At approximately 3:30 p.m Eastern Time yesterday, the first real pangs of worry hit me like a freight train.
While many fair-weather Hawks fans and career Hawks haters alike have been overreacting to Stan Bowman’s off-season moves in one way or another, I have generally remained calm this summer. To this point, sacrificing second and third-tier scoring and role guys was no reason for me to shake in my skates.
Today might be a different story.
As most of you know, the Hawks’ matching of San Jose’s offer sheet to Niklas Hjalmarsson leaves the team with approximately $5.7M of cap space to sign (or add from their system) nine players, including both the starting and back-up goalie. This of course factors in burying Huet in Rockford or in Europe. Do the quick math, and that divides out to approximately $640K per player. Ouch. Unless a slew of guys agree to low-ball deals, some other moves have to be made. And the common school of thought is that Patrick Sharp will be the cost of moving forward.
Losing Sharp would be a devastating blow the Blackhawks and their chances of a repeat. His combination of veteran leadership and complete hockey talent will not be replaced this season (or likely the next) from anyone within the system, or anyone they can afford to bring in. He is arguably their best two-way player (although I would certainly hear cases for Toews or Hossa), playing pivotal roles on both the powerplay and the penalty kill. Looking at the Hawks roster, he is also the only true candidate to play center on the second line. Bolland is coming along nicely, but I don’t think he’s quite top-six material just yet, especially with his lack of face-off prowess.
Still, Sharp’s $3.9M cap hit could really help the Hawks solve their numbers problem. His value will not be as high as it would have been in June considering the league knows that Chicago is in dire straits. Still, Bowman could find a couple of suitors and pit them against each other to get maximum returns.
As I lay in bed last night wrestling with insomnia, I was plagued with the repetitive question – what was the Blackhawks plan to begin with? I would imagine that keeping Sharp with the team was a top priority, otherwise he would have been dealt much earlier when his value was higher. So how much were the Hawks willing to pay Hjalmarsson before San Jose came into the picture?
I find it hard to believe that the Blackhawks were expecting to pay much less than $3M/year to keep Hjammer on board. This is similar to the contract they gave Cam Barker last summer, and the Swede’s rapid development is what made Barker expendable. While the Barker contract was a Dale Tallon deal, and Tallon had a propensity to bloat his proposals, I would think that fair market value for a 23-year-old, potential top-pair defenseman would be somewhere within that range. So thinking in those terms, a $500K - $700K influx is now costing the Blackhawks one of their best players?
To quote Hawks blogger John Jaeckel, “Pshaw.” There has to be another way.
Possibilities: Moving Campbell
One option that was thrown around late yesterday was moving Brian Campbell. If only it were so easy. Campbell’s deal takes him through 2016, brutally violating the Blackhawks to the tune of a $7.1M annual cap hit. If it couldn’t get any more difficult to move him, he also has a limited no-trade clause, stating that he must submit a list of eight teams he would be willing to be traded to. This contract alone is why I refused – and continue to refuse- to have any sympathy for Dale Tallon after his dismissal last summer. It reminds me of deals I have made in video game franchises when I didn’t plan on playing past the next two seasons.
In order for a team to agree to take Campbell, there have to be a number of factors that fall into place. First and foremost, they must have available cap space. According to CapGeek, that automatically eliminates 13 of the 29 teams just by the raw numbers (barring another team sending back salary, of course) Secondly, a team must be desperate for defense, particularly that of the offensive/puck-moving variety. Thirdly, the Hawks will have to attach something more valuable to justify the cap hit. Now, what could they attach to Campbell to make him more attractive, you might ask? I have a couple of ideas.
The Hawks currently have a decent amount of depth at forward in the system, with players like Kyle Beach, Jeremy Morin, and Philppe Paradis. At this point, I would not be disappointed if they were to attach two of these guys – or one of these guys and a first-round pick – to Campbell in order to entice someone to take him. If I were Stan Bowman, I would even entertain talks that packaged Campbell with Troy Brouwer or newly acquired Viktor Stalberg.
It could be blasphemy to some ears, but hear me out.
Campbell’s current contract is absolutely crippling the team. Freeing up $7.1M of space not only allows the team to keep Sharp, but also makes re-signing Brent Seabrook next season much more likely. Keeping Seabrook and Sharp are far more important to the next 3-5 years of success than Beach, Morin, or even Brouwer and Stalberg. And while I cannot discount what Campbell meant to the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup run, I believe –in my heart of hearts – that he is more easily replaced than Patrick Sharp. The Blackhawks currently have two puck-moving defensemen in the system in Shawn Lalonde and Ivan Vishnevskiy, and the chatter is that they are looking almost NHL ready, particularly Vishnevskiy. I would venture to guess that one of these guys could equal Campbell’s production much quicker than any of the aforementioned forwards could match Patrick Sharp’s contributions.
Possibilities: Shuffling Other Pieces
Okay, to do a radio-style reset, the main issue is that of the Hjalmarrson deal costing the Blackhawks Patrick Sharp, all because of an unexpected cap hit of $500-$700K, depending upon what Bowman and Co. expected to pay the young defenseman.
If $500K-$700K is the problem, there are less drastic ways to free that money up by moving around some of the lower pieces. One easy way to shed a good chunk of that money would be to move-newly acquired veteran center Marty Reasoner. Reasoner is scheduled to make $1.15M, and based upon the current roster would likely only see fourth-line time. It would make more sense to trade Reasoner for a low-level prospect or draft pick, and give the energy-line center duties to youngster Jake Dowell.
Dowell is a physical guy who likes to drop the mitts, and is only scheduled to make $525K this season. In all likelihood, he will make the roster regardless of Reasoner moving or not. If Marty sticks around, expect Dowell to see time at one of the wings. Keeping him at center would make more sense developmentally speaking, as he has shown the potential to be a possible third-line shutdown center in the future. Making this move would require the Hawks to be more active on the free agent market, however, looking for two heavy-hitting forwards with some NHL experience to play on the bottom line for somewhere in the neighborhood of $500-600K each (Note: Bryan Bickell will likely be re-signed for third-line duty, probably somewhere in the $750K range). It would not be easy, but it beats the hell out of giving up Patrick Sharp for nothing.
Some other salary that could be shed is that of the aforementioned Troy Brouwer. Currently slated to make just over $1M, Brouwer is a guy who could bring back something of value to the system. He enjoyed a statistical inflation by playing with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane throughout much of the regular season just as Byfuglien did in the playoffs, which help is overall value. While his stats might be puffed up a bit, he is still an emerging power forward with nice hands, and will continue to excel if placed in the right system. Another reason to move him is that he is entering the final year of his contract, becoming a restricted free agent at season’s end. Seeing as how Salary Cap Hell will likely bleed over into the 2011 off-season, it is unlikely that the Hawks will be able to afford him anyway. I find it hard to believe that a trade next season will bring in anything more valuable to the team than retaining the services of Patrick Sharp.
A couple of other guys who could be moved, but I find these to be less likely (not that I believe there is a high probability of Reasoner or Brouwer moving, mind you) are wingers Tomas Kopecky and Viktor Stalberg, earning $1.2M and $850K this season respectively. Kopecky is a versatile guy who can play a variety of roles. I expect him to start the year somewhere in the top six, likely on the second line if Sharp stays in town. His cap hit makes him a bargain top-six guy, even if he is more energy than talent. Stalberg was the crown jewel of the off-season thus far, and I find it very unlikely that he will be priority to move in a salary-dumping effort. But still, if it comes to Stalberg or Sharp, I’d take Sharp without thinking. (Not that Bowman will necessarily think that way.)
Possibilities: The Goalie Cluster
Where do I even begin? I suppose at the beginning.
First and foremost, re-signing Hjalmarsson means that we fans must wave good-bye to our Stanley Cup-winning goaltender, and will no longer hear Pat Foley’s spirited “Niemi….SAID NO!” quips throughout the 2010-11 campaign. The Halak deal has given Niemi and agent Bill Zito big…ahem….egos… about what the 26-year-old netminder is worth. Something to the tune of $3–3.5M per year, I have been reading.
There is absolutely no way that the Blackhawks will sign Niemi for this cost, and will likely not sign any goaltender for much over $1M under current conditions. I seriously doubt that Niemi will get $3.5 from any team in the NHL. I would guess it would be somewhere in the mid-$2 millions under the current landscape, which is still more that Chicago can afford.
So where does that leave the Blackhawks? Again without making any drastic moves (i.e. Sharp or Campbell), the most they can afford to spend on free agent goalie is about $1M max, and being able to spend this much will require some prolific skimping on the fourth-line forwards, third-pairing defensemen, and a couple “scratchable” guys. While the thinking was that Jose Theodore or Marty Turco would be an inexpensive stop-gap, I don’t know if they will be that inexpensive. Turco earned $5.4M last season, and Theodore banked $4.4M with the Caps. Going down to a $1M contract seems like an extreme drop, even within the current landscape. The chance to win a Stanley Cup might be some intangible currency, but the common school of thought is that the Hawks will face up-hill cup defense, and won’t be a shoe-in contender.
One thing that might help increase their starting-goalie budget would be to skimp on the back-up role. Conventional wisdom in Hawk-dom is that Corey Crawford will finally be the back-up in Chi-Town after rotting in Rockford for most of his career. Crawford’s cap hit is currently $800K, and to date, has only seen time in eight NHL games. One savvy move might be to instead go with 26-year old Finnish journeyman Hannu Toivonen. Toivonen’s career stats are repugnant when placed alongside Crawford’s (3.37 GAA, .890 SV % versus Crawford’s 2.60 GAA and .915 SV %), but he has also played in 61 career NHL games a much larger sample size than Crawford. His NHL career has also been with some pretty bad teams, i.e. the Bruins from 2005 – 2007 (two last-place finishes in the Northeast) and the 2007-08 St. Louis Blues (last-place finish in the Central). Toivonen’s cap hit is also a mere $550K. This dares to suggest that it might benefit the Hawks to go with a 26 –year-old Finnish back-up two seasons in a row. It worked pretty good last year, right?
There are, of course, some other options for the starter, none of which are particularly enticing. The leaky Vesa Toskala has been a suggestion. Toskala is a veteran who once commanded a heavy salary. However, his rapid fall-from grace might render his services very cheap. I do feel that if Toskala is deemed the answer, Hawks fans will spend much of next season with Cristobal Huet déjà-vu. There are, of course a slew of other UFA options out there, none seem to be any more appealing than starting Crawford or Toivonen, however.
One thing is for certain, the Blackhawks have made it quite clear that a big-time goalie is no longer within their plans to ice a championship team, a strategy none to surprising when looking at Scotty Bowman’s track record. Don’t expect any miracles in net next season, just pray that the defense holds up.
A couple other points of interest here – the Hjalamarsson deal also makes it all but certain – again barring any additional moves to dump salary - that Kyle Beach will spend the entire 2010-11 campaign in Rockford. With a cap hit of $1.1M, the Hawks cannot afford his services, especially since would be expected to be a third-liner at best this season. Beach has some offensive skills, but is also still raw and undisciplined. A year in the AHL might be the best thing for his development anyway.
Also, do not expect to see former first-round pick Jack Skille in a Hawks uniform this year, or possibly ever again. Currently, Skille is a restricted free agent who made $1.3M last season. The same as Beach, Skille is at best a third-line player with little-to-no NHL experience, and the general opinion of him seems to be pretty low within the organization. In order to play for the Hawks this season, he would likely need to agree to a contract somewhere in the neighborhood of $700K. If by some miracle the Hawks up his most recent contract, he would be forced to spend another season in the AHL, which I do not believe is something he wants at this point. It’s crap-or-get-off-the-pot time with Skille, and I see the Blackhawks vacating the commode.
Another problem the Blackhawks face regards the third defensive pairing. While they do have some viable options, nothing is set in stone, and money will factor in heavily. The aforementioned Lalonde and Vishnevskiy are candidates, but likely only one will make the cut. The 37-year-old Jassen Cullimore could be another option with a low $500K cap hit, and could also fill the resident old-man void left by Brent Sopel. Other than age however, the two aren’t really comparable. Cullimore has played in 188 more NHL games than Sopel, and has amassed 108 fewer points. There is also a difference of 75 (yes, SEVENTY-FIVE) when comparing the two’s career +/- rankings (Sopel with a career +26, Cullimore with a career -49). The already-signed John Scott will likely see some time on the bottom pair, but I would have to think he spends more time on the healthy-scratch list for most of the season.
There also is a good possibility of Jordan Hendry returning, who would be the most attractive option in the third pairing despite a paltry playoff performance. He played 43 regular season games for Chicago last year, and can also play forward in a pinch. If Chicago can resign him at a number close to last season’s $600K cap hit, it would be a huge win.
For those of you who stuck around to read this entire novel of a post, I offer you my thanks. It is going to be an interesting several weeks, and it seems unlikely that the Blackhawks will make any drastic moves before July 29th’s arbitration hearing with Niemi.
Hopefully the front office can make some savvy and calculated maneuvers to keep what’s left of the 2010 champs together, and fend off a weird, semi-rebuilding stage. While some would argue they are already hip-deep within this sort of stage, they’re not there yet. Losing Sharp or another core piece would place them squarely in that realm.
Here’s hoping they can keep things together and put together another run at the Cup.