Hawk Talk: Moving forward this offseason

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Hawk Talk: Moving forward this offseason

Tuesday, June 29, 2010
5:15 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

This is the latest update of a series of articles that evaluate the moves GM Stan Bowman have made and anticipate the changes the team will still need to make with regard to the 2010-11 salary cap.

The NHL salary cap officially making a maximum jump to 59.4 million was the absolute best-case scenario for the cap-strapped Blackhawks. And with the price of keeping his entire Stanley Cup club intact topping 70 million, Bowman began stripping down the team in earnest even before last Fridays NHL draft.

The problem is, neither of his deals managed to drastically improve the teams cap scenario. The wunderkind GM cobbled together forwards Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager and defenseman Brent Sopel and sent them to the Atlanta Thrashers for veteran center Marty Reasoner and a bag of potential. While the deal accomplished one objective, trimming some 5 million from the salary rolls, the eagerness to shuffle Byfuglien off is confounding. Heres a forward on the rise, at a relatively nice price but no long-term commitment, coming off a postseason where he undoubtedly was on the short list for the Conn Smythe, and hes wedged into a salary dump? Hmm. All along it seemed that an extraneous player like Byfuglien or Kris Versteeg would have been ideal to dangle as a sweetener to help another club swallow Cristobal Huet.

In fact, think about it: Arguably two of the top six Blackhawks postseason performers, Byfuglien and Sopel, were dumped on Atlanta. What a strange sports world.

Bowmans second move was also a bit curious. Colin Fraser, who centered the fourth line that resuscitated the Blackhawks with a terrific scoring streak as the season wound short, was exiled to the Edmonton Oilers for a sixth-round draft pick. Sensible, if Fras was making even as much as a million dollars per year. But he wasnt, and surely wouldnt have commanded a thick salary for 2010-11. One of the easiest pieces to keep, Bowman shipped off. Another odd move.

Yet, the sun is shining on Chicago and Bowman, what with a cap that has jumped up from prior dire estimates. Heres an educated guess at how the summer shuffle will wrangle out, with an assist from the cap hit chart at CapGeek.com:

The Core (4)

There are four incomparable Blackhawks cogs. Under no circumstances will they leave Chicago anytime soon.

A recent development surrounding just how big a bite of the cap these core players take are the performance bonuses earned by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane last season, rumored to be as much as 5 million, all of which will count vs. the 2010-11 cap.

RW Marian Hossa: 5.3 million
C Jonathan Toews: 6.3 million
LW Patrick Kane: 6.3 million
D Duncan Keith: 5.5 million
Total: 23.4 million

The Essentials (6)

With well more than a third of the cap tabbed for the core four, the next area of concern is the essential players. These six players arent necessarily better than the remainder of the teamthey are simply the most logical pieces for the Blackhawks to keep, no-brainers nearly on the level of the Core Four.

With rookie Antti Niemi stealing the starters role from Huet, the Blackhawks goalie tandem should look different come fall, after Bowman packages Huets hefty contract along with a promising player or two. Plausibly, the Blackhawks can aim to extend Niemi at a modest rate and either rely on a young goaltender like Corey Crawford or Hannu Toivonen for 20 games or go shopping for one of many veteran netminders on the market at a discount price tag as well.

Niemi made 826,875 in 2009-10 and is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent that the Blackhawks have extended a qualifying offer, so the Blackhawks shouldnt lose himit will simply be a matter of how much at least one more season of the wunderkind will cost. This long-range (summer) estimate presumes Niemi not only establishes himself as a stopper and has a good playoff run. Niemis price tag will jump, but lets cross fingers and figure on a four-year deal at 10 million, which would triple the rooks 2009-10 salary to 2.5 million per season.

Patrick Sharp demonstrated terrific flexibility in sliding over to center during Dave Bollands absence, and in the process has made himself much more indispensible with solid playmaking and disciplined two-way play. Sharps cap hit is steep at 3.9 million, but he proved worth it with his best all-around Blackhawks season yet. Bolland took some time to round himself back into playing shape after missing three months with back surgery, but proved a pesky defensive stopper (and underrated shorthanded goal scorer) in the postseason. Coach Joel Quenneville adores Bollys hockey IQ and would throw himself in front of any Bolland trade.

With the Blackhawks locking up Keith long-term, it only makes sense to consider his blue line mate, Brent Seabrook, an untouchable. His 3.5 million contract seems just about right. Hell be due for an extension in 2011-12.

Two other essential players make the list, primarily due to value per dollar. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and right wing Troy Brouwer are outperforming their contracts. Hjalmarsson is showing signs of being a star defender and made a mere 643,333 in 2009-10; and as a restricted free agent whom the Blackhawks have extended a qualifying offer, it would make sense to lock Hjalmarsson uplets say tripling his salary to 1.7 million per.

Brouwer is signed for next season at a shade more than 1 million, which also makes him one of the biggest bargains on the team. Hes proved himself capable of first-line minutes and rugged two-way play that this team of offensive superstars sorely needs. As veterans are purged this summer, the Wild Mans role should only increase come fall.

G Antti Niemi (2.5 million)
D Brent Seabrook (3.5 million)
D Niklas Hjalmarsson (1.7 million)
C Dave Bolland (3.4 million)
RW Patrick Sharp (3.9 million)
RW Troy Brouwer (1 million)
Total: 16 million

The Keeper (1)

Brian Campbell is in a unique positionhes a core Blackhawks defenseman, but unfortunately is signed for about twice the money hes worth. Theres little chance of Bowman being able to move Soupy, so hes going nowhere. While its very likely that Huet will finish the last year of his hefty contract overseas or in the minors, the Blackhawks can afford to do that both off (theyre making money hand over foot) and on (Huets effectiveness has vanished) the ice. Campbell, as was proved by prematurely returning from injury and helping deliver the quarterfinals win over the Nashville Predators, is still a crucial component for the Hawks.

D Brian Campbell (7.1 million)
Total: 7.1 million

The Bubble Players (10)

With 46.5 million on the books for 2010-11 and 10 players still needed to fill out the roster, this is where the squeeze begins. At an estimated cap of 59.4 million, that means those 10 players can be paid a total of 12.9 million.

If you look at the five players youd consider filling out the 2010-11 team with who are currently on the roster and under contract:

G Cristobal Huet (5.6 million)
C Marty Reasoner (1.2 million)
RW Kris Versteeg (3.1 million)
RW Tomas Kopecky (1.2 million)
LW Andrew Ladd (1.8 million qualifying offer)
Total: 12.9 million

and add the five free agent players youd round out the roster with today with rough estimates of the costs of new contracts:

C John Madden (2 million)
RW Adam Burish (800,000)
D Nick Boynton (1.5 million)
D Kim Johnsson (2 million)
D Jordan Hendry (700,000)
Total: 7 million

add 19.9 to the overall estimate for keeping the team intact, pushing the total team salary to a hefty 66.4 million.

With 7 million that will need to be trimmed away, the Blackhawks obviously cannot afford to bring all 10 bubble players back.

Snap decisions can be made regarding some veterans: Johnsson, even at a return price of less than half of his 2009-10 salary, is unlikely to return. Huet has played his way out of Chicago and will not return at any cost; if a deal cant be struck, the veteran will choose between playing in Europe or in Rockford, leaving the Hawks on the hook for his salary but taking it off of the salary cap. All indications are Madden will find a good offer outside of Chicago and that hell take it.

Trade out Huet for Crawford, and you drop 4.8 million. Sub Bryan Bickell for Madden, and thats another 1.4 million shed. And leave Johnsson unsigned and replacing him with a sub-million seventh d-man, or bring up Jake Dowell as the spare forward, and youve trimmed another 1.5 million.

Guess what? If those three players are replaced by bottom-dollar players, the salary cap crunch is essentially solved; Bowman wasnt lying when he said he no longer would be forced to make moves to get under the cap. Its also a clear indication that indeed Huet is finished in Chicago and that the Blackhawks are willing to pay him not to play for them.

Total cost for the 21 roster players? Its a mere 58.8 millionyep, Bowman has a half-mil to spare for in-season callups or a stretch-run trade.

Except
Theres this sticky matter of having young superstars leading your team to a Stanley Cup while still on entry-level contracts. An entry-level contract is often packed with performance bonuses (because the compensation is, theoretically, limited) in a way a veterans contract is not. To that end, only Toews and Kane among all Blackhawks had contracts last season that featured performance bonusesand word is, Batman and Robin hit em all, to the tune of as much as 5 million. Toews pocketed an extra 1.3 million alone for winning the Conn Smythe.

While in a capless world that would only mean the two youngsters would just get to party it up all the more this summer, under the NHLs salary cap, the bonuses are dealt with in draconian fashion, counting as season salary in 2010-11. So because of their success, the Blackhawks have an additional sum to trimlets worrywart it to the full 5 million. So Stan, my man, your job is not donetheres still 4.4 million still to erase from the rolls.

There are three likely routes Bowman must take to ease back under the cap. The one most unavoidable is to deal Versteeg or Sharp for prospects or a sub-million player. Versteeg is the safer bet to go; for all his amazing potential, hes emotionally exasperating to the Blackhawks coaching staff, sort of a 180 turn from the steady Bolland. Clearly, Chicago doesnt want to lose Versteeg, but it does have to pay the piper. Best-case scenario here is that Steeger can be wedged into a blockbuster, a player that can sweeten the deal enough for the Blackhawks to wedge in a bloated Huet or Campbell contractit seems that the man who stole Versteeg from the Boston Bruins and brought him to Chicago, new Florida GM Dale Tallon, could be enticed into such a deal, as desperately as his team aches for scorers.

Bottom line, replacing Versteeg with a million-or-less deal sheds 2 million. Two trades that will save the necessary additional monies would be to deal Reasoner and replace the vacated slot with a minimum-salary player, and refuse to re-sign Boynton (little sacrifice there) in favor of another minimum-level guy. Thats roughly 2 million more saved, and a roster that is hardly a step back from 2009-10:

Right Wing: Hossa, Sharp, Brouwer, Kopecky, Burish (12.2 million)

Center: Toews, Bolland, Dowell, Mark Cullen (10.8 million)

Left Wing: Kane, Ladd, Bickell, Kyle Beach (9.9 million)

Defensemen: Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Campbell, Hendry, Shawn Lalonde (19.3 million)

Goalie: Niemi, Crawford (3.3 million)

(Keep in mind players like Cullen and Lalonde are added more for their inexpensive pricetag and not necessarily meritsurely there will be cheap, roster-worthy talent whether or not Cullen and Lalonde earn the final spots.)

Add in the 5 million in 2009-10 bonuses and the Blackhawks are at 60.5 million. Yeah, thats still 1.1 million over, but that presumes the bonuses are a full 5 million (which is not certain) and that the Blackhawks will give modest raises to guys like Bickell, Hendry, Burish and Ladd. If the Blackhawks, claiming a thin pocketbook, reupped those four players at 2009-10 rates, the Blackhawks fall less than half a million over the cap.

Its possible, Stan. Youre almost there.

CSNChicago.coms White Sox Insider Brett Ballantini covered the 2010 Stanley Cup winners all season. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute White Sox information and key summer Hawks updates.

After trading Scott Darling, can the Blackhawks find another reliable backup goalie?

After trading Scott Darling, can the Blackhawks find another reliable backup goalie?

What we all expected to happen did happen on Friday night when the Blackhawks traded Scott Darling to the Carolina Hurricanes.

One way or another, be it via trade or just going to unrestricted free agency on July 1, Darling was headed elsewhere. He’s earned the opportunity to be a No. 1 goaltender, it wasn’t going to happen here, and now he’ll get that chance.

But this isn’t about where Darling’s career takes him from this point. This is about the Blackhawks and where they go from here. They’ve been in the enviable position of having some stellar backup goaltenders the past few seasons, from Ray Emery to Antti Raanta to Darling. So as this offseason continues, finding another one becomes top priority.

A few days ago Pat Boyle and I discussed a few topics on the HawksTalk Podcast, including what we considered to be on general manager Stan Bowman’s to-do list this summer. Getting a reliable backup goaltender has to be on there because the Blackhawks have shown over the past few seasons that having that great 1-2 punch in net has proven very successful.

Let’s go back to the 2013 offseason. In the summer of 2013 the Blackhawks signed two goaltenders. One was Nikolai Khabibulin, the other Raanta. We all remember how that went. Khabibulin, another former Blackhawks player brought in on the hopes that he had something left, didn’t. He started four games — two of which Corey Crawford came in and finished — suffered an injury in mid November and never played another game for the Blackhawks. Then on Dec. 8, Crawford, playing in his 27th game of the Blackhawks’ first 32 games of that season, got hurt. Enter Raanta, who went on a tear through December, going 8-1-3. That season highlights the need for reliable depth at that position more than any in recent memory.

You’re familiar with the other examples, too. Emery was outstanding when he had to be in the lockout-shortened 2013 regular season — please see that 45-stop outing vs. Calgary — and he and Crawford earned the William M. Jennings Trophy that year. Darling showed how dependable he could be several times the past few seasons, from his work in the 2015 first-round series against the Nashville Predators to his record (6-3-1) when Crawford was out with appendicitis through the first three weeks of last December.

That depth at goaltending has been especially critical the past two seasons. How many “goalie wins” did the Blackhawks have through the 2015-16 season, when they struggled to get consistent line combinations past their second one? How many did they have at the start of this past season before they did get that four-line rotation in February?

Crawford has played between 55 and 59 games in each full regular season dating back to 2010-11. Injuries happen. Slumps happen. Being overworked happens. Having a backup on which you can rely is something every team would love to have and something the Blackhawks have had recently, and they’ve benefitted from it.

It’s easy for us to sit here and say the Blackhawks need to do this. Actually finding that guy is an entirely different matter. But the Blackhawks have done it well lately, and despite the team’s quick exit this spring, there are still plenty of reasons for a would-be backup goaltender to come to Chicago.

Darling was the latest to embrace the backup goaltending role in his time here. His moving on was inevitable. Now the Blackhawks need to find the next guy who can keep their 1-2 punch in net going.

Why Scott Darling is a perfect fit for Hurricanes

Why Scott Darling is a perfect fit for Hurricanes

Chicago will always be home for Scott Darling. Literally.

He's a Lemont native who grew up rooting for the Blackhawks, signed with the franchise in 2014 and reignited his career by winning over the backup job, and enjoyed the highest level of success by becoming the first local kid to win a Stanley Cup in Chicago.

But as he said at the end of the season, Darling has paid his dues as a backup in the NHL and is ready for the next step of being a No. 1 goaltender.

The Blackhawks gave him that opportunity Friday, shipping his negotiating rights to the Carolina Hurricanes for a third-round pick in 2017.

And, assuming a long-term extension gets done, the fit couldn't be better for both Darling and Carolina.

The Hurricanes play such a structured game under Bill Peters, who is arguably the most underrated coach in the league. He served as the head coach for the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs for three seasons from 2008-11, and was also part of Mike Babcock's coaching staff in Detroit for three years after that. He comes from a solid coaching branch. 

Peters preaches puck possession and team defense, and both categories have excelled during his tenure in Carolina.

Why is this good news for Darling? Because both of those areas have been vital in all three of the Blackhawks' championship runs this decade, meaning there won't be much of an adjustment schematically.

Over the last three seasons combined, the Hurricanes have been the sixth-best possession team in the league (controlling 51.7 percent of the even-strength shot attempts), have allowed the second-fewest shots on goal per game (27.7) and own the second-ranked penalty kill unit (84.4 percent success rate). 

Defense and dictating the pace of play has never been a problem for the Hurricanes; it's the goaltending that's been a sore thumb for a long time, and they've finally addressed it.

In the last three seasons, Carolina has finished 28th, 29th and 29th in even-strength team save percentage at 90.9 (2015), 91.5 (2016) and 91.2 (2017). This past regular season, only two goaltenders — Craig Anderson (94.0) and Vezina Trophy-favorite Sergei Bobrovsky (93.9) — who appeared in at least 30 games had a better 5-on-5 save percentage than Darling, who recorded a 93.7 percentage.

He is a significant upgrade from Eddie Lack ($2.75 million cap hit) and Cam Ward ($3.3 million), both of whom are under contract through 2017-18. (That's a situation Carolina GM Ron Francis will have to sort out as the expansion draft approaches, but there's no doubt Darling will head into training camp as the clear-cut starter).

There's reason to be excited about the Hurricanes' long-term vision and growth on the back end, too. They were the third-youngest team last year, and their blue line group is led by 25-year-old All-Star Justin Faulk and 20-year-old Noah Hanifin, the club's No. 5 overall draft pick in 2015.

The Hurricanes are right there. They're ready to take off after missing out on the postseason for eight consecutive years, in large part because they haven't gotten the goaltending needed to consistently win games.

With the addition of Darling, they hope to have finally found that missing piece to the puzzle.