Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Chicago Blackhawks - Don't Let Your Entry-Level Contracts Grow Up To Arbitration

The Chicago Blackhawks made it to the Conference Finals, their team is incredibly young, so we must be looking at a dynasty here, right? Wrong. Well, not necessarily right or wrong - just that the dynamics of the salary cap can make it very difficult on a young team rather quickly, especially when that team has decided to augment their squad with a free-agent goaltender and overrated defenseman and paid 12 million dollars for the privilege. The Blackhawks have a lot of salary cap room next season, but that window quickly closes with all the contracts due in 2010-11 - it is going to take a lot of creativity to shuffle around these pieces to keep the key parts of the squad intact.

We Both Know Brent Sopel Won't Be On That Team: Okay, fine, but he's still under contract - another rotten filler contract signed by the Blackhawks. They just might keep him on next season, but there is very little chance that he is on the 2010-11 Hawks.

Should The Hawks Investigate Trading Patrick Kane? Maybe. The Hawks have 54 million in (estimated) contracts already for 2010-11. Either they find new homes for some of these players, sign them way below market like Detroit seems to do (Robocop must be involved somehow in that), or they will have serious cap trouble.

The Good News Is, Of Course... That the Hawks have tons of room next season if the bonus cushion is back (which this blog has been assuming it will be). This leaves room for Marty Havlat to return for a season, or for any player who wants to come on in for the big win to sign up, like Marian Hossa did this year for the Red Wings. An absolutely unlikely but massive coup would be signing the Niedermayers, for example. Marian Gaborik might want a one-year make good deal. Jay Bouwmeester might find the market for him undesirable (the astute reader has no doubt noticed that this blog has not yet contended that any team is in the market for him) and might want to jump in on a winning team. In short, if things break just right for the Hawks, they could have an absolutely dominant squad next season.

2009-10 Projected Lines




What Trades the Hawks Could Look At: Dealing Troy Brouwer might be a prudent manuever - he is cheap now, but his price will escalate. Instead of waiting around until that occurs, the Hawks could try to fob him off for a similar but better player whose contract ends next season. Antoine Vermette, for example, might be an interesting addition. The Hawks already made this sort of move when they acquired Sami Pahlsson, so they may be willing to do it again.

Let's check out some potential free agent signings:

Left Wings

Marian Gaborik (1/8) - Gaborik is likely going to find the market for him lacking - he has only played in 63% of his team's games since the lockout. A tremendous talent, it's easy to forget about him in Minnesota - he's scored 123 goals in the 207 games he's played since the lockout, which averages out to 49 goals per 82 games.
Martin Havlat (1/6, 6/30) - Havlat is a little less flashy and a little less talented, and he's got the same injury problems. He can also be dominant for stretches and has some of the best moves in the NHL. Like Gaborik, it's hard to find the team who's going to knock him out of the park with an offer - it may be in his best interest to stay in Chicago long-term, even if Chicago has to make some wonky trades to make it happen.


John Madden (2/5) - Madden had an off-year, but he's got 2 Stanley Cup rings and a ton of experience. He's still got speed, he can still match up against top players, and he's a solid faceoff man.
Sami Pahlsson (2/4) - Pahlsson has worse offensive numbers than Madden in his career, but was a very important part of the Ducks' run to the Cup in 2007.
Manny Malhotra (4/11) - Malhotra has quietly developed into exactly the sort of player the Rangers expected him to be when they drafted him in 1999. Some offensive skill, takes a ton of faceoffs, a solid leader.
Dominic Moore (1/2.5) - According to Brian Burke, who has suddenly become Little Miss Chatterbox, Moore wanted a deal for 2.5 million - he is unlikely to get that over several years, but for one year, he just may get it.
Mike Peca (1/1.5) - That Selke Trophy will get him a contract until he is 400 years old. Peca hasn't scored 10 goals in a season since 2004.


Jay Bouwmeester (1/7.5) - Teams don't have room for Bouwmeester without moving mountains. If Jay finds the market for him to be only one city that rhymes with Pontfreeal, he might just look for a one-year 'play in the playoffs' deal - no better place to do that than in Chicago; he'd give them a tremendous defense unmatched since the Devils' heyday.
Rob Blake (1/4) - Blake will likely stay in San Jose if he plays next season, but he'd almost be a good fit in Chicago, except that they have 3 guys with his skillset already. The key here is that Blake would probably sign a one-year deal and that's what the Blackhawks need.

Obligatory Comment About How Signing Cristobal Huet Was Stupid, Stupid, Stupid: Yes, Huet is the owner of a .917 save percentage. And yes, that would rank third all-time if Cristobal Huet qualified to be on that list. However, it is worth noting that the list is made up almost entirely of active goaltenders, and that the NHL had 27 goaltenders who had a .910 save percentage or better last season among qualified leaders. The difference between a .910 save percentage goalie and .920 save percentage goalie was worth 23.34 goals through a full 82-game season to the Chicago Blackhawks. Can we be sure if we are signing one of these high-end goaltenders that we're even preventing these 24 goals (more like 18 when adjusted for playing time)? Surely we can get more by signing a forward or defenseman with that money and going cheap with goaltending, can't we? Any signing of a forward or defenseman not only ostensibly creates goals above a replacement player, but prevents them as well. Beyond that, said replacement player can now be used to replace another player, giving us an added bonus. This is also true of goaltenders and backup goaltenders, perhaps even more so, but the point still stands: goalies should come cheap, and anyone signing goalies for big prices (Minnesota, Boston) is likely making a mistake.

In fairness to Chicago, there were certainly other suitors for Huet - Washington was ready to pay a pretty penny. Chicago also didn't know that goalies like Ty Conklin, Scott Clemmensen, Steve Mason, Pekka Rinne, and Craig Anderson would put up such tremendous numbers this season. They also didn't know that Jonas Hiller and Simeon Varlamov would be such a force in the playoffs. Regardless, even though it's the cool thing to do, signing a high-priced goaltender seems to be almost certainly a losing proposition. The Hawks are going to have to let Nikolai Khabibulin walk even though he was the goalie they went with in the playoffs.

Conclusion: The Hawks got about as far as can be expected with their young and exciting team. There's certainly a lot to like here, but the Hawks have got to get a grip on their cap situation or they might be a perennial bridsemaid in the next decade. Whether it's finding a creative way to dispose of Brian Campbell, or dealing off Duncan Keith for something particularly sumptuous, or shipping Patrick Kane elsewhere, there's many artful ways the Hawks can improve their future outlook. Staying the course with a falling salary cap, however, seems to be a good way for a promising franchise to stagnate.

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