With the news that Cristobal Huet is on the verge of playing in Europe next season, the Blackhawks finally can rest. Stan Bowman may not put out a press release declaring the offseason over, but for all intents and purposes it is.
And if fielding a team under the salary cap was his major goal, then mission accomplished. Whether they can repeat as champions is a debate that will go on long into the cold Chicago winter.
With seven defensemen, ten forwards and two goalies signed to one-way contracts, the Hawks are ready for training camp. One-way deals mean those players will be paid an NHL salary whether they play for the Hawks or in the minors. It gives those 19 players a leg up on the competition once training camp starts, but it doesn’t guarantee them anything, especially the ones making near minimum level salaries. It also allows for a couple of prospects or “come out of nowhere,” guys to make the team if they impress during preseason.
Expect the Hawks to play cap roulette throughout the season as they did at times with Jack Skille last year. Skille was up and down throughout the early portion of the season. When in the minors, his salary did not count against the cap for that day, when called up, it did. Rockford is so close the Hawks can recall a player on game day after their morning skate if need be. There’s a chance they will play with the minimum 20 on the roster in some home games, and then recall one or two for extended road trips. Both Jordan Hendry and John Scott can play forward or defense, which allows for that type of maneuvering.
So while the Hawks are under the cap, they still don’t have that much flexibility. A high draft pick, still under his entry level contract, may have trouble making the team. Those players have bonuses that increase their cap hit. Kyle Beach is a good example of a player on the salary cap bubble for that reason, even if he shows he’s good enough to make the team. At least there is some wiggle room now. A month ago there was none.
Some might find it surprising that the Hawks locked up seven veteran defensemen already, leaving little room for a young prospect. The fact of the matter is it takes blue-liners longer to learn the game and be comfortable than at any other position. Having said that, the bottom three defensemen are making $600,000 or less, so if a prospect beats one of them out, the Hawks could always send the veteran down or trade him. But there’s less than a 50 percent chance of that happening.
Looking back at the bloodletting that went on this offseason, most of it was necessary for well documented reasons. Yes, if there is a villain in this whole thing it’s probably Dale Tallon, but then again it’s hard to call him a villain when he put together a championship team. His problem was simply this: Tallon bypassed a second contract for many of his young players and went right to their third. And he did it without any outside influence -- as in offers from other teams. It started with Dustin Byfuglien and ended with overpaying players after messing up the paperwork for several restricted free agents. Cam Barker should not have made $3 million last season, but he did. In between there was the extension of Brent Sopel and the free-agent signings of Brian Campbell and Huet -- all for too much money.
Bowman cleaned up the mess as best he could, though things unraveled a bit for him when Doug Wilson and the San Jose Sharks made a huge free-agent offer to Niklas Hjarmalsson. It remains the only offer to a restricted free-agent in the NHL this offseason. It led to the loss of Antti Niemi as Hjarmalsson’s $3.5 million salary most assuredly ate into Niemi’s payday.
There have been only a handful of restricted free-agent offers in NHL history. There seems to be a gentleman’s agreement that general managers won’t hurt each other by forcing each other to pay increased salaries to their own players. Wilson has kept his reasons close to the vest, saying only that Hjarmalsson is a young, talented defenseman, but there is always more to these things than meets the eye. Some have speculated he wanted the Hawks to have to choose between Hjarmalsson and Niemi, and if the Sharks scoop up the former Hawks netminder, then that theory has more credence. Maybe Wilson did it as a shout-out to his old pal Tallon, who the Hawks sent packing last offseason, much to the dismay of many around the league.
The loss of Niemi, while getting nothing in return, remains arguably the only glaring misstep for the Hawks this offseason. As much as he “saved” the Hawks’ season, he was never part of the core that Bowman talked about as the offseason began. Time will tell if the money saved on signing Marty Turco was worth it.
Interestingly, since the lockout, the Hawks have signed three free-agent goaltenders, each older than the last at the time of their signing. Nikolai Khabibulin was 32 when he started his four-year run with the Hawks, Huet was 33 and Turco just turned 35. If Turco falters, the Hawks will be accused of not learning from their mistakes. Both Khabibulin and Huet underachieved, especially for the salaries they were commanding. Turco’s saving grace is he comes relatively cheap, which did help allow the Hawks to keep their major core intact. Depending on who Niemi signs with, it will be interesting to watch his career from afar. Of all the players who left, he’s the one with the biggest question mark. Star in the making or one-year wonder? Time will tell.
Forget about all the roster turnover, Joel Quenneville’s biggest challenge might be weathering the storm that was this past offseason. By many accounts, there have been few teams to party as hard as the Hawks did after winning the Cup. In a few weeks, he’ll get a good idea of who, if any, took the short offseason seriously.
The good news is the Hawks don’t need to win the West, they just need to get in. Talent and experience can take over from there. Until then, let the debate begin: Did they make the right decisions, and can they repeat? As the leaves begin to fall, those questions start to get answered.