Goal?
Because if One Goal is just a clever come on to sell tickets, and not the Stanley Cup, please stop wasting our time. It's been 48 years.