The Chicago Blackhawks and the roster shakeup of 2010

Skaters at the 2010 Blackhawks prospect camp

Hollywood couldn’t have come up with a better script for the NHL this year: An unknown goaltender who was driving a Zamboni in Finland three years ago comes out of nowhere and usurps the pricey starting goalie for the job. A guy barely legal to buy beer for his teammates with the nickname of “Captain Serious” as team captain. A calculating maverick chooses the team based on statistical formulas as the best option for him to win the Cup in a “third time’s the charm” angle. Prime players being injured at the wrong time, only to come back at the very best time possible. Players who might’ve been considered goofballs in the regular season stepping up to win the hearts of their city as they shone in the playoffs. Two inexperienced goalies that nobody thought would get past the first round of playoffs faced off in the Final round. A mullet-wearing, 21-year-old hotshot winning on the road with an impossible goal in OT to clinch the title.

Was this real life?

Oh, yes, it’s reality. Reality, too, were the hard changes that have rained down upon Chicago almost as heavily as the confetti rained down at the Stanley Cup victory parade just two months ago. There was a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth and ripping of hair to be heard across the Windy City as Stan Bowman carefully went about retooling the Blackhawks roster for the 2010-11 season.

First, let’s reassure all the doubters out there: none of the big guns went anywhere. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp – all still here, surrounded by Troy Brouwer, Tomas Kopecky, Brian Campbell, and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Hjalmarsson, and Campbell all have at least 4 more years in Chicago. Seabrook and Sharp will get re-signed during the next year. Assuming Brouwer and Kopecky have solid seasons like this past one, they should be in line for re-signings as well. These are all young guysthat have their prime years ahead of them – the only one older than 28 is Hossa, at 31.

There’s no doubt that the chemistry this team shared this year contributed towards the Cup win. They bonded on and off the ice, and it’s been admitted post-season that the salary cap cast shadows over the team long before playoff season was even on the horizon. The entire team knew, to a man, that this team would not survive intact into the next season. So they played their hearts out, breaking team records and setting new ones, all the way to the final game of the playoffs.

It’s hard to say goodbye to players who’ve won your heart, especially if they’ve been around the team a while. But this post season has been all about the salary cap – and making sure the core was locked in while the rest of the team was carefully juggled to make those numbers happen.

Perhaps it was for the best that the first cut was the deepest, trading fan favorite Dustin Byfuglien along with Ben Eager and Brent Sopel to the Atlanta Thrashers, plus prospect Akim Aliu. When it became clear that Chicago couldn’t afford to keep Andrew Ladd on the roster, he, too, went to ATL via trade. In return, the Blackhawks got back Marty Reasoner (who later got traded to FLA for Jeff Taffe), Joey Crabb (who ended up signing with TOR), and prospects Jeremy Morin and Ivan Vishnevskiy and 3 draft picks.

If there’s one thing Chicago loves, it’s draft picks. Take a look at Chicago’s prospect camp this year: 72 players competing for enough attention to be considered worthy of making the Rockford or even Chicago rosters this year. Morin turned out to be a standout there.

The Thrashers also won in this deal. They got four hard-working, Stanley-Cup-winning players. Ladd comes bearing two rings, in fact, at only 24 years old. What Ladd may lack in Kane-style flash, he more than makes up for it as a solid, hard-working player, and he can expect to see even more ice time this year. Eager brings the muscle that the Thrashers have lacked; Sopel brings heart.

As for Byfuglien, he was asked to step up in the playoffs, and he shone. Those who have followed the Blackhawks for a few years were busy asking themselves, “Where was THIS guy all regular season?” If Byfuglien continues to perform night after night at the level he’s shown he’s capable of doing, combined with his laid-back and fun personality, he has the opportunity to emerge as a leader for the Thrashers and a popular player for their fans.

Next to go was Colin Fraser to EDM for a draft pick, perhaps one of the more surprising to be traded, due to his low cap hit and how much he played. But although Fraser was a workhorse for Chicago during the past two year, playing in 93% of the past 164 regular season games, he only saw three playoff games this year – all against Nashville. Part of Fraser’s challenge on the team was the sheer depth the Hawks possessed, generally leaving him to third or fourth line. Even that deep on the ice, though, he still managed 7 goals, 12 assists and 19 points for 2009-10. The Edmonton Oilers had the worst record in the season last year, which might make a trade there seem like banishment to Siberia. But teams across the league took their lessons from Chicago this year, and the Oilers also scooped up one of the top two picks of this year’s draft, Taylor Hall; and are in “rebuilding mode”. Fraser will doubtless see more ice time and make more of an impact than he was able to in Chicago.

Fan favorite Kris Versteeg (plus prospect Bill Sweatt) got traded to TOR. Versteeg had good stats and played 79 regular season games and all 22 playoff games. His worst flaw is his inconsistency; but he could also perform big when needed. If the infamous “clerical error” hadn’t occured with his re-signing at the end of the 2008-09 season, and he had been carrying a cheaper salary, he might have stayed. But his salary was too much to fit under the cap, however, and so Versteeg ended up as an expendable. In return, Chicago got the solid Viktor Stalberg, and two very good prospects, Philippe Paradis and Christopher DiDomenico. The Maple Leafs benefited by getting a player who has actually been to the Stanley Cup playoffs in the past five years.

Adam Burish and John Madden were both allowed to walk away as UFAs. Burish signed with the Stars at a hefty raise; Madden took a pay cut to sign with the Wild. Madden had also taken a pay cut from his salary with the Devils when he signed with Chicago for the 2009-10 season, proving once again that if you want to play in the NHL badly enough, money is more negotiable than at first glance.

It’s interesting to note that Burish and Madden share an agent, Bill Zito, with goalie Antti Niemi – and none of these three players will be on the Blackhawks for the 2010-11 season.

Niemi is that Cinderella story mentioned up front – the guy who was driving the Zamboni a couple years ago, and who shocked the league by backstopping the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup win in 49 years. There are those who would argue that “any” goalie could’ve done the same job, but that clearly wasn’t the case when the Blackhawks lost faith in their original well-paid goalie, Cristobal Huet. Niemi was the right fit for the 2009-10 team; his style of play and mental toughness in net fit with a team that could go long stretches without seeing shots on goal.

It was a surprise to fans – and likely the team as well – when Niemi took the team to arbitration. It was rumored that the Hawks had offered Niemi as much as $8M over 3 years – a $2.66M/yr cap hit – before the Sharks’ offer sheet on Niklas Hjalmarsson forced the Blackhawks to resign the Swedish defenseman at what was probably a slightly higher salary than they’d anticipated. As a direct result, despite all the carefully planned salary shaving, this left less money under the cap to get the job done with Niemi. Zito had told the media that he expected to get good money and a lengthy contract for Niemi. Niemi stated he wanted to play for the Blackhawks; and the team said they wanted to keep him. But they could no longer afford to aim for a higher salary, and when Niemi/Zito pushed to arbitration, the Blackhawks quietly went and sniffed around the rapidly softening goalie market, lining up a backup plan with Marty Turco, who had been recently released by his career team, the Dallas Stars. Turco had up-and-down stats behind the Stars – but he is still regarded as an excellent goalie. The season starts soon enough to see how he does in Chicago.

The Blackhawks had to play the waiting game with Zito and Niemi, and when Niemi’s arbitration came in at $2.75M, he was allowed to walk, and they promptly announced the Turco signing, at an affordable and cap-friendly $1.3M for 1 year. One can only imagine how – and why – an agent would misread the market so badly, when everybody else could see the writing on the wall. Chicago had no money to give; and the Blackhawks have never traditionally stacked their cards towards goaltending. Sure, the Blackhawks have grossly overpaid their last two goalies for the results they got, but there isn’t anybody who follows hockey who honestly believed Niemi would win this one – even if he “won” the arbitration. The Blackhawks weren’t going to trade any more important, front-line/D-men in order to make Niemi fit.

Niemi (or perhaps more specifically, his agent) needed to do what Jordan Hendry, Brian Bickell and Marty Turco all demonstated they were willing to do: take the salary that Chicago could afford in order to get to play on the team.

For a guy who rarely gave out interviews and was not particularly a colorful character, Niemi was quite popular in Chicago. The fans will miss him, and they’ve thanked him for the job he did for the team this year and in the playoffs. But Chicago is a practical, hardworking town, and whether it was Niemi’s own fault, or more likely his agent’s, the fanbase accepts the practicalities of the salary cap. If you’re not going to bend to fit, well, good luck, and if the whole Turco/Crawford thing doesn’t work out so hot, maybe he’s an option down the road. In the meantime, the Finnish Fortress is out looking for work at a point where he should’ve been locked in for the season with the team that made him a household name in hockey-loving households across North America, and a sports hero in his own country as the first Finnish goalie to get his name on the Cup.

The final three Blackhawks who won’t be back include goalie Cristobal Huet, who is going to be a victim to his own salary – and performance this past season. The Blackhawks have apparently given his agent permission to see if they can find Huet a team to play for in Europe; if that doesn’t work out, expect to see him in the pipes in Rockford for the Ice Hogs.

Nick Boynton and Kim Johnsson’s contracts also both expired and neither is currently expected to be back with the team. Johnsson’s career may be headed for early retirement after suffering a concussion this spring; newspaper reports from the post-season indicate that he is nowhere near the condition to be able to return to play any time soon.

Rockford Ice Hog members Jake Dowell and Jack Skille put in a few games each with the Blackhawks over the past season or two; this year, they’ll get to prove they belong on the NHL roster full time. The Blackhawks also acquired through free agency a stapping 6’8″ defenseman, John Scott, who, like Dustin Byfuglien, can play both forward and defense, so we should expect Scott to fill in where necessary. Viktor Stalberg, acquired from Toronto in the Versteeg trade, should be a bright new player for Chicago.

This year’s prospect camp was also quite exciting – a look at the very large, very deep talent pool that Chicago has to choose from gave a lot of hope for the future of the franchise, both short- and long-term. There’s players like Kyle Beach and Shawn Lalonde, who’ve been biding their time in the AHL. Newer players like Morin and Nick Leddy. Longer-term prospects are stacked five deep, enough to make a team’s GM very happy.

Yes, this off season has been a shock to the central nervous system of the Chicago Blackhawks fanbase. Eleven guys who put time on the ice in the Playoffs will not be back on United Center ice wearing Chicago colors this fall. But think of it as careful pruning: taking those factors which might be a little wild, and removing them so that other parts of the whole can grow. It’s not impossible for the Hawks to repeat in 2011. Nor is it a long shot – the young and talented core is there. And that core just had the pressure and weight of 49 years of expectation and desire lifted from their shoulders.

Chicago are now Staley Cup champions and defending is never easy, for any sport. But in this case, it just might for once be easier than being in the position the team was in last year.