As we head towards July 2, the insanity appears to have settled down (well, except for Brad Richards). A lot of money changed hands on Friday, and now that the dust has settled there are as many questions as answers.
Let’s take a look at the moves the Blackhawks made, and around the Central Division, in an attempt to make some sense of what happened on Friday.
Including the deal from late Thursday night, here are the new contracts on the Blackhawks’ books entering the 2011-12 season (with the term of the deal):
In these six contracts, one of which (McLean) is a two-way deal, the Blackhawks only committed for longer than this season to one player.
While the addition of Dan Carcillo is questionable/ridiculous/out-of-left-field, the other four veterans clearly bring size and quality depth to the Blackhawks roster at affordable dollar amounts. Brunette will probably replace Troy Brouwer’s production and might slide into the top six this fall, while a bottom defensive pair of O’Donnell and Montador is an enormous upgrade from last year’s season; with Brian Campbell on injured reserve in October, the Hawks were stuck with Nick Boynton, Jordan Hendry, John Scott and a babyfaced Nick Leddy to hold down the blue line.
Most of the headlines were made by Eastern Conference teams on Friday. Buffalo made a splash, handing a six-year deal to Ville Leino. Washington also shot for the moon, adding Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik and still negotiating with Troy Brouwer.
The biggest noise came from the Florida Panthers, though. Former Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon is getting the band back together, trading for Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg. He also took advantage of the higher salary cap by signing Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Ed Jovanovski and Jose Theodore.
But in the Western Conference, the team making the biggest statement so far has been the Columbus Blue Jackets. They added a top-line center, Jeff Carter, and a top-pair defenseman, James Wisniewski, in a total annual salary cap commitment more than 20 percent of the team’s payroll (more than $10.7M) to the two new faces.
Detroit spent Friday retaining their internal free agents. St. Louis and Nashville were also quiet, staying on the sidelines while other teams spent a king’s ransom on paupers.
What should we take away from the Blackhawks moves on Friday afternoon?
First of all, clearly the team was too soft for the coaches and management last year. The one thing Montador, Mayers and Carcillo have in common is a willingness to drop the gloves with anyone.
Secondly, Stan Bowman obviously wanted to be stronger in front of the net defensively. Between Montador and O’Donnell, the Blackhawks added 214 blocked shots and two physical defensemen for roughly half of Brian Campbell’s cap number.
But those two considerations aren’t the real story.
The Blackhawks made subtle moves to increase their depth without mortgaging their future on Friday. So far, 28 contracts have been handed out that are longer than two years in length. Only one of those, Montador, is with Chicago.
Blackhawks brass has been consistent in the last year that there is a great deal of faith in the organization’s depth, but the team wants to develop prospects appropriately; unless lightning strikes, we may not see another pair of 18-year-olds on the United Center ice for a long, long time.
By signing all short-term, inexpensive paper, the Blackhawks are putting together a competitive roster in 2011-12, but aren’t making the mistake of putting a concrete ceiling on their payroll ahead of the prospects their nurturing in Rockford (and elsewhere).
Perhaps the most subtle reality of the Blackhawks moves is the volume of deals that took place. If we include Ben Smith on the NHL roster but consider Marcus Kruger to be a prospect still, the Blackhawks have a 20-man roster filled already without signing any of their restricted free agents. Bowman has been clear that he would like to keep Michael Frolik and Chris Campoli, and even perhaps Viktor Stalberg, and has the financial flexibility to do so.
But not many teams start a season with 23 players on their NHL roster. Indeed, what happens if Kruger, Jeremy Morin, or any other prospect decides to take the next step at some point between mid-September and the end of March?
Contracts that are less than one-year in length and $1M in value are the easiest to make disappear.
As injuries happen around the league, the Blackhawks will have options on the trade market with these cheap contracts. There is also no guarantee that Carcillo or John Scott will even make the team out of training camp simply based on the volume of players available to Blackhawks coaches.
Did the Blackhawks find their second line center? No. Did they add a game-changing forward? No.
Are those answers enough to write off the entire 2011-12 season? Absolutely not.
As Brunette said when he spoke briefly with Chicago media members, the Blackhawks still have arguably the best core of young talent in the game. And there are reinforcements coming up through the organization. But some of those players (read: Kyle Beach) aren’t ready yet in the eyes of management. So Bowman filled out his roster with character players (except Carcillo) and with minimal financial exposure.
Blackhawks Day One Grade: B-
Bowman had a solid B until the Carcillo deal, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever; he is the worst possible role model for Beach that the organization could bring into the mix. But Carcillo might not even make the team, so it’s hard to hold that deal against Bowman long-term. Similarly, there are strong indications that Rostislav Olesz isn’t expected to make much/any of an impact in Chicago this fall (or ever). If he’s buried in Rockford, the Blackhawks have an additional $3.125M to play with.
Another major consideration that must be made is that the Blackhawks did get better on Friday. Detroit hasn’t replaced Brian Rafalski yet, and Nashville and St. Louis did nothing. Indeed, Columbus may have taken steps to catch up to the rest of the division, but the Blackhawks improved the most so far this summer.
So while lemmings are jumping off the bandwagon all weekend, take a deep breath. All is not lost. We’re still two months away from training camp, and seven months from the trade deadline. The Blackhawks’ roster is a work-in-progress, and Bowman’s still working.