Yes, the Blackhawks have a handful of games between now and the Olympic break. Those will be important for the team’s success this year, and could play a major role in their eventual seed in the Western Conference playoffs this spring. But there is more that Hawks fans should be paying attention to between now and Valentine’s Day than just the games, and it could make an even bigger difference in the team’s contention for the Stanley Cup.
On Wednesday night, the Hawks host the St. Louis Blues. The face value of this game is limited, with there being great joy in Chicago for the road warriors finally returning home against a rival. But between the lines, there is more intrigue building around this roster that won’t quickly go away.
The Blackhawks, with Dave Bolland returning, now have 13 healthy forwards trying to fill 12 active spots, and Adam Burish is expected to come back in March. Reports are that Colin Fraser will be the first healthy scratch in the mix of forwards for the crowded Blackhawks front lines, but the Hawks won’t likely go too long with too many players on the roster for the available slots. Which is what makes the next two weeks interesting for Blackhawks fans.
It’s the trade market.
We’ve already seen a handful of fairly substantial deals go down. The Calgary Flames have made two moves that, on their face, appear to be desperate moves to shake up a struggling roster that’s fallen out of the playoff picture in the West. Unloading a young star like Dion Phaneuf is hard for any franchise to do, and when you look at the return the Flames received, it raises eyebrows. Both moves made by Calgary are, presumable, calculated risks to maximize the immediate at the expense of the future. Ian White’s a nice player, but his upside isn’t nearly that of Phaneuf.
On the other side of the spectrum is Toronto, where Brian Burke has been bold in making two moves to add stars. By making moves for Phaneuf and Jean Sebastian Giguere, despite being clearly out of the playoffs, Burke has bolstered his lineup for the coming seasons. Toronto unloaded a lot of draft picks to get Phil Kessel last summer, and now has to look to either their minors, which are limited, or the trade market to improve. Burke has done a masterful job of lining his franchise up to be a player in the coming seasons.
The Blackhawks aren’t similar to either of these teams. They aren’t building for the future like Burke, and they certainly aren’t desperate like Calgary. The Hawks are in it to win it, so they’re in a mindset to tinker more than overhaul.
The subplot to this tinkering is the looming salary cap issues the Hawks are staring at this coming summer. Conservative estimates are that the Blackhawks need to cut between $10-12 million off next year’s payroll to have a roster under the cap. Between that reality, and the Hawks likely want for more depth on the blue line, a deal might be coming.
The trade deadline isn’t until March 3, but there’s a trade freeze during the Olympics (Feb. 12-28), which is what’s pushing the trade rumors up to now.
We’ve already talked about the biggest name on the trade market, Ilya Kovalchuk. The reports have been mixed regarding his future, with some saying he’s going to agree to an incredible extension with the Atlanta Thrashers.
Reality for a financially-struggling franchise like Atlanta committing eight, nine, or ten years and $100 million to one player, though, is hard to imagine even in Georgia. The Thrashers organization has a history of letting players go, and Kovalchuk could be one of those players that the Thrashers’ management decides they simply cannot afford.
Reports from TSN’s Darren Dreger on Wednesday afternoon are that GM Don Waddell met with Kovalchuk today to inform him that a trade could be coming.
If you read what many of the big name analysts have said lately, the best, and perhaps only logical fit for a Kovalchuk deal is Chicago. Atlanta is not willing to let the receiving franchise negotiate an extension with Kovalchuk before a trade, which has pulled many teams away from the table. Kovalchuk has also expressed interest in testing free agency, meaning a team that trades for him would have to unload a lot of talent for a potential rental.
A rumor that has been brought up recently by TSN’s Bob McKenzie and HockeyBuzz’s John Jaeckel is a deal that would send Cam Barker, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg to Atlanta for Kovalchuk and defenseman Boris Valabik. Intriguing…
Barker’s time in Chicago is likely, and thankfully, coming to a close at some point between now and September. For the production he’s bringing on the ice, and his $3 million price tag, he’s not pulling his weight on a team loaded with studs. Valabik is a big (6’7, 240 lbs) defenseman that has only played in 22 games this year, but who would fit into a rotation with Brent Sopel and Jordan Hendry for the rest of the season well. He’ll turn 24 on Valentine’s Day, and is under contract for next year with a cap number of only $775,000. That’s the kind of depth the Hawks are looking to build. He isn’t a statistically great contributor on the offensive end, but a team that has the firepower under contract that the Hawks have isn’t necessarily looking for another Brian Campell.
What makes this deal intriguing is considering the relative value being exchanged up front. Ladd is a restricted free agent after this season who, in all likelihood, won’t be invited back because of the cap issues. So, like Kovalchuk, he would be gone after this year anyway. The big gamble would be swapping out his offense, and Versteeg’s, for the rest of this year for Kovalchuk’s production.
To date, Ladd and Versteeg have combined for 58 points (24 goals, 34 assists). Kovalchuk, to date, has produced 58 points alone (31 goals, 24 assists). Hopefully that answers any potential problems with the production being exchanged.
The other point to consider in this deal is that it would cut $7.6 million off the 2010-11 books for the Hawks in exchange for an elite scoring forward. Kovalchuk would allow coach Joel Quenneville to move Dustin Bydfuglien out of the point on the power play and put his 240-pound frame in front of the net where it belongs. It would also give the Hawks more offensive depth than any team in hockey, including the ridiculous Washington Capitals.
This is just one rumor that’s flying right now, but the meeting between Waddell and Kovalchuk seems to make a move imminent. The Los Angeles Kings have been the hot name tied to Kovalchuk lately, but they don’t have pieces of value that they can afford to move in a deal like Versteeg, Barker and Ladd that wouldn’t impact their depth like this proposed move would impact the Hawks.
As the rumors continue to fly, we’ll keep you updated.