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.

Jonathan Toews practices but won’t play vs. Flyers

Jonathan Toews practices but won’t play vs. Flyers

Jonathan Toews sounded somewhat frustrated but cognizant of the situation.

If it were the postseason there’s no doubt he would be playing right now. That’s not a surprise to hear, considering what hockey players put themselves through when the playoffs start. But this is early December. There are too many games remaining. And with it coming down to making sure he’s healthy for the long haul, it’s an easy call.

Toews practiced on Friday for the first time since being hurt, but he won’t travel to Philadelphia when the Blackhawks face the Flyers on Saturday afternoon. It will be the fifth consecutive game Toews has missed since he was hurt against the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 23. Still, him skating on his own and then practicing with teammates for a few minutes is a good sign that Toews is closing in on a return.

“Just come back and check in again [Saturday], see how it is and hopefully, I guess as they say, re-evaluate for Sunday,” Toews said on Friday. “It’s never fun to miss any time, especially when the team is playing as many games as they are. So nice to get back out there and move around and get going a little bit.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Toews was placed on injured reserve on Friday, retroactive to Nov. 24, the day after he was injured.  Coach Joel Quenneville said he’ll see how Toews feels on Saturday and, “we’ll get a better idea going forward. But he’s not on the trip.”

“You gotta be fully recovered and want to make sure guys are 100 percent before they can play,” Quenneville said. “Jonny plays at a certain pace and it’s all out, so let’s make sure he’s more than ready when he’s coming back.”

Several have reported that Toews has a back injury, and the captain was doing several back stretches during Friday’s session. Toews left in the second period of the Blackhawks’ 2-1 loss to the Sharks, moments after he went down awkwardly. But Toews said he wasn’t hurt on that play. 

“I think it was just something that started to aggravate in the first period. I tried playing in the second and that instance right there, just went down like a ton of bricks,” Toews said. “I was trying not to aggravate the injury more than I already had. That wasn’t where I got hurt; [it was] probably the instance people were looking for to see what the explanation was.”

If this were April and the playoffs were about to begin, Toews probably wouldn’t be as patient with his injury. But it isn’t, and he will be. It’s not worth making worse. The Blackhawks have managed to get points in his absence, going 3-0-1 so far.

“It’s the type of thing most guys would be able to suck up and play if it were a playoff game and putting everything on the line. But at this point, with the amount of games left in the season, it’s not something you want to continuously deal with,” he said. “If you aggravate it, it’ll keep coming back to haunt you. It’s tough to hold back and do less than you know you can, but in the long run, trying to make sure I get back to 100 percent.”

BRIEFLY

- Trevor van Riemsdyk was activated off the injured-reserve list and is expected to play against the Flyers.

- Marian Hossa took practice off. He is expected to play.

-  Corey Crawford will start vs. Philadelphia.

Blackhawks Road Ahead: Feasting on the East

Blackhawks Road Ahead: Feasting on the East

Pat Boyle, Steve Konroyd and Jamal Mayers have the latest on Joel Quenneville's group in this edition of the Blackhawks Road Ahead, sponsored by Chicagoland NW Indiana Honda dealers.

The Blackhawks are once again taking care of business, going 3-0-1 with their captain Jonathan Toews on the sideline. They're also 6-2-2 against the East this year, and they'll get another chance to add to that record when they take on the Flyers this week.

Here's what our Blackhawks Postgame Live crew had to say about the team's upcoming matchups in this week's Honda Road Aehad.