Attaboy, Stan!

Stan the Man? (source: Chicago Sun-Times)



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.

  • ChicagoNativeSon

    Awesome first article Brian.

    I know many were (and probably still are) upset over the Campbell trade, but if it comes down to sacrificing one player for the ability to upgrade multiple positions, it’s a move you have to make every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Your numbers bear that out.

    Assuming the new CBA stays basically the same, Olesz stays with the team, and the Hawks re-sign Sharp and pickup that high end 2nd line center prior to the trade deadline, I can envision them going through the same process of discarding one big contract in order to maintain balance again next summer. And unless Olesz has a breakout year, I don’t believe anyone will have a problem with moving his contract.

    If the Hawks choose to buyout Olesz (which they claim they’re not going to do), then there should be sufficient cap space to sign Sharp and bring aboard another high-end player.

    I doubt it’ll be a 2nd line center though (even if they grab one with an expiring contract prior to the deadline). If McNeill is ready (or close), no way they block his path. Kruger will have a year under his belt. Therefore, the center position would be set.

    At LW, Brunette is likely one and done, but the Hawks have a number of high-potential prospects/players who might step up next year and Sharp would take one of those top line LW spots. So no upgrades needed there either.

    The defense is pretty well set, barring something bizarre, and the goalies are locked up.

    With only a few “guys” probably needing small raises next year, the Hawks could have a windfall of cap space to play with, no? Thoughts?

  • cliffkoroll

    @John Schultz Totally agree. Who on the current roater (besde Sharp) has a contract up next year? No one from the core. Bickell? Leddy?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if a Sharp extension came sooner rather than later.

  • FrankRekas

    Great start Brian and well done. I do believe that an extension for Sharp will happen sooner rather than later. He’s got to be considered part of the core here, and I don’t think the Hawks let him get away.

    With the glut of youth that will be coming in over the next couple years, cap space will ease up and give the Hawks a bit more breathing room than they’ve had. As much as some of what Stan has done has been a bit puzzling, I think that he has put things into place, and is giving the hawks flexibility going forward.

    Things should work out just fine.

  • K_Dog

    Nicely done! The first sentence got my attention, and your writing style seemed familiar, but it took me a while to put it all together. This was a really good read. Well, not THIS comment, I meant your article. /Badgerdanoproof’d

    Shine on you crazy diamond.

  • cliffkoroll

    @K_Dog Ha! Thanks for the feedback.

    Where have you been? It’s alright we know where you’ve been.

  • cliffkoroll

    Queation: can the Hawks as constituted above win a Stanley Cup?

  • cliffkoroll

    @John Schultz How hard would it be to breakdown Sharp’s goals between center, wing, PP and shorty ( I think I could handle the last two)?

  • cliffkoroll

    Question: what is a Queation?

  • ChicagoNativeSon

    @cliffkoroll It would be extremely tedious, but it could be done. The only way I know of would be to pull up the shift charts from each game to see who Sharp’s skating with.

    The ballpark method would be to find out (through the same method if your memory is as bad as mine) exactly what game Q moved him rather permanently to 1LW. Then split the season there.

    Interestingly I was pondering the same thing yesterday. I’m gonna try to contact Verstig and see if he can help me develop a speadsheet by next season.

  • ChicagoNativeSon

    @cliffkoroll I’m gonna go on record as saying “maybe.”

    There. My hat’s now in the ring and I stand firmly behind my prediction.

    Next June people will be calling me Nostradumbass.

  • cliffkoroll

    @John Schultz I think the answe is yes, barring injuries. Arguably, even last year’s team was done in by the Bolland injury.

    Bu that’s probably too much to hope for. Ya gotta expect an important injury or two. THAT, in my opinion, is where this team is less fragile than last year’s, particulalry if Stan uses his remaining swag wisely.

  • cliffkoroll

    @John Schultz It was the ‘Toast’ game- February 18 I think, against Columbus. Didn’t Sharp score two in the first period playing with DDN that night, before the Hawks blew it.

  • cliffkoroll

    Also, Sharp netted a career-high 36 in 2007-08 alongisde DDN.

  • ChicagoNativeSon

    @cliffkoroll Of course they can.

    Often, all we see are the holes instead of the box full of delicious donuts. (did I just coin an idiom?)
















    I mean, Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Brunette, Bolland, Keith, Seabrook, and Montador ALL ON THE SAME TEAM?? Hey buddy, no fair playing NHL 12 in All-Star mode!

    I’d line that roster up against any other. The team above is a contender. If they can stay healthy and add Player X prior to the deadline, they should be favored. And for all we know, Player X might not even be a 2C at that point.

  • cliffkoroll

    @John Schultz why isn’t this more obvious to Player X (secretly, Speed’s older brother Rex)?

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  • Skags

    Hey Cliff…

    I’ve been scouring the interwebs looking for a breakdown of all the new players this year. Seemed easy enough, but looks are deceiving.

    This post is one of the best, most comprehensive breakdowns I’ve seen so far. And I agree wholeheartedly with assessment of Stan’s stewardship of the team. I too am quite bullish on the Hawks this year. We’ve got depth, lots and lots of depth, with a slew of young players waiting in the wings, and most importantly, we’ve got cap room to boot.

    Anyway, I don’t need to add anything more- you’ve got it covered here. Great writeup.