A Fan’s Guide to the Chicago Blackhawks’ Off-Season, Part One

Jim Neveau, Blackhawks Beat Reporter

This will be the first of a two part series on the Blackhawks’ off-season tasks and concerns. This piece will focus mainly on the nitty gritty contract details, the issues the team needs to address, and a little bit of prognosticating on what the team will do in a couple of the situations.

The second article will focus on what I feel the team needs to do in the off-season to make themselves competitive again in the 2009-10 campaign, and also what they need to do to take that next step to take a grab at the brass ring at the end of the campaign.

Dale Tallon is about to become the busiest sports figure in Chicago. Yes, Cubs GM Jim Hendry has become legendary for his minute-burning binges as he continually talks trades on his ever-active cell phone (including signing Ted Lilly while recuperating from heart surgery), but with an amateur draft coming up, and some key personnel decisions to make, Tallon’s plate is equally full this summer.

First and foremost on his agenda is addressing the contract status of some of the team’s key contributors to their regular and post-season success. Nikolai Khabibulin and Martin Havlat are both free agents come July 1st, and the likelihood is that only one of them is even a possiblity for returning next season. Khabby’s contract demands are likely going to push him off of the Hawks’ radar, and Havlat’s situation isn’t much better, with contract extension talks breaking down near the trade deadline in March.

It was an amazing year for the rejuvinated Khabibulin, who enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career after being shopped vigorously during the off-season. At one point he was even put on waivers, and thankfully no team took the plunge on him then, because without the Bulin Wall, this team would have been nowhere.

This success, however, does conme with a price, and that price will likely be a contract for Khabibulin that will take him right out of the limited price range that the Hawks have available for their goalies. With Cristobal Huet signed for three more years, it is unlikely that the Hawks will even remotely consider the possiblity of bringing Nikolai back into the fold next year.

It would be foolish to expect the team to shell out in the ballpark of 11 to 12 million dollars to keep both goalies on the roster. Expect Khabby to go bye bye.

There is a bigger possibility that the Hawks will bring back Havlat, who was the key cog of the best line the team had the entire season. Along with Dave Bolland and Andrew Ladd, Havlat prospered under Joel Quenneville’s leadership, scoring at will and driving an offense that racked up goals like Patrick Ewing downs Snickers bars. With his slick skating, deft passing, and overall good nose for the goal, he is the kind of person the Hawks need to maintain their strong offensive punch.

Cristobal Huet
Cristobal Huet; Photo property of "Burns" on Flickr.com

The Hawks had been hoping to re-sign Havlat to a three or four year deal, in the ballpark of four million dollars a season. This changed, however, after a renaissance year for the 28 year old Czech Republic native, in which he scored 29 goals and added 48 assists. It is entirely possible that another team looking to make a splash, like the Kings or Oilers, will take a flyer on him and offer him a contract close to the six million a season he was making with the Blackhawks.

Due to the restrictive nature of the Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet contracts, it is simply not feasible that this team will remain completely intact. Some players who are viewed as indispensible pieces now will be cast aside in the hopes that something better will emerge from Rockford or the free agent pool. The list of possible casualties includes, Dave Bolland, Cam Barker, and Sammy Pahlsson, and that’s just a few of the guys who might be looking for some bigger money elsewhere.

The Blackhawks also have to cast an eye to the future of their franchise, and this might be the off-season that sees Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews get inked to some long-term extensions that will pre-empt a bidding war when they become restricted free agents at the end of next season. Duncan Keith might also be a beneficiary of some future-minded spending, and with guys like Patrick Sharp already signed for the foreseeable future, the core of this team should be pretty easy to keep intact.

To sum up, the issues that are facing the Hawks going into the off-season are pretty self-explanatory: sign that guy, let that guy go, or trade that dude. There is no denying that being the general manager of an NHL franchise has to take a large amount of work, but when the job is made easier for you by the production the team puts out on the ice, then you obviously jump at that opportunity.

His main priority, of course, is to convince Martin Havlat to stay in the city, but at a discounted rate that will allow the team the flexibility it needs to pursue other free agents, as well as extended contracts for some of its young stars. If Havlat stays and continues to be productive, the offensive side of the puck should be well taken care of.

Defensively, the team is pretty solid, with the exception of Matt Walker’s contract being up. He is, however, more than likely going to stay with the team, and if the team can keep him, and sign Duncan Keith to a contract extension, then the blue line will only need some minor strategic and personnel tweaks to be good.

On the goal-tending front, Cristobal Huet is pretty much going to have to assume the mantle of “the guy” in net. With Nikolai Khabibulin likely on the way out, it will fall on Huet’s shoulders to be more of the guy that he was in Game Five against Detroit, and not the one he was in the Winter Classic.