As the 2011 calendar year ends, the Blackhawks find themselves in a most enviable position. They’re on top of the Western Conference, have one of the top ten organizations in the NHL, and have over $5.5M in cap space to make a move (if they need to) before the deadline.
Are the Hawks setting the table to make a deal soon?
Chicago is working with an already-full roster right now, but the Rockford Shuttle has started moving some of the organization’s top prospects back and forth from the IceHogs once again. Ben Smith has been to Chicago earlier this year, and now we’ve seen Jeremy Morin and Brandon Pirri in recent games. On Friday night against Detroit, Jimmy Hayes is expected to make his NHL debut.
If the roster’s full, why bring a different kid up from Rockford every few games?
One logical answer is simple: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman is taking inventory of his system while lighting a fire under his underperforming veterans.
There are two forwards on the NHL roster that have been disappointing from an offensive production perspective this year: Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik. While the Hawks boast one of the more potent offenses in the NHL to date, these two were expected to be a bigger (read: any) factor in the scoring this season, but haven’t been yet.
Frolik and Bickell started on the checking line outside of Dave Bolland, a line that was fantastic at the end of last year and started the year with a bang. But once the calendar rolled over to November, the wheels came off for all three and the lack of production has started to impact the ice time of Frolik and Bickell.
Bickell, 25, has spent a few days in the press box this season as the organization tried to get him going. There have been marginal results after he took a seat, and he continues to make fans scratch their heads. After scoring 17 goals last year, many anticipated much bigger things from the big forward in the wake of Troy Brouwer leaving town. And yet, on Dec. 30, he has seven points (four goals, three assists).
Frolik, 23, signed a nice contract extension over the summer (three years, $7M – $2.333M cap hit). For a two-time 20-goal scorer, and considering his age and willingness to play hard in every zone, that cap number is very favorable… as is his restricted status when it expires after the 2013-14 season. But he, too, has struggled to produce. He has only 10 points (five goals, five assists) this season.
Both Bickell and Frolik are minus-seven on the season as well.
Reading between the lines, the Blackhawks appear to be holding tryouts with some of the top tier players in Rockford.
Pirri was impressive in his brief time with Chicago, effectively seeing time on the power play and doing a serviceable job in faceoffs (46.5%). Last year, both Smith and Morin showed an ability to be an impact player in limited action with the NHL team.
All three of those players could conceivably fill a third or fourth line role similar to what Frolik and Bickell have been providing if asked; Pirri spent a good amount of time between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa on the second line and didn’t look lost. With Marcus Kruger showing good ice awareness and developing well this season, his ability to skate anywhere on the roster gives the organization flexibility as well.
Now that Hayes has been recalled, the team will get a look at one of the bigger forward prospects in the organization. His size and speed have impressed a number of people in Rockford, and he’s produced well in his first professional season after leaving his brother behind at Boston College.
But it isn’t only Frolik and Bickell that might be playing for a spot in the organization moving forward.
The Blackhawks have a number of talented prospects that aren’t in Rockford right now that will be pushing for ice time in the AHL (or NHL) next year.
Brandon Saad got a taste of the NHL earlier this year and was impressive; he is now skating for the USA at the World Junior Championships and has looked good in the tournament so far.
Another name to watch at the WJCs is Ludvig Rensfeldt, who is having a fantastic tournament to date and who gives the Hawks another great option up front. The two first round picks of the Blackhawks from the 2011 Draft, Mark McNeill and Phillip Danault, are also having strong seasons with their junior teams. And Jimmy’s “little” brother, Kevin, is having a good season at Boston College.
The point is, the Hawks have a lot of good talent in the organization and the financial flexibility to make a major move if they want to. If Bowman receives an offer that makes sense for the team moving forward this season, he can (and will) pull the trigger to give his team the best chance possible to win the Cup again.
What we’re seeing now is Bowman taking stock of his organizational depth to see what he can afford to move, whether it’s off the current NHL roster or out of Rockford, as part of a deal when that time arrives.