Update: After listening to Stan Bowman’s comments today, it sounds like the Hawks are much higher on Ben Smith than Marcus Kruger. It makes complete sense if they’re planning on filling 2C with other options, since Kruger’s game might not be as suited for the 4th line as Smith’s. So while reading this article, it’s probably safe to swap Smith and Kruger. The result is still the same.
We’re all excited since the start of training camp is just around the corner. The Chicago Blackhawks will return with arguable the best core in hockey, upgrades to the supporting cast, and possibly some new, young faces. But NHL training camp isn’t like football training camp. Players typically don’t “earn” or “play” their way onto the roster like they do in the NFL. For football players it’s often “do or die.” There is no affiliated pro league for them to play in to improve their game and wait for another shot. The closest many of them get is the practice squad, and that just isn’t the same as playing in real games now is it?
The NHL is very different in that aspect. Some, mostly elite, players get to the bigs while still in their teens. Others take years to make the jump, but can go on to have solid careers. I like that about hockey. Players aren’t penalized because they aren’t ready “now.” Every player (and every position) matures at a different rate and they have other leagues to do that in while getting game experience.
Corey Crawford is a good example of this. He spent 5 full years in the AHL before making the jump, yet he still had an excellent first season in Chicago. He turns 27 later this year and will be the 7th oldest Blackhawk on the roster. Patrick Kane, by comparison, is only 22 and is already entering his 5th season. Stories like Crow’s are commonplace in the NHL, but a rarity in other sports.
But here’s the rub. Because there’s less rush, a GM can concentrate on other factors when deciding the opening day roster. Things like salaries, the cap, waivers, and who they would rather have sitting in the press box – a rookie with top line potential or a disposable, but nonrefundable, veteran – come into play. Due to this, the roster is often set before camp even opens. Sometimes, because of those non talent-related decisions, an NHL-ready prospect has to wait a little longer for his chance. And that is why, if all remains status quo, John Scott will be on the opening day roster.
First, let’s take a look at my probable Blackhawks roster using CapGeek’s cap calculator. Don’t bother commenting about the line configurations, I have no freaking clue either. The players in bold are for all intents and purposes a lock to make the team:
Andrew Brunette ($2.000m) / Jonathan Toews ($6.300m) / Patrick Kane ($6.300m)
Michael Frolik ($2.333m) / Patrick Sharp ($3.900m) / Marian Hossa ($5.275m)
Bryan Bickell ($0.541m) / Dave Bolland ($3.375m) / Rostislav Olesz ($3.125m)
Viktor Stalberg ($0.875m) / Marcus Kruger ($0.900m) / Jamal Mayers ($0.550m)
Daniel Carcillo ($0.775m) / / John Scott ($0.512m)
Duncan Keith ($5.538m) / Brent Seabrook ($5.800m)
Niklas Hjalmarsson ($3.500m) / Steve Montador ($2.750m)
Sean O’Donnell ($0.850m) / Nick Leddy ($1.116m)
Sami Lepisto ($0.750m)
Corey Crawford ($2.666m) / Ray Emery ($1.050m?)
Ben Smith ($0.813m) / Alexander Salak ($0.613m)
Assuming a maxed out 23-man roster, two players need to be cut. We’ll ignore the competition between Ray Emery and Alexander Salak for now because that’s the topic of my next article and it doesn’t matter here. That leaves Olesz, Kruger, Smith, and Scott. Four players, three spots.
First let’s look at Rusty Olesz. If his knee is fine, the Hawks are going to give Olesz every chance to succeed before they ever consider burying him in Rockford or “giving him the Huet.” Sure, he was the bitter pill Stan had to swallow in the Campbell trade and it freed up some cap space, but $3 million is nothing to sneeze at. With Cristobal’s $5.6m still on the books for another year, it’s Rustislavtop Stuffing for dinner. He’s staying.
Marcus Kruger isn’t a name that should get your panties wet, but since the Hawks didn’t go out and sign a veteran 2nd line center, it’s difficult to imagine Kruger not starting the season here. The only scenario where he’s not on the team has Sharp (or Frolik – or someone else??) playing 2C full-time. Over the past four years, Sharp has developed into one of the premiere snipers in the NHL. Getting him more time at wing better utilizes that ability. Therefore Kruger could be safe, although I believe Smith better fits this team.
So that leaves “previous unknown turned instant crowd favorite” Ben Smith and bane of our collective existence, John “Blaster” Scott, to battle it out in the Thunderdome. Two men enter, one man leaves.
At first blush, the choice seems obvious. Between Smith and the oak tree tied to a skid and pushed out onto the ice, Smith is the more talented skater. Smith played tough and scored timely goals in the playoffs. He can also play all three forward spots, so he has that “versatility” Stan loves. Easy decision, right? Maybe not, when you consider those other aspects I mentioned earlier. Possibly due to his grit and his supposed ability to play center, Smith gets the call instead of Kruger. Ultimately I see one of them starting the year in Rockford, so I’ll use Smith as my focus for argument’s sake.
Press Box Attendant
GM’s don’t fill out rosters with the “best” players available. Jeremy Morin may be one unfortunate-looking dude and the Hawks’ top prospect, but with a number of slots to figure out at LW, it’s best to keep him out of the shuffle for now. Morin’s eventual home will probably be at 2LW, but Olesz, Brunette, Stalberg, and possibly Bickell will all be completing for that slot. If Kruger proves capable at 2C, Patrick Sharp is your 1LW and Andrew Brunette would have to play himself off the 2nd line. Not much room for Morin there. The 3rd line has Bickell, Olesz and Frolik fighting for two slots. Two of those three players would have to crap the bed for Morin to get a sniff there. That leaves the 4th line which has plenty of wingers, but lacks a true center. Morin’s not a center, nor is his skill-set best utilized on the 4th line. So Rockford it will be, where Morin will get plenty of ice time and wait for things to shake out in Chicago.
Smith on the other hand, fits the 3rd-4th line mold. But with the signing of veterans Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo and the likelihood that Stalberg, Bickell, Kruger, and possibly Olesz will be filling one or two of those slots, Smith really isn’t needed at the moment. Q also tends to give veteran players first crack, so that leaves Smith in the press box. Why not keep him in Rockford to work on his game and let a more disposable player serve the drinks?
One-Way and Two-Way Contracts
Taking another look at my CapGeek roster, there are only two players on two-way contracts, Nick Leddy and Kruger. The reason both are up is because of existing, prominent needs. Hawks need a puck-moving defender to replace Campbell and they need a center with top line potential. They don’t have any present needs on the top three lines that Smith instantly solves and there are plenty of bodies on one-way contracts to throw on the 4th line. So why pay the extra juice for Smith, when you have Scott?
In a perfect world Scott never sees the UC ice unless he’s in a visiting team’s sweater, but we can’t change the fact that Bowman signed Scott to a two-year, one-way contract. Sometimes you have to think like a GM or owner and look at the books. John Scott will make $525,000 this year whether he’s on the 1st unit PP, waiting tables, or strutting his stuff in “the A.”
With bonuses, Ben Smith would make $812,500 in the NHL, but his two-way contract only pays him $65k in Rockford. $750,000 isn’t chump-change for a team that claims it’s still operating in the red. There’s currently not a single player on the IceHogs’ roster on a one-way contract. Salak might end up being that guy, but only because Emery fell from the sky and landed on Bowman’s lap like the feather in “Forest Gump.” As fans, we hate financial decisions, but it’s part of the business that can’t be ignored.
Ben Smith is waivers exempt; John Scott is not. That’s a much bigger factor this year now that Scott is in the final year of his contract. If the Hawks were to start Scott in Rockford and need to recall him later (and due to his one-way salary, he’d be high on the list), another team could claim him during re-entry waivers and the Blackhawks would be on the hook for half his salary and cap hit. You can’t dispute the fact that Scott is one of the best fighters in hockey, and for $250k that’s a low-risk bargain for a team willing to take The John Scott Experiment. (<— hilarious watch)
A better option from a monetary and developmental standpoint is to have Scott start the season in Chicago where he would be getting minimal TOI and Smith in Rockford where he’d get plenty of minutes at little cost to the Hawks. Later in the season, they could recall Smith (or another prospect) and put Scott on waivers. On regular waivers (on the way down), the Hawks don’t have to eat any of Scott’s salary if another team claims him. Since a portion would already have been paid, he’d again be attractive to a team in need of an enforcer – and the bonus for the Hawks; they’d be completely rid of Scott and the remainder of his salary. Win-win.
Talk Is Cheap?
Over the summer Stan tooted the horns of Smith, Kruger and Scott. One of those speeches was a lie – but which one? The fact remains that Bowman apparently made no effort to move Scott during the off-season. What he did do though is go out and get more “grit” which led many to conclude that Scott is further out of the picture – and to an extent he is, but likely only to the press box.
You can look at the signings of Carcillo, Mayers and Sean O’Donnell as a reason Scott’s services are no longer required, or conversely, that Stan really likes having that type of player around. After a season like 2010-11 where the Blackhawks earned the “soft” label, things sometimes shift too far to the opposite extreme. The same thing happened when Chicago saw the success of teams like Detroit with offensively-minded defensemen. They filled the organization from top-to-bottom with players who fit that mold and forgot about signing or drafting actual defenders. This year they corrected that imbalance. I personally believe Stan still is stuck in “we need more grit” mode.
There’s also that whole “Scott is versatile” meme. In years past, the Hawks filled the 23rd spot with defender, sometimes forward, Jordan Hendry. Last season it was both Hendry and Scott in that role. I don’t buy into the argument that Scott occasionally skating only 5 minutes at forward puts a strain on the team. Most 4th liners only average 8 minutes TOI, so it’s only an extra shift each that needs to be picked up by a few players. From checking last season’s game logs, Toews and Kane typically picked up a couple of those shifts, so that’s not a bad thing when it only happens once in a blue moon. 5 mins from a 4th liner isn’t likely to change the outcome of any games when you have a team as talented as the Hawks are this year.
On defense, Scott didn’t look quite as incapable. But unless there are multiple injuries, we shouldn’t see much of him there either. The signings of Steve Montador, Sami Lepisto, and O’Donnell push Scott down to the #8 slot there. He’s a “break glass in case of emergency” player that allows Bowman to theoretically cover the 14th forward and 8th defender spots with one cheap salary.
Don’t call me a fan of John Scott, call me a realist. As a fan of the game I’d rather see someone else in that slot, but the reality of the business brings other factors into play. Aside from everything I mentioned, Stan likely looks at Scott and envisions a Chara-lite. I get it. He’s a likeable guy and apparently a good locker room presence, but turning him into something useful is a longer shot than a Rob Davidson goal.
But no need to panic. Even if Scott makes the team as I’m predicting, he’ll almost certainly be long gone when the games start to mean anything. Starting the year in Chicago makes financial and developmental sense, but ultimately it’s an even better exit strategy. So go and get your John “Murdersaurus” Scott t-shirts here (credit to Fork at hockeenight.com for the moniker) and don’t forget your popcorn for the scheduled fights.
Tomorrow I’ll be at the Blackhawks’ Training Camp Festival and will follow up with an article on that. I’ll also be taking a look at the Ray Emery-Alexander Salak situation.