We like our people. How could you not love this Blackhawk team? What they have accomplished already, and the great things they are poised to do. At no time in my career as a Hawks fan have I ever been more bullish on the team’s prospects for the next five years. OK, maybe two years ago.
But we knew we could never preserve the Cup team from two years ago. The players from that team currently boast a combined cap hit north of $80 million. So yeah, capocalypse was inevitable and it sucked.
A tale of two GMs
You might say Dale Tallon was the reckless, swashbuckling force that capitalized on a small window provided by the simultaneous blossoming of a bevy of youthful stars. I for one give Tallon the majority of the GM credit for the 2010 Stanley Cup.
And just look at Stan Bowman. He’s not the hard-drinkin’ old school NHL chum type, you know. Kind of a Felix to Tallon’s Oscar. Or Roger Waters to Dale’s Syd Barrett. Or, more grimly, Stalin to Lenin.
The point is: Stan walked into a tough spot, and his job was never gonna be as much fun as Dale’s. Stan’s objective, to borrow a voguish word, is sustainability. And make no mistake, the job can be every bit as thankless and tedious as listening to Al Gore himself drone on about hockey sticks.
They couldn’t keep this band together?
Where was I? Oh yes, capocalypse. The lads came through it a bit the worse for wear, and last year’s team, while still among the league’s elite by some measures, was, paraphrasing Q, not always that hard to play against.
But here’s the thing. Last year’s team, warts and all, could not have been kept together even if that’s what the Hawks wanted. Here’s the line-up the Hawks ended the season with, which was arguably the best roster they fielded all season (divided into two groups: “Keepers” and “Throw ‘em Back”. Feel free to substitute your own RockVegas star for Marcus Kruger. Also, I’m guessing at Chris Campoli’s number):
Well, dayum! Over the cap by a cool $2 million this year. So, that kinda sucks, because there weren’t too many people out there pining for more helpings of, say, Fernando Pisani, but a team as top-heavy as the Hawks were has no choice but to round out its roster with a bunch of “guys.” In all probability, too much of “we like our people” would mean another smallish, and even thinner, squad for the upcoming season.
“Make no little plans”
Perhaps Stan has been channeling the great Chicago native and architect Daniel Burnham. Working around the edges doesn’t address the fundamental problem when you’ve got to shave $2 million just to stand still. Moving Brian Campbell did. And not just for next year. I would much rather pay Brian Campbell $21.4 million for the past three seasons than $28.6 million for the next four. Sustainability.
The way it is shaking out, the Hawks still have one of the best cores in the league (Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Bolland, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Crawford) and a solid returning supporting cast (Frolik, Bickell, Stalberg, Leddy, Kruger), but in order to preserve this group, Stan had to pony up raises totaling $5.2 million, bringing the total payroll for this group to $48.42 million.
Addition by addition
So far, so good, Stan. This leaves $15.88 million in cap space to fill the remaining 9 roster spots ($1.76 million per, which means they don’t have to settle for “guys.”) And this is what Stan has given us:
Clearly, Campbell is head and shoulders above the guys on this list – but that has never been the issue. Overall, the 2011-12 Blackhawks are, I believe, a better team based on this 9-man swap. They have added size and grit, a legitimate top-6/PP guy in Andrew Brunette (for cheaper than Brouwer or Kopecky), some help at center/PKFO (Jamal Mayers), and a stay-at-home PKer (Steve Montador).
But here’s the kicker: the 9-man swap reduces the Hawks payroll by almost $6 million! So rather than going through a second, mini-capocalypse to preserve last year’s structure, Stan has brought balance back to the payroll. The Hawks can go with a 23-man roster with a cap hit of $60.4 million, leaving $3.9 million (plus the amount of any displaced salary) to add a piece or two before the trade deadline.
“The future is always beginning now”
Hawks fans would love to see the additional money spent on acquiring another top-6 forward, preferably a center, which would allow the Hawks to move Sharp to wing, maximizing his value. But the free agent market was slim and high-priced this year, and Stan made the right decision to stay out of the deep end of the pool.
The ideal scenario is to find a guy who will be a UFA at the end of 2011-12 on a team that isn’t going anywhere. Possibilities include (spitballin’ here): Jokinen (Calgary), Ruutu (Carolina), Umberger (Columbus), Doan (Phoenix), and Grabovski (Toronto). Of course, the elusive top-6 forward may not materialize.
A lot of people thought Brad Richards would be that guy last season, but Dallas ended up in the playoff chase all season and the team decided not to pull the trigger on Richards. In the end, Dallas missed the playoffs and got nothing for Richards. To me, this is an excellent cautionary tale for GMs heading into the season.
The possibility of a buy-out for Olesz would allow the Hawks to make a dramatic splash on a contract of any size. At this point, it’s not clear there are any viable targets upon whom to unleash this death ray. But, you never know.
More modestly, a few of the pick-ups this summer, such as McLean and Mayers for center depth, feel like low-end placeholders who may yet be upgraded. There’s been interest in many circles, for example, in the recently-liberated but medically dubious Chris Drury. A move for a middling veteran center and/or puck-mover and/or even a goalie, as the need arises, are all within the realm of possibility.
The best laid plans?
What could go wrong? Well, a lot. The current Blackhawk roster will not make anyone forget the Cup champions of two years ago. They are a more balanced team than last year, but they have their weaknesses.
Off the bat, there is a top-6 forward spot that right now is being filled by a non top-6 player. But, with the strong line of Bickell-Bolland-Frolik and a credible fourth line providing excellent forward depth, this is probably not the biggest concern.
That honor goes to the hole left by Brian Campbell’s departure. Nick Leddy will be tasked with filling Soupy’s shoes, and there will be a drop off at best. Coupled with minor concern over Hjalmarsson’s sophomore slump, the Hawks second d-pairing will be tested this season. Don’t be surprised if we see some more turnovers in the defensive zone and more difficulty breaking down defenses. Yes, the Hawks’ vaunted puck possession game may not run quite as smoothly next season.
Even here, there is hope for optimism. The addition of Montador provides quality, and Sami Lepisto and Sean O’Donnell shore up the defensive depth. Above all, many are hoping that a longer summer and reduced workload allows Duncan Keith to recapture his Norris touch from 2009-10.
How about between the pipes? After two big disappointing free agent signings in Khabibulin and Huet, the Hawks amazingly struck gold twice in the past two seasons, with unknowns Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford (stick tap to Tallon.) Crawford played much better than anyone could have reasonably expected last season, and, considering how the Hawks squeaked into the playoffs, the team needed pretty much all of it.
Anyway, a slump from Crawford is a real possibility, and right now, the Hawks are mostly keeping their fingers crossed here, with the promising but uber-green Alexander Salak waiting in the wings.
Sprinkled liberally around all these scenarios is the fortuitous risk of injury. With the current roster, the Hawk forwards will create match-up problems for any team but, as we saw last season, an injury to any one of the Hawks’ best five forwards (Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Bolland) risks fouling up the offensive juggernaut.
And I don’t even want to think about an injury to Keith or Seabrook. Anyway, we’re all hockey fans, and appreciate the risks and uncertainties here, right?
So, the GM’s job is never over, but it seems clear to me that Stan Bowman deserves high marks for his stewardship of the team this summer, setting the Hawks on a course of sustainable excellence.