August 10, 2010 // 9:59am ET
Off-Season Report: Chicago Blackhawks
By Tab Bamford,

CHICAGO, IL -- Three years ago, it was a different world in Chicago.

The Blackhawks were 29th in the NHL in attendance, averaging enough bodies in the seats that the traditional applause during the National Anthem was barely enough to make Tiger Woods curse. The Hawks were coming off a 71-point season and last place finish in the Central Division.

Then-GM Dale Tallon was negotiating entry-level deals with two of the highest-drafted players in the history of the franchise, hoping that these two kids would turn around the organization. He had rolled the dice on both players, passing on players that some felt were more NHL-ready than the two players he selected.

When the agent for one of the 18-year-olds told Tallon his client wanted a multi-million dollar bonus for winning the Conn Smyth, Tallon probably chuckled. The Blackhawks hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1961, and this kid wants to get paid for being playoff MVP?

Tallon signed both kids, and hoped they would join a team that was excited to have seen Martin Havlat hit 57 points, and was thrilled another kid, Patrick Sharp, scored 20 goals. But in a division with the Detroit Red Wings, the Hawks were trying to find a third player to break 40 points, much less a leader.

Little did Tallon, or the Blackhawks, know how much would change in three short years.

Days before the open of the 2007-08 season, owner Bill Wirtz died. He had run the organization in a way that led most Chicago fans to refer to him as “Dollar Bill,” but was leaving the team in the hands of his son, Rocky. As Chicago would find out quickly, Rocky was far from his father.

The Hawks, somehow, stole marketing genius John MacDonough and Jay Blunk from the Chicago Cubs, and started to promote the daylights out of their youngsters. But the product on the ice would have to back up the promotions.

Just 12 short months later, both of the kids with whom Tallon was negotiating were among the finalists for the Calder Trophy. Patrick Kane won it, and Jonathan Toews was emerging as a two-way force. Just one year after the team struggled to get two players past 40 points, they had four score at least 54. Kane led the team with 72 points, and Sharp climbed to 62.

The team barely missed the playoffs in 2007-08, and the United Center was slowly starting to fill. Young defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were starting to develop into a really good top pair, and a young defenseman coach Denis Savard had moved to forward looked to be developing into something special; Dustin Byfuglien scored 19 goals while averaging just over 17 minutes a night at a new position.

The Hawks were back on the map enough that Tallon was able to recruit the top free agent defenseman, Brian Campbell, and netminder Cristobal Huet. While paying each a king’s ransom played a part in landing the two free agents, just a couple years prior he wouldn’t have been able to even get a free agent on the phone.

After that season, Chicago woke up to the talent on the West Side. Season ticket sales skyrocketed to the point that the team had to process some credit cards twice; they had crashed their server trying to accept payments.

Fast forward two more years. The Blackhawks don’t have issues taking people’s money any more.

All the begging, borrowing and dealing that Tallon, and eventually Stan Bowman, did to build a winner paid off. The team has sold out every game for two straight seasons, and for the first time in 49 years will celebrate a Stanley Cup Championship before a home opener.

This historical context is necessary because of how full the bandwagon is in Chicago, and how quickly the local and national media is ready to hang the team for losing nine players off their championship roster.

Toews and Kane got the bonuses that Tallon likely laughed while agreeing to, and the Hawks are taking a hit of over $4 million against the salary cap in 2010-11 because of it. The begging Tallon had to do to land free agents Campbell and Huet now has the two veterans being viewed as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow; they’re destroying the city, one trade at a time.

However, a deep breath and a look at what Bowman has done over this summer should lead both the Hawks’ fans and the media to realize that things aren’t as bad as they might seem on the West Side.

Yes, there are nine players leaving the championship roster. But let’s take a moment to look at which nine players are leaving, and what their potential impact on this year’s defending roster will be.

Five of the nine players were statistically marginal factors last year. Adam Burish, Colin Fraser and Ben Eager were all fourth line grinders that meant more in the locker room than they did on the ice. The three combined to play just 143 games last year, scoring 39 combined points (15 goals, 24 assists). In the post-season these three added one goal and two assists in 36 combined playoff appearances.

These three will easily be replaced by kids looking for a chance.

Jack Skille, once the seventh overall pick in the draft, will finally get a chance to show what he’s worth at the NHL level.

To those wondering where the team will get their emotional spark, the answer might be 20-year-old prospect Kyle Beach who replaces Eager and Burish in the “ready and willing” category. Beach has been impressive at every level of minor hockey, but raised eyebrows at the Hawks prospect camp when he accounted for three fights and just one point in the four days.

Last summer, the Blackhawks added three free agents: Marian Hossa, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden. Two of them, Madden and Kopecky, were seen as role players on the Hawks roster, and their most important assets were championship rings from previous destinations.

However, Madden was forced into a more prominent role because Dave Bolland required back surgery in November last year, limiting him to 36 regular season games. With Bolland back at full strength in the playoffs, Madden’s role narrowed to little more than a penalty killer and faceoff specialist; that will be replaced easily. Indeed, Bolland will probably replace Madden’s offensive production (10 goals, 13 assists) in an extra 46 games with a good back this year.

The same can be said for Andrew Ladd, who was acquired in a trade from Carolina late in the 2007-08 season. He won’t be 25 until December and has an effective game with a 6-2, 200 pound frame, but what the Hawks loved about him was his championship ring. To get over the hump, Tallon put experience all over the roster.

Ladd was a nice, 13-minute-per-night player who contributed 38 points (17 goals, 24 assists). And on a Thrashers roster that isn’t as top heavy as the Blackhawks, he might be a second or third line forward. But the problem for Ladd was his restricted free agent status; for the $2.35 million Ladd will earn in Atlanta this year, the Hawks will put three forwards and a defenseman on the ice.

What’s most important to remember is that the biggest contribution Madden and Ladd brought to the roster last year was championship experience. Entering the post-season in April, the Hawks had three players with rings: Madden, Kopecky and Ladd. Entering 2010-11, they’ll have at least 13 players on their roster getting jewelry, and a couple more with post-season experience.

Madden and Ladd were solid players who played their role, but when hockey becomes a business they were a means to an end. Their experience isn’t as important now as the cap flexibility the Blackhawks will have moving forward.

Brent Sopel is a unique situation. He was older, and drove a lot of fans at the United Center crazy throughout the regular season. He provided very little offense (eight points in 73 regular season games), but became a key penalty killer who was willing to put his body between any shooter and the net.

The Blackhawks will likely look to another top prospect, Shawn Lalonde, to replace Sopel. Lalonde was overwhelmingly impressive at the Hawks prospect camp in July, and could have a very bright future in Chicago. By getting younger, faster and cheaper, the Blackhawks could be better on the blue line this year.

However, what is most important to consider about Sopel’s departure is that the Hawks will have all four of their top defensemen back to begin 2010-11. Given Niklas Hjalmarsson’s raise, he’ll now be asked to play a more prominent role in special teams to fill the void left by Sopel.

That successfully justifies and replaces six of the nine departures.

The biggest name, and body, that has left this year and has most fans crying into their beers is that of Byfuglien. The focus of more “History Will Be Made” commercials than any other player, Byfuglien is the face of the Blackhawks Bandwagon and, at the end of the Finals, was the most over rated player in the NHL.

Perhaps saying that Byfuglien was over rated is taboo, but look at his entire body of work.

Yes, he owned Roberto Luongo for a week. And yes, he slammed Chris Pronger into the boards like a rag doll. Byfuglien tied for the team lead with 11 goals in the post-season, and the fair-weather talk of him being “dominant power forward” started.

Look back to before he started tormenting Luongo, which coincidentally happened when he was placed back on the Hawks top line with Toews and Kane. Byfuglien had zero points and was minus-five through the first eight games of the playoffs, and there were whispers that the Hawks could replace him in the lineup with Bryan Bickell.

Bickell, who is listed conservatively at 6-4 and 225 pounds, surprisingly skated with Toews and Kane at the open of the Nashville series after spending most of the season in Rockford of the AHL. He looked good at times in that limited exposure, but his big body will be asked to play a role replacing the physical Byfuglien.

Because Byfuglien was so noticeable on the ice, fans with long-term memory loss will assume he was the only physical forward on the Blackhawks roster last year. While Byfuglien certainly was a big-hitter, leading Chicago with 215 regular season hits, he also racked up 98 penalty minutes.

Meanwhile, Troy Brouwer totaled 189 hits while accumulating only 66 penalty minutes, and pitched in five more goals than Byfuglien for one-third the cap hit.

For what it’s worth, Bickell had three goals, 22 hits and only five penalty minutes in 16 regular season games last year. His cap number will be $542,000 this year.

When Bowman made the first major move of the off-season, sending Byfuglien to Atlanta with Sopel and Eager, it signaled the beginning of the nightmare for the Hawks’ marketing department. All of the new fans that had just paid $250 for a Byfuglien jersey were suddenly crying foul without realizing the value Bowman had received.

The net result of that trade was the 24th overall pick in the 2010 Draft, Kevin Hayes, the 54th overall pick, Justin Holl, and 19-year-old forward Jeremy Morin, who was selected with the 45th overall pick by Atlanta in the 2009 Draft. In four years, there’s a very good chance that Morin or Hayes is considered the best player involved in the trade.

Of course not many of the crying fans that paid for a “Big Buff” sweater this spring were around when the Hawks traded Matt Ellison to Philadelphia five years ago for a 23-year-old center named Patrick Sharp.

And, in a stroke of irony, not many fans who are now wondering what to do with their Kris Versteeg jerseys cared when he was acquired from Boston three years ago for Brandon Bochenski. Meanwhile, Bowman again added significant depth to the organization and added a potential replacement for Versteeg when he dealt the young forward to Toronto for Viktor Stalberg, Philip Paradis and Chris DiDomenico.

Versteeg will be the toughest player to replace on the ice for the Hawks this year. Chicago will return eight of their top penalty killers and seven of their top ten powerplay skaters; Versteeg was on both lists. He was a Calder Trophy candidate the year after Kane won it, and has continued to progress nicely as a player.

The Leafs got a very good player to skate with Phil Kessel when they acquired Versteeg, but paid a significant price with two of their better prospects and Stalberg, who could make an immediate impact in Chicago.

Overall, only two of the eight skaters that have left the championship roster left for nothing. Madden, who joined the Minnesota Wild, and Burish, who received a nice pay raise from the Dallas Stars, left as free agents; the Hawks successfully turned every other cap casualty into an asset that Bowman used to give the Blackhawks perhaps the greatest influx of organizational depth in the entire NHL this summer.

Which brings us to the most controversial departure from the Hawks roster this summer: Antti Niemi.

It’s hard to fathom that the Blackhawks have started 78 goalies since their last Stanley Cup win, including names like Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour and Tony Esposito, and they just let the one that finally brought Lord Stanley back to Chicago walk away. But there appears to be an enormous disconnect between Niemi’s agent, Bill Zito, and reality.

On the first day of the Blackhawks prospect camp, the San Jose Sharks made a bold statement by extending an offer sheet to restricted free agent defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. The terms of the offer sheet were four years at $3.5 million each, putting Bowman in a tough situation. He had done a lot of house cleaning already, and appeared to be in position to offer adequate extensions to both Niemi and Hjalmarsson before this bombshell dropped.

When the Hawks matched the offer sheet a few days later, the ability of the team to retain Niemi became questionable.

When Zito filed for arbitration, and showed every intention of taking the process to a climax involving the third party arbitrator, it became clear that the Hawks would have a new mask between their piped next year.

What appears to be a poorly-informed gamble by Zito backfired. A very simple history lesson would have shown Zito that no Bowman, Stan or his legendary father Scotty, has paid big money for a goalie. Indeed, Scotty’s history, most recently in Detroit, displays a simple philosophy that “defense(men) win championships.” Clearly, the choice between Hjalmarsson and Niemi was going to favor the younger blue line player.

When Stan Bowman spoke with the media, announcing both that the team was parting ways with Niemi and introducing his replacement, the Hawks GM indicated that the organization had extended a number of offers, including multi-year deals, to Niemi’s side of the table without success.

"We made several contract offers, including a multi-year offer, and we were never able to work it out," Bowman told the media on a conference call.

One reported offer was a three-year deal worth $8 million total, which would have presented a cap number within $200,000 of Niemi’s arbitration award of $2.75M. Zito has denied any specific multi-year deal was ever offered.

Where Niemi ends up playing in 2010-11 hasn’t been determined yet, but Chicago does know that Marty Turco will replace him in net for the defending champions. Turco had a better save percentage than Niemi in the regular season last year, and is one of the best puck-handling netminders in the game; his ability to move the puck with Chicago’s elite top-four defensemen could actually improve the Blackhawks rush in the 2010-11 season.

Turco turned away other offers that included more years and money, all holding out for a chance to play for the defending champions. In fact, Turco is taking a pay cut of over $4M to join Chicago on what could prove to be an enormous gamble in the career of the 34-year-old former Star.

In Niemi, many fans felt the Hawks had a known commodity after the playoffs. However, we had only seen 42 regular season games from him and, considering the cost, the Hawks had little choice. What might be most important about Turco’s contract is that the Hawks could potentially have up to $2M of cap space to work with if they need to make a deal during the season.

Unfortunately for Niemi, there’s a very good chance the Blackhawks won’t miss him as much as he misses Chicago next year.

There are still a number of questions heading into next year, though.

Will the team’s offense suffer?

Not likely. It’s easy to forget that the Hawks challenged for the top seed in the Western Conference last year despite Hossa being out until late November and Bolland playing in under 40 regular season games. Those two will account for most of the lost offense by themselves just by being healthy.

Will the team’s defense suffer?

Not if the Hawks top four defensemen, which might be the best group in the game today, play like they did in the playoffs last year.

Will the team’s chemistry suffer?

It could. But adding a few hungry rookies to the mix with something to prove might buoy the morale on the youngest team in the league. Remember, the “youngsters” like Skille and Bickell that will join the roster full-time in 2010-11 are older than Toews and Kane.

With all of the moves Chicago has made, the losses could all be accounted for in the short term and the organization could be better in the long run because of the dramatic exodus in the summer of 2010.

And yet the Blackhawks marketing department might want to give Larry David a call. Hawks fans might need to curb their enthusiasm as the new season draws near.

While Chicago is collectively screaming into their phones on sports radio about the Blackhawks blowing a chance to repeat, another simple history lesson shows that the likelihood of that taking place is slim at best. Only two teams in the last 20 years have repeated as champions, and both were before the lockout and current salary cap structure.

But while a repeat might not happen (and probably wouldn’t have even if the identical roster came back), the Blackhawks have built an organization that could challenge for championships for the next decade.

Three and four years ago, Tallon had to beg free agents to even consider Chicago, and couldn’t give tickets away. Today, the Hawks are defending Stanley Cup champions, and are in a strong position to compete for years to come.

Tab Bamford is the Chicago Blackhawks team writer for The Fourth Period.

[ From the Editor ]
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