This is interesting new territory for me, personally. I’ve never before come out of a Blackhawks playoff series loss with any feeling of accomplishment. Usually, there is just emptiness, angst and the early symptoms of summertime boredom, which is certain to be in full throw in mid-July.
All of those feelings are certainly present. However this morning, and even last night immediately following the game, I could not fight off the tiniest feeling of achievement; just a meager kernel of optimism in my gut that failed to completely give way to the usual doldrums of defeat.
If there was ever a good way to lose a playoff series (and I’m not saying that there is, but IF), that was it. There’s no such thing as a good loss, but last night (and the series, collectively) is as about as close as it can come. I think the man-sized effort of the Blackhawks speaks well for this group of players in the seasons to come, and that just maybe, this group is not as far from another championship as we (and a lot of out of towners) previously thought.
This series, and every-post season series in which the ‘Hawks are involved for that matter, is an absolute, nerve-rattling delight to consume. The NHL might be the reason I am forced to go on blood pressure medication before the age of 35, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And before I continue, I must clench my teeth and offer sincere congratulations to Canucks fans. There isn’t a Chicagoan out there who does not understand your pain and frustration, and conjunctively, doesn’t understand just how good it feels to exorcise those demons. Kudos to you, and good luck in the coming series. I must be honest, I will be rooting against the Canucks every step of the way, but please take no offense. I’ve been set in my ways for so long, I can’t see them changing now. I just hope that your team does not end up facing the Capitals in the SCF’s. Then I will really have a real conundrum on my hands. But all wise-ass-ities aside, congrats.
Now, on to tie up a couple of loose ends, and look at what 2011-12 might hold for your Chicago Blackhawks.
Captain Serious or Captain Sensational?
Jonathan Toews is a man. I mean, he is a MAN. He puts the rest of we alleged men to shame.
If there were any remaining doubters of Toews’ ability and drive, they were set straight last night at the 18:04 mark in the third. While he and Canuck centerman Ryan Kesler largely offset each other for the majority of the series (both finished with four points in the seven games), Toews came up huge when it mattered most, shoveling a short-handed tally past Luongo from his knees, forcing overtime in a game that had been dominated by the Canucks for the majority of the sixty minutes.
Despite the losing effort, that goal was as epic as anything Toews has accomplished in Chicago to date. The Chicago captain’s work ethic and hatred for losing are often talked about, and often OVER-talked about to the point of a cliché. But that goal last night was as big of a moment as any for the twenty-two-year-old, and it is my hope that it is a springboard moment not only for Toews, but for the rest of the team in his wake.
I have been up and down on Corey Crawford all season long. While he’s looked dominant in some games, he’s struggled with some soft goals and rebound control in others. And, truth be told, I’m still not 100% sold that he WILL be the game-stealing goaltender that the ‘Hawks need for another Stanley Cup run. But, after last night, I am sold that he CAN be that guy.
Even in a losing effort, Crawford was dazzling last night, and for my money, out-played the sixty-four-million-dollar man at the opposite end of the ice. Just some ridiculous, stand-on-your-head, (enter other goalie cliché here) saves against a team who had nothing if not numerous quality scoring chances. He almost ended up stealing one last night, and here’s hoping he gets that plenty more chances to do so in Chicago.
Next Year: The Outlook
Okay, ‘Hawks fans, prognosticators, and red-faced meatballs alike… Big deep breath, and let’s dive in.
While this coming off season may not be as excruciating as last year’s summer bloodletting, it will not be without its woes. Starting under the blanket assumption that all players currently on the active roster and under contract at season’s end (i.e. not restricted or unrestricted free agents come June/July) are on the roster next season, the team has just over $51 million committed to 14 players, none of which are goaltenders. We obviously do not know what the cap will be, although I have read tentative reports that we could expect a 4.7% increase, which would put the hard number right around $62.2 million. For the sake of argument, I’m going to use this number as a basis, as it’s been reported by some pretty valid news outlets, namely NBC sports.
This leaves the ‘Hawks with just over $11 million to fill out the other six to nine roster spots. It is not the most uncomfortable of situations, but one would hope that there are some efforts made to improve the roster, rather than just filling it. While this past playoff series was a growth spurt in some respects, I’m not sold that this roster is championship material by replacing the current lower line players with prospects or other bargain-bin vets. I could very well be wrong here, but it’s just the way I see it.
Of the upcoming free agents, the most notable are Corey Crawford, Michael Frolik, Troy Brouwer, Viktor Stalberg, Chris Campoli, and Tomas Kopecky. A case can be made for each and every one of these players to return, and I would not likely argue against any of them individually. However, collectively, it is a different story, and it’s unlikely that all of these players will return. Priorities need to be set, and hard decisions will have to be made. If I were in charge (hey, a guy can dream, right?), here is how I would view the pecking order of these upcoming RFA’s and UFA’S…
#1) Corey Crawford
I do not think that the Blackhawks have any other choice but to re-sign Crow, unless some kind of blockbuster trade can happen which brings another top-tier goalie into town. He has proven himself worthy as the netminder of the present and future. At 26, he should have several solid years left in him, provided that he can maintain and improve upon his performance this season. And realistically speaking, the ‘Hawks do not have many other options. They don’t have the cap space to pursue a top free agent, and the pool of moderately-priced UFA’s looks fairly mediocre. I’m certain that Marty Turco will be moving along to greener pastures, which is just as well, as I do not see him as an adequate option in net across a full season at this point. The only looming danger with Crawford is if another team wants to sneak in and give him an offer. It’s definitely an outside chance at best, but stranger things have happened.
Conjunctively, the Blackhawks will very likely re-sign RFA goalie Alexander Salak, currently playing in the Swedish Elite League. If you recall, Salak was part of the Frolik deal with Florida, and had the locals in South Beach scowling about the deal. There are some rumblings that Salak might be even better than Crawford. Time will tell.
#2) Michael Frolik
I think that Stan Bowman found a real gem in Frolik, a former first-round pick with top-six skills (he scored 20+ goals in his first two NHL seasons with the Panthers), buried in the rebuilding-era wasteland of the Florida Panthers organization. Considering what the ‘Hawks gave up (Jack Skille and Hugh Jessiman), and also throwing in the added bonus of picking up Salak, I still think this trade was an absolute steal for the ‘Hawks.
I think Frolik’s biggest benefit to the Chicago is his flexibility. He has the ability and skills to play a top six role (and can even play center in a pinch, although not ideally), and is also effective in a shut-down role playing alongside Dave Bolland (See games 4-7 of this past series) . It is this mix of skill, upside, and flexibility that makes him a must-sign here, provided his price tag is relatively reasonable – which I am hoping that it will be.
#3.) Viktor Stalberg
Here’s where things get dicey, and I know that I will get some pushback. How is Troy Brouwer not higher on your list, you might ask? More on that later. For now, I would like to discuss the Big Swede.
For those of you who watched every (or at least most) of the ‘Hawks games this season, you certainly noticed the growth and evolution of Viktor Stalberg. At the season’s beginning, he was nothing beyond a raw speed demon with stone hands and a nasty shot that showed up as frequently as Halley’s Comet. But as the season progressed (and as he embraced his role on the lower lines), something started to change. He started to use his size and strength to his advantage in the cycle game, and started to win board battles and control the puck in traffic. He started to back check, and become a real problem for the opposition’s transition game in the neutral zone. In short, this season, Viktor Stalberg became a hockey player. While he is not perfect, I have a sneaking suspicion that if he spends a full year in the top six (maybe with Kane and Toews), he is in for a very productive season. And for the money that he will likely cost (I’m guessing $1-1.5 million), I think that he is worth at least another look in the Indianhead crested sweater.
#4.) Tomas Kopecky
Again, where’s Troy Brouwer? I know, I know. I’ll get to it.
Kopecky is another guy who has tremendous versatility. While an ideal third-liner, he has adequate puck handling and offensive skills to fill in within the top six when necessary, and can play a front-of-the-net role on the powerplay. Ultimately what I like about this guy is work ethic. He’s not the most talented guy out there – although he can show some flashes - but you’re going to get every bit of gas in his tank every night, regardless of where you put him in the lineup. Guys like that win you championships, even if you don’t notice them all the time.
The main reason here, why I have Kopecky here (and to be honest, I still waiver a bit on whether I should rank him over Stalberg), is his price tag. It’s very likely that he will sign a deal somewhere around $1 million, and I view that as a maximum return on investment.
#5.) Troy Brouwer
Okay, here we go. Time for me to explain myself.
I like Troy Brouwer as a Blackhawk. I like him a lot. He’s another effort guy, who plays where he’s told and provides adequate performance in a variety of roles. He’s also a big body on a team that lacks big bodies, or at least big bodies who are willing to hit on a consistent basis (Looking at you, Bryan Bickell). He can play in the top six (22 goals last year, most of them with Kane and Toews), can punish opposing defensemen in the corners, and can even hold his own when dropping the gloves.
So what’s the problem?
For me, it’s a matter of Brouwer’s lack of true identity, and his corresponding price tag. I mentioned this on the HB boards before, but I view Brouwer as an enigma of sorts. He’s not a true top-six power forward, nor is he a true lower-line grinder. He’s some of each, but not enough of either. It’s kind of a round-peg-in-a-square hole issue. Where is his ideal spot? And thus, is he worth the money?
I think that somebody will offer Brouwer around $2 million this off-season, whether it be the ‘Hawks or someone else sneaking in. I’m just not sure that he’s truly worth that kind of money to Chicago in another tight cap year, especially if the ‘Hawks are going to bounce him around. If they want him as a fixture in the top six, fine, I can handle $2 million. If they want to put him on the third or fourth line, or just float him around to see if something sticks, then no thank you. Free up that money and find a higher quality of third or fourth-line player than Fernando Pisani, please.
#6.) Chris Campoli
There’s a caveat to this – and it’s Brian Campbell. I’m ranking Campoli here under the assumption that Brian Campbell is a Blackhawk come this October . If not, then Campoli’s stock rises. To me, he is a bit of a poor man’s Campbell, only with more edge to his game. I like him a great deal as a player despite his current goat status in Chicago after that bad turnover to Burrows in overtime last night.
If Campoli is willing to sign a deal at or around his current contract, then it is definitely worth considering, but must be gauged upon the comparably-priced resources available in free agency. A player of his quality is a fairly good deal at around $1.5 million. However, the team already has a plethora of puck-moving defensemen, and could use a bit more grit and grime on the blue line, particularly in the third pairing.
Next Year – Brian Campbell and Patrick Sharp
A lot has been made of these two, and the likelihood that they will be back for this fall’s campaign. It is an interesting discussion , and one that I can’t hope to analyze completely in this single blog.
It’s no secret that Campbell’s contract is an albatross. Although he is a very good #3 defenseman, he is certainly not worth the crippling $7 million cap hit, which is hampering the roster in other areas. And again, I do not dispute that signing him to this deal was the right thing to do at the time. The team needed to make a splash, and it paid off by way of a Stanley Cup. Well worth the price of admission, I’d say.
However, the situation is now a bit different. While some will argue that other players’ high contracts are equally hampering, the return on investment is the real problem. If Campbell were still 45 or 50 point defenseman and a dynamic powerplay quarterback, I’d say fine. But that’s just not the player he is any more.
If I were Stan Bowman, I would do nearly everything in my power to move Campbell come June or July. Other than re-signing Crawford, that would be my absolute top priority. There are a lot of road blocks, however. If Campbell’s cap hit and length of deal (five more years remaining after this season) weren’t enough, he also has a limited no movement clause that could hamper any potential trade. Finally, the ‘Hawks will likely have to pay their pound of flesh to be rid of the contract, i.e. another valuable piece.
It will be interesting to see if the deal does in fact come down to this other valuable piece. Many think that Patrick Sharp may very well be the price of moving Campbell. Sharp is a 30-goal scorer who can play wing and center, and also flourish on both special teams. At $3.9M, that’s a hell of a deal. I’ve also read others’ discussions on the possibility of Viktor Stalberg or a package of prospects being attached to Campbell. That would be the preferable scenario, but I think it's a little bit of wishful thinking. I don't think they escape the Campbell cap hit that easily.
If Sharp is moved, whether with Campbell or in a separate deal, it will be a hard pill to swallow. I’ve found his value to be generally understated to the team, and I don’t think his contributions will be as easy to replace as some others do. Still, if it gets the team closer to a championship, then bold moves must be made, even if they sting. Many point to the fact that the ‘Hawks will not be able to re-sign Sharp after this year anyway, which may be true. However, I would not throw out the possibility that Sharpie might consider a discounted deal if it meant retiring a Blackhawk. He just seems like that kind of guy, but then again, I could be wrong.
Next Year - A Center?
It was no secret that the Blackhawks were very thin at center this season. We saw the likes of Patrick Sharp, Tomas Kopecky, and Michael Frolik seeing action at the position, making it painfully clear that the team needs an upgrade.
How this is to be accomplished is a muddled subject. Do they trade a core piece (Sharp?) for a true second line center? What does free agency look like? (In my opinion, not great considering the circumstances) And what about Dave Bolland?
Although this is a very complex subject, I would like to comment on the final question - I am still not convinced that Dave Bolland cannot be the second line center. His highest value to date has been to shut down the opposition’s top guns, but I have a sneaking suspicion that his offensive output could be substantially higher if he is given top-six minutes on the regular (and if he stays healthy, which is a bit of a question mark). And, under the current cap situation, I think it would be much easier to move Bolland up and find a new third line center (Marty Reasoner, perhaps?) than to try and piece together a second line center with glue and duct tape.
Next Year - The Youngsters
Several newcomers made an impact this season, and there are other potential prospects that could make an impact in 2011-12.
At 20 years old (19 at the beginning of last season), Nick Leddy made quite an impression. While going through typical rookie growing pains and mistakes (one last night on the first goal), I found the kid to be very impressive, and a quick learner. His skating ability may rival that of Campbell, which bodes well for the future. It’s now a matter of his head and his hands catching up to his legs. He will be a fixture on the back end next year, no maybe’s about it.
Ben Smith is another one who I think will be a lock for the 2011-12 roster. This kid just gets it. While he’s not going dazzle with impossible passes or stickhandle his way through three defenders on the way to picturesque goal, he has a gritty athleticism and tenacity that will work in the NHL. I’m not certain if he’s an ideal top-six player or not, but he understands the game and flows with it naturally in all three zones. Barring any major acquisitions, he deserves a roster spot this October.
There has been talk over the last year that Marcus Kruger might be the next Dave Bolland , i.e. a tenacious two way centerman whose forte is the art of disruption. I’ve seen little glimmers of that type of game, and he’s definitely got that scrappy edge to him. He also looked pretty darn good on the ice last night in Vancouver. I’m not completely sold that he is ready for the NHL full-time, and may benefit from a year (or at least half a year) down in Rockford. After all, he’s only been playing the North American game for a couple of months now.
Jeremy Morin is another name that’s been touted on these very boards as the next big thing. Could it be true? Another American-born Jeremy wearing number 27? I think this kid could very well be the real deal, and the left wing on the Kane/Toews line in the future. I’m just not so sure that the future is next year. He hasn’t played a game since December due to an apparent concussion. I’ve even heard some frightening whispers that he might not be ready for hockey come autumn, or maybe even at all. But, assuming that he is ready (knock on wood), I wonder if it might be better to let him spend some time in Rockford again, working off the rust. After all, if the Bowman’s are planning on implementing the Detroit model of success, then they need to start keeping prospects down until they are more than ready.
Wrap It Up, B!
Thanks again to those who stuck around to read my long-winded thoughts. Although less than ideal, it was a fun season, and I enjoyed discussing the ins and outs with you all on the boards. Here’s hoping for a profitable off-season, and another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup next spring.