In the immediate aftermath of this summer’s changes to the Hawks roster, I praised Stan Bowman’s stewardship. I argued that moving Brian Campbell, or something similarly unsettling, was critical to allowing the team to address the deficiencies of the 2010-11 Blackhawks: lack of size and grit, a top-6 forward hole, a PK defenseman shortage, and a fourth line/PK face-off center need. Stan’s off-season efforts addressed each of these needs, at least to some extent.
As I thought about it more, however, it seemed to me that many of these moves could have been made without jettisoning Campbell and Troy Brouwer. In fact, by simply undoing the Brouwer and Campbell trades, and not signing Steve Montador, the bizarro-Hawks could have had a better team than the current Hawk team, while still fitting under the cap.
So, why am I so pleased with Stan?
The first argument to reach for is Patrick Sharp, who just inked a 5-year extension at a $5.9 million annual cap hit, beginning in 2012-13. One is tempted to argue that the cap space Stan created this summer was instrumental to re-signing Sharp, but ‘taint so. If we assume that Andrew Brunette and his $2 million salary are likely a “one and done” deal, well, the cabbage for Sharp’s raise is right there.
Since every other key piece on the Blackhawks is signed through at least 2012-13, any increase in the cap next year can be used to replace Brunette and/or shore up other weaknesses, such as the PK defensemen the bizarro-Hawks still lack. And with a bevy of players in the system getting another year to hone their skills, the bizarro-Hawks could hope to fill some holes organically and in a cap-friendly way.
After the 2012-13 season, it’s a crapshoot. Who can guess what will happen to the cap under the new CBA? But the cap has restored a measure of sanity to NHL salaries, and the biggest problem in the NHL right now has less to do with overall revenue than how the money is distributed, with several franchises clearly struggling, while others make nice, comfy piles. And while lots of teams are having trouble reaching the “cap floor”, several marquee teams continue to bump up against the ceiling. I find it hard to believe these teams will quietly acquiesce to a reduction in the cap.
So close, and yet so far
There are two, wildly divergent narratives of the 2010-11 Blackhawks. One camp sees a team that struggled all year, backed into the playoffs, and was bounced in the first round. This group would be expected to approve of significant changes like moving Campbell and Brouwer.
The optimistically-inclined thought last years’ Hawks, warts and all, were still a legitimate threat to win the Cup. This narrative points to statistics like the Clear Victory Standings (generally a sign of a good team), the Hawks’ potent offensive attack (4th in the league in scoring), and the astonishing number of points the team frittered away. Presumably, these folks would be more inclined to advocate modest off-season changes, like the bizarro-Hawks, rather than Stan’s more dramatic moves.
I’m in the second camp. So, why do I continue to insist Stan did the right thing this summer?
Fragile: Handle with care
Regardless of what one thinks of last year’s team, everyone can agree that success required everything go according to plan, injury-wise. Dave Bolland, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp each missed chunks of the season, and when one of these guys was out, the Hawks were a pretty average team. The Vancouver series, where Bolland missed the first three games, was a perfect illustration of the team’s vulnerability.
Contrast this with the Boston Bruins, who overcame a huge injury to Marc Savard, and assorted other injuries, en route to the Cup. The Hawks last year were, in a word, fragile.
And THAT is the problem with the bizarro-Hawks. In the alternate universe where the Hawks still have Campbell and Brouwer and no cap space, rather than Montador and Rusty Olesz and $4 mildo to play with, fans will just have to keep their fingers crossed that they avoid major injuries, and also that the ship doesn’t spring new leaks (such as a down year from Corey Crawford or a PK that struggles again.)
Here on Earth, the Hawks will enter the season with a team that might not be quite as good as the bizarro-Hawks, but, in my opinion, they are still a legitimate Cup contender as is, and they are better than last year’s team.
Room to maneuver
The big advantage the 2011-12 Hawks enjoy however, as compared to either last year’s team or the bizarro-Hawks, is their ability to adapt. Hawk fan fantasies generally involve adding another top-6 forward, which would give them probably the most-feared offense in the league.
And that might still happen. But we don’t have to pin our hopes on this outcome. Smaller, incremental moves are a more realistic possibility- the recent example of giving Ray Emery a look in net, for example, may foreshadow the kind of improvement projects Stan undertakes as the season unfolds.
Reviewing the holes “filled” by Stan this summer, consider the acquisition of Jamal Mayers, as a potential PK face-off man, a role filled by John Madden two years ago on one of the league’s best units. Last year, Jonathan Toews was forced into this role, leaving the second PK unit vulnerable, and the Hawks’ PK fell to 25th in the league. And, bumping up against the cap, the team could do nothing to redress the problem.
Well, there’s a reason Mayers makes $550K- he’s not that good. But, if he doesn’t work out, Stan has the wherewithal this year to do something about it. Over in the bizarro-universe, no such luck.
Suppose Stan is unable to deploy his $4 million bank account effectively. In that case, he will be criticized for poor cap management, and the criticism will be deserved. But I just don’t see that happening. He may not land the big impact player, but this is not a perfect team, and Stan will have many opportunities to plug holes as they arise. Based on his track record, I see no reason to expect him to flub such opportunities.
Final answer: Attaboy, Stan!
Brian Donohue, Follow me on Twitter