Since the city of Chicago started sweeping up the Blackhawks’ championship parade, it’s felt like teams all over the NHL are sweeping up Hawks players with the same amount of ease. And to most Hawks fans, it hasn’t been easy to stomach.
There were going to be salary cap casualties, everyone knew that. Before the unloading process began, we discussed an action plan by which the Hawks could have, in theory, kept the group together. In that assessment, we projected that Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel were the most likely players under contract to be moved, with a chance that Kris Versteeg would be gone as well. The assumption was also that most, if not all, of the team’s unrestricted free agents would depart.
A few short weeks later, Byfuglien, Versteeg and Sopel have all been dealt. So were restricted free agent Andrew Ladd’s rights. So were the rights to Colin Fraser. As were the rights to Ben Eager. And Adam Burish signed elsewhere. The exodus started to feel biblical.
But it was all relatively predictable.
What wasn’t predicted was that the Hawks would take an additional cap hit of $4.2 million because of bonuses awarded to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane because they achieved levels of success that were laughable when they signed their initial contracts three years ago. Do you honestly think Dale Tallon, who was trying to get the team out of last place, thought twice about handing Toews a $3 million bonus if he won the Conn Smythe?
But now here we are, wandering up the creek without a paddle, and teams are circling the champions like vultures.
It appears agents are, too.
Last week, Antti Niemi and his agent were reportedly close to agreeing to a deal with the Blackhawks. However, at the last moment, Niemi’s camp decided to file for arbitration. The Hawks had a moment of pause, and during that hesitation the St. Louis Blues shot a torpedo at them by giving Jaroslav Halak $3.75 million per year on a new deal. He was the first restricted free agent goalie of comparable value to Niemi to sign, meaning the bar had been raised by nearly a million dollars at the new negotiating table.
Then on Friday came the news that 23-year-old defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, with his career totals of 111 games and 21 points, had signed an offer sheet with the San Jose Sharks for four years and $14 million ($3.5M/per).
When the news hit the stands at the opening day of the Blackhawks’ prospect camp, there was a collective gasp, followed by “What the…”
The move was far from expected coming from San Jose, who had the best record in the Western Conference last year. But their GM, former Blackhawks defenseman Doug Wilson, knows talent and saw great things from Hjalmarsson while the Hawks eliminated his Sharks from the playoffs last year. So in the “two birds with one stone” move of the week, he may have crippled the Blackhawks negotiating abilities with both Hjalmarsson and Niemi and landed a top defenseman to replace retiring Rob Blake on his own roster with one piece of paper.
And, just as Blackhawks fans thought the dust may have finally settled, the tornado touched down again.
The moves of these two key players from the Hawks championship team, and their agents, brought a number of emotions to the surface, but only one stayed bubbling for hours.
This isn’t 2005 any more. Tallon isn’t begging has-been or might-never-be players to come to Chicago. Bill Wirtz isn’t counting pennies in his office any more. The Chicago Blackhawks aren’t the bottom feeders of the NHL.
They’re the Stanley Cup Champions.
So this is what the Blackhawks front office should do.
Mr. Hjalmarsson: good bye.
Mr. Niemi (and Zito): good bye.
If these two young players and their agents feel that they can hold the Blackhawks hostage because they contributed to the team’s success, they can take the money and run. What their naive approach and lack of NHL experience forget is that they can be replaced, and the Blackhawks might be better off to let them walk.
In November and December, there was talk that the Hawks wouldn’t be able to keep three of their core players under contract. But Stan Bowman held a press conference and gave all of Chicago an wonderful Christmas gift when he presented the new contracts of Duncan Keith, Toews and Kane.
Toews now has the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Keith now has the Norris Trophy.
And Kane ended the season in the league’s top ten in scoring.
It’s time the Hawks front office borrows some of the swagger from their (remaining) players and owned the negotiating table. Names like Zito never held the Detroit Red Wings captive when Scotty Bowman was owning the Central Division, so why should they be able to do that to these Blackhawks, who are in position to run the division for the next decade?
So let them walk. Go get paid, boys. Enjoy playing somewhere else.
And Hjalmarsson can wonder what might have been while he watches Joe Thornton disappear again next April.
And Niemi can wonder where all his gaudy shutout totals went when he started facing 35 shots a game instead of 24.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks will move one, and keep rolling.
Here’s a scenario to consider.
The Blackhawks have likely earmarked roughly $6.5 million in cap space to, in theory, keep Niemi and Hjalmarsson around. What else could they do with that money if they let the two youngsters go?
First, let’s address the blue line. Hjalmarsson averaged 19:39 on ice last year, with 2:09 coming short-handed every night. In 77 games, he scored two goals and had 15 assists, and was +9. He was credited with 59 hits and 137 blocked shots.
For roughly $2 million less than Hjalmarsson’s offer sheer – which, by the way, will pay him almost $200,000 a year more than the new deal Dan Girardi just signed with the NY Rangers – the Hawks could effectively replace Hjalmarsson’s production and Sopel’s leadership by bringing in veteran Aaron Ward.
Ward might not be the fastest skating defenseman int he league, but his numbers last year between Carolina and Anaheim were very respectable. In 60 games with Carolina he averaged 18:06 on the ice per night, of which 2:20 was on the penalty kill. After being dealt to Anaheim, his role diminished to only 14:26 per night and 1:36 short-handed in 17 games. However, in total for the season he was credited with 177 hits and 146 blocked shots, both numbers being bigger than those Hjalmarsson provided the Hawks last year.
In fact, giving the veteran Ward a one-year deal would be better for the organization’s development than tying up another spot on the blue line for three, four or five more years. Look at the Hawks’ top prospects that are skating in Chicago this weekend. If the Hawks lock up Hjalmarsson for four more years, and the globally accepted assumption is that Brent Seabrook will be locked up long-term next year, where are guys like Shawn LaLonde, Dylan Olsen, Nick Leddy, Ryan Stanton and Stephen Johns supposed to play?
Are the Hawks going to skate the best four defensive pairs in the NHL?
So let Hjalmarsson walk, and see how many more rings he wins with the Sharks. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks could bring one or two of their young studs up to fill in the gaps, just as they did with Hjalmarsson at the end of the 2008-09 season, and get both younger and cheaper. The Blackhawks could skate three pairs of Keith/Seabrook, Campbell/LaLonde and Ward/Stanton. Those are three good pairs on the blue line still, and they’re skating effectively cheaper than they would with Hjalmarsson.
John Scott would be able to be the healthy scratch/seventh defenseman/13th forward full-time on the NHL roster.
And let’s allow Niemi and Zito to go looking for bigger money. Meanwhile, the Hawks could add Marty Turco or Jose Theodore for roughly $2 million, and let them compete with Hannu Toivonen and Corey Crawford for the starting goalie gig. Let’s not be too quick to forget that Niemi was the last guy to make the Hawks roster coming out of training camp last fall, barely beating out Crawford for what was then the backup job on the Hawks.
We’ll throw out for a moment the goals against averages of the three goalies and look at the number that’s more indicative of the netminders’ performances: save percentage. Last year, Niemi had a save percentage of .912. How far off were Turco and Theodore? Turco was .913; Theodore .911. But the goals against for both of those goalies was higher because they faced more shots; do you think Washington played defense for more than ten seconds a game last year?
So instead of giving handicapping future moves by overpaying a goalie, the Hawks will do what Scotty Bowman did for years in Detroit and recycle a decent goalie behind exceptional defense and continue to win. And they’ll do it by saving more money.
For a moment, we’ll assume that Toivonen beats Crawford for the backup job; he lost the gig to a Fin last year, so why mess with a streak. Here’s what the Blackhawks roster could look like:
Marian Hossa-Jonathan Toews-Viktor Stalberg
Patrick Kane-Dave Bolland-Patrick Sharp
Bryan Bickell-Marty Reasoner-Troy Brouwer
Tomas Kopecky-Jake Dowell-Kyle Beach (John Scott)
Duncan Keith-Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell-Shawn LaLonde
Aaron Ward-Ryan Stanton
And, utilizing Capgeek.com to do the math for us, we see that this roster with a healthy scratch included and limited, if any, statistical dropoff from last year’s team, actually has $1.972 million in available cap space.
That’s right, I said available cap space.
What does that mean?
That means if, heaven forbid, Stanton or LaLonde doesn’t show up, the Hawks can bring someone else up.
That means if, heaven forbid, Beach doesn’t work out or Stalberg isn’t ready, the Hawks can add a forward.
That means if, heaven forbid, Turco or Theodore doesn’t show up, the Hawks can make a move for another netminder.
That means, in November or December, the Hawks can afford to have another press conference to announce Seabrook’s contract extension. And nobody has to worry about Sharp going anywhere for at least 10 more months.
The Blackhawks could let Hjalmarsson and Niemi go, not drop off that much, and have the flexibility to be a player at the deadline if the need to be. It also opens the door for some of the promising young prospects to have a shot at the NHL in the future without becoming trade bait because there are too many long-term deals leaving them in college/Rockford.
So feel free to be cocky, Stan. You’re the General Manager of the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. If these guys want out, let them walk. They’ll be the one’s watching the parade from home next summer.