Blackhawks: From Champs to Firesale

In viewing the maddening freefall the Chicago Blackhawks have engaged in, one does tend to wonder if Dale Tallon was so bad. Sure, he did come under fire when the National Hockey League Players’ Association claimed the team did not submit offers to their restricted free agents before the deadline, but his fingerprints of building this team are quite salient – or whether Stan Bowman was either a victim of the mess made before him, or if he’s the beneficiary of being the son of arguably hockey’s most legendary coach, is that bad.

It was readily apparent that the Blackhawks had to clear the salary cap fiasco that was facing them, after their long-awaited Stanley Cup Championship; however, the salary cap purge/team restructuring is not exactly going to plan.

In a dizzying chain of events, the Blackhawks are not only faced with losing many key role players, but they’ve lost one of their most electrifying young players, a stalwart two-way player, and now, having walked away from the $2.75 million contract awarded (via arbitration) to Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi, they stand to be left with more questions than answers.

Here is a chronology of the massive purge and changes, since right before NHL Entry Draft, up to the current date:

  • June 23: The Blackhawks trade Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and prospect Akim Aliu to the Atlanta Thrashers for Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb, prospect Jeremy Morin, and a pair of draft picks, one of which was the Thrashers second first round (24th overall) selection.
  • June 24: The Blackhawks trade Forward Colin Fraser to the Edmonton Oilers for a sixth round draft pick.
  • June 30: The Blackhawks trade Kris Versteeg and Bill Sweatt to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Viktor Stalberg, Phiippe Paradis and Chris DiDomenica.
  • July 1: The Blackhawks trade Andrew Ladd to the Atlanta Thrashers for Ivan Vishnevskiy and a second round pick in 2011.
  • July 22: The Blackhawks trade Marty Reasoner – acquired in the Byfuglien trade – to the Florida Panthers for Jeff Taffe.
  • August 2: The Blackhawks elect to sign Marty Turco to a one-year, $1.3 million contract, and elect to let Niemi walk away as an UFA.

To analyze:

They trade away their Stanley Cup hero in Byfuglien. Sure, he was pricy for $3 million per season especially for a guy who scored only 17 regular season goals. However, this was a player who also scored key goals, particularly in the playoffs. This was a case of statistics not fully measuring the worth of a player.

They trade away their chief enforcer in Eager. While the NHL’s rules since the lockout have dimished this role in the game, there is still no measure of the importance of having someone like Eager there to protect the Blackhawks superstars. When you combine Byfuglien’s physicality – 6’3″, 258 lbs. – with Eager’s, this loss becomes even greater.

They trade away an electrfying player in Versteeg, another player with a knack for scoring key goals, particularly in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Versteeg is only 24 years old, and was recently selected to the NHL’s All-Rookie team, as well as being a Calder Cup finalist in 2008-09.

They trade another young talent in Ladd, a former first round pick by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2004. Ladd is also only 24 years old.

They then trade a player that they’d acquired only one month prior in Reasoner, for a career AHL player in Jeff Taffe. Reasoner’s value, for someone with a $1.1 million/year contract, is quite great. He is considered one of the NHL’s top faceoff players, an a “plus”  fourth line center, not to mention a pretty solid +/- player, particularly on a solid NHL team.

Finally, they sign Turco, a proven workhorse in goal. But Turco is also a smaller goaltender (5’11″ to Niemi’s 6’1″) and is much older (35 to Niemi’s 26). With the trend towards taller, bigger, younger goaltenders, this decision is quite puzzling.

It appears that the Blackhawks brain trust engaged in two things: they put all of their eggs into a basket with the intent of re-signing Niemi and they played a dangerous game of chicken, thinking that the arbitration number was to end up far lower. Well, they failed on both counts.

Now, in looking at the roster (with the probable lines) it went from this:

Forwards:
Patrick Kane – Jonathan Toews – Patrick Sharp
Marian Hossa – Dave Bolland – Kris Versteeg
Andrew Ladd – John Madden – Dustin Byfuglien
Tomas Kopecky – Adam Burish – Ben Eager

Defense:
Duncan Keith – Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell – Niklas Hjalmarsson
Cam Barker – Aaron Johnson
(Brent Sopel – Jordan Henry)

Goalies:
Antti Niemi
Cristobal Huet

To this:

Forwards:
Patrick Kane – Jonathan Toews – Troy Brouwer
Marian Hossa – Patrick Sharp – Viktor Stalberg
Tomas Kopecky – Dave Bolland – Bryan Bickell
Jack Skille – Jake Dowell – Igor Makarov/Hugh Jessiman/Jeff Taffe

Defense:
Duncan Keith – Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell – Niklas Hjalmarsson
Shawn Lalonde – Jordan Hendry
(John Scott – Kim Johnsson)

Goalies:
Marty Turco – Corey Crawford

So, does anyone see a problem, here? You lose six forwards, three defensemen and your starting goaltender from the Stanley Cup championship team, and your intent is to repeat as champions? This purging of one of the true young, upstart, potentially sustainable NHL powers is a tragedy.

This has all of the makings of a team which may have a great regular season record, only to be a potential early-round upset victim, and that would be the ultimate tragedy. As an ardent admirer of the job Tallon did when he was with the team – from the ashes to glory – I sure hope I’m proven wrong.

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