The UFA Frenzy has passed. As the experts survey the after-effects, the front page news has alternated between ‘The Ilya Affair’ and ‘The Chicago Fire Sale’. The drama set off a few more fireworks on Canada Day and the Fourth of July, while the beer flowed and the barbecues sizzled.
The spice was laid on liberally to disguise the lack of meat in the stories. The blogosphere buzzed about Kovalchuk, but no one knew anything. As for the foofaraw about Chicago, it seemed everyone forgot there isn’t a single Stanley Cup winner since the lockout that hasn’t, following their victory, overhauled their roster. So why should this year’s Champion Blackhawks be any different?
“Okay, they’ve lost six or seven guys from their team. But don’t forget they’ve still got thirteen guys who are pretty damn good.” These words were exchanged on XM Sirius Radio’s Prime Time Sports on Friday, July 2nd, 2010, by panel of Toronto-based hockey observers, debating the effect of the salary cap on Championship pro sports teams; not only in the NHL, but in the NFL and NBA. The bottom line in their view: “the Blackhawks are going to be pretty good next year.”
In contrast, TSN, also broadcasting from Toronto their UFA Draft Day Frenzy programming, carried in the US on the NHL Network, was all hand rubbing and doomsday scenarios.
The irreverent James Duthie did his best as host to punctuate the proceedings with some humor, while the panel pronounced itself, predicting winners and losers not only UFA Day, but for the coming year. Pierre McGuire’s perennial favorites, the Vancouver Canucks, having gotten “over the hump” were now poised to pluck Stanley’s stein from the Tallon-less talons of the Hawks. Former Flyer Keith Jones lauded the moves of Paul Holmgren, his eyes misty with the thought of the Cup being hoisted in the City of Brotherly Love. Bob McKenzie, obviously eager to start his summer vacation, took a deep breath, glowered at the camera and delivered his judgments with the gravity of an envoy from the Vatican. TV with testosterone, to keep us all on ‘the edge’.
And to think the season doesn’t start for another three months.
With all the drama generated around the salaries and contracts of players, in today’s showbiz world of the frozen biscuit, we rarely get the unadorned facts. Instead, we see hockey journalists strutting on stage like rock stars, casting aside their objectivity to inundate us with opinion, thrusting their expertise at us like an open-ice body-check.
In the hazy heat of the off-season, some may pine for the era of carefully crafted hockey writing, when masters like Kenneth Rudeen, Gerald Eskenazi, Jim Proudfoot, Scott Young, Trent Frayne, Dick Beddoes and Stan Fischler penned often funny and unusual tales of the men who don the pads and the blades. In those days, hockey writers were smuggled onto sleeper trains by buddies on the clubs they covered; withstood the withering profanities of toothless superstars; and risked the ire of managers who banned them, not only from the dressing room, but from the rink.
Today, hockey journalists tweet, and cap geeks rule.
As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”
Before the next faceoff can be taken, there is already a flood of forecasts on the fate of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. Never mind that the event itself was momentous; that two million people poured into the city’s streets to celebrate a triumph almost half a century in the making.
As long as it has been in coming, the moment is even more fleeting. But the collective pleasure Blackhawks fans have now will be savored for as long as they can, and far beyond the year they wear the crown. Owner Rocky Wirtz has paid homage to his grandfather Arthur, and his father Bill, who kept the Hawks as a family business even when the bad times could have made it easy to sell them off.
Meanwhile, the media machine talks of dynasties and dismantling, though the truth is, of the few teams who win the ultimate prize, few repeat and almost none in subsequent seasons.
As Jonathan Toews hoisted not only the Stanley Cup, but the Conn Smythe Trophy, the victory was filled with history. Those who had won the Cup in 1961 tasted the champagne again, and slaked the thirst that had lasted more than a generation.
If it meant taking risks, and maybe even bending a few rules, along the way, the numbers on the balance sheet are, after all, incidental. In the business of pro sport, the winners do whatever it takes.
The roll call of Stanley Cup Champions does not include their salaries. One can rummage to find the figures, and if diligent enough, what juggling General Managers might have had to do afterwards.
When there is lack of diligence, there is always convenient cleverness. Likening the Hawks to ‘one and done’ teams, Greg “Puck Daddy” Wyshynski, glibly called the Hawk trades “the worst dismantling”, adding “The Florida Marlins comparisons are starting to inch toward validity.” Mr. Wyshynski’s allusion to Jeffrey Loria, whether accidental or intended, is spurious at best.
In the meantime, many clubs in the NHL who are still ‘none and done’. They’re Cup-less in Vancouver, LA, San Jose, Phoenix, Minnesota, St. Louis, Columbus, Washington, Atlanta, Florida, Nashville, Buffalo and Ottawa (though some Sens fans will valiantly argue the point). Many of those teams are managing their budgets without accusations of being careless, and without being painted as ‘victims’ of the dreaded ‘cap crisis’.
These teams also don’t have to deal with counting up the revenue and other fringe benefits that come from being Number One.
Would they trade the pain for the ecstasy, however brief, of being a Champion? Ask their fans.
Fact is: every NHL Champion since the lockout has had to confront some kind of fiscal fallout. That’s when hockey executives face their stiffest test.
General Managers who play hardball, and make the tough decisions following the celebration, give their organizations a chance to replenish.
During an interview on Montreal-based Team 990 radio, CBC hockey reporter Elliote Friedman recently quoted Red Wings GM Ken Holland as leaning on the book “The Blueprint”, for reference and inspiration.
According to Friedman, Holland shared the main lesson he took from that chronicle of the New England Patriots’ success, an understanding that a winning team seeking longevity as a contender could keep only a small core of key players; and that the rest had to be both interchangeable, and value-priced.
So if Detroit—and Pittsburgh, if one applies the same objective view—have seen the salary cap, at least in part, stifle their short-term hopes for a Stanley Cup repeat, it stands to reason that Chicago would face its own version of the same dilemma.
“The Blueprint” insists that pro sports executives must forsake sentiment in favor of ruthlessness.
On the surface, Hawks GM Stan Bowman doesn’t fit the profile of the ruthless executive. He’s no ’Neutron Jack’ Welch, slashing costs as he snarls at adversity, implementing his Six Sigma credo of organizational excellence like a Marine Drill Sergeant.
But Stan does play hardball.
Hardball is what Champions must play. The salary cap obliges them to do so; principles of good management compel them to do so. The Red Wings roster for 2009-10 is missing 10 members of the Cup winning team from two seasons before. The Pittsburgh Penguins started their housecleaning earlier, after their trip to the 2008 Finals, and finished last year having changed over twenty roster players since then, at least eight of those after they won the Cup in 2009.
So where is the clamor over the moves made by Ken Holland and Ray Shero? There is none, perhaps because there is nothing to clamor about.
Yet when the Blackhawks trade six men, the Church Ladies of the hockey world shake their accusing fingers.
The moderator of the aforementioned Prime Time Sports’ hockey discussion made another point: in the age of the salary cap, trades aren’t made based on talent. They are made based on contracts.
In Stan Bowman’s case, he contends, as he has since the day he took the job, that the organization was going to examine what needed to be done to bring the Hawks’ budget into line. He also made it clear he would take whatever steps necessary without compromising the team’s competitiveness.
“When you have success, guys want raises. That’s normal,” he says. “And we understand that.”
He also understood that paying three million dollars a year to role players was not good business. So Byfuglien and Versteeg joined Cam Barker as ex-Hawks, followed shortly by Andrew Ladd whose agent, it was reported, was seeking a hefty raise to a similar level.
Brent Sopel, having been down that road before, was philosophical and gracious in his departure, thanking the team and the fans. Ben Eager and Adam Burish, in and out of the lineup with injuries or as healthy scratches, get fresh starts in their new homes.
The so-called “Stanley Cup Hangover” never gets a chance. The party is over. A page is turned.
So what has Bowman achieved, and how does next year’s edition of the Blackhawks compare with the Cup winners?
Seeing how the Red Wings and the Penguins lost key players to free agency and cap issues with zero return, Bowman set about getting tangible assets in exchange for the bodies he would ship out.
The term ‘salary dump’ is casually used, as if GMs were trying to find a secret place to toss sacks of ill-gotten cash.
The correct description, however, is ‘salary reduction’.
In the NFL, nobody bats an eye if players with multi-million dollar contracts are simply cut from the roster. In the NBA, teams have a multitude of ‘exceptions’ whereby they can exceed the cap for players who may meet varied criteria. The NHL, however, is lambasted constantly by a contentious segment who can’t find enough things wrong with the league, and that includes moralizing about what ‘the right way’ is to run a hockey team.
Bouquets are thrown at the feet of Ken Holland and Ray Shero, even though players like Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, Jiri Hudler, Dominik Hasek, Hal Gill, and Rob Scuderi, among others, left, with nothing coming back.
Giving Stan Bowman credit for obtaining four current or former first round draft picks, a former high second rounder, several NHL-ready prospects and a budget-priced veteran two-way center, while trimming nine million dollars from his payroll and saving more millions in possible raises, might be in order. Going from a salary mass of almost $63 million down to just under $56 million since right before the March trade deadline, and about to shed another five and a half million with the presumed exit of former starting goalie Cristobal Huet, Stan Bowman has shown he can not only crunch the numbers, but also swing a workable deal under pressure.
According to the Chicago Daily Herald’s Tim Sassone, Bowman will have about $9 million dollars in cap room if, and once, Huet is gone, which should be more than enough to fill out the roster.
Still, the question remains: will the Blackhawks be as good a team in 2010-11 now that Byfuglien, Versteeg, Ladd, Eager, Sopel, Fraser, and Burish have departed?
With Top 6 forwards in Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Bolland and Brouwer, a Top 4 defense of Keith, Seabrook, Campbell and Hjalmarsson, and Niemi in goal (assuming Bowman signs the two RFAs, though Niemi had filed for arbitration as of this writing), it’s hard to accuse, with any credibility, the Hawks of being ‘a shadow of their former selves’.
On the contrary, the Hawks’ core is equal to most any in the NHL.
Yes, the ‘bottom six’ and six/seven d-spots are up for grabs. The argument is also being made that the Blackhawks have “lost their depth”.
That argument may not hold up, though, if the new arrivals have anything to say about it.
Former AHL’ers who have paid their dues, Brian Bickell and Jake Dowell, are products of the Hawks’ system: two young, hard-nosed hockey players who will scrap for a puck and engage in a scrap. The 6’4”, 223-pound Bickell brings brawn as well as skill. He got three goals including a game-winner during his brief visits to Chicago, including a few playoff appearances. Not flashy, but responsible and ready to crash the crease, with the potential to become the power forward Byfuglien was hoped to be, and that Ladd and Eager never were. Currently Rockford Ice Hogs Captain, Dowell, a 25-year old stocky six-foot 200-pounder, provides leadership, defensive strength, energy and aggressiveness. He got two points in his three-game stint with the Hawks last year.
Another Hawk farmhand mentioned is 2007 first round pick winger Jack Skille, who has taken more time to develop than might have been wished for, but has the tools and speed to step in and step up.
On defense, former OHL star Shawn Lalonde has graduated to Rockford. He played in one exhibition game for the Hawks last year and is reportedly in the Duncan Keith/Brian Campbell mould, a fast d-man who can bring a physical element along with good decision-making. Brian Connelly is similarly sized and performed well in Rockford; he may be more of a reserve defenseman like Jordan Hendry. Both were part of the “Black Aces” on hand for the Hawks in the playoffs.
Also highly spoken of is 2008 first rounder Kyle Beach, a 20-year old 6’3”, 205-pound winger who potted 52 goals in the Western Hockey League while racking up 186 penalty minutes.
There are a few more ‘wild cards’ in the deck, and these bear further examination.
Viktor Stalberg is a 24-year Swedish left winger with an imposing 6’3”, 200-pound frame and, apparently, the kind of blazing speed that puts a smile on a coach’s face. With nine goals in 40 games on a poor Leafs team, Stalberg can be realistically projected as a 20-goal scorer in Chicago. If he has the toughness and ‘hockey IQ’, which watching him play suggests he does, he might just carve out a spot opposite Marian Hossa.
Defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy is interesting for a number of reasons. His name is the Russian version of Wisniewski, as in James, the brawny former Hawk d-man who gained notoriety as a Duck after his vicious concussion-causing charge last year on Brent Seabrook. Vishnevskiy, a smooth-skating, puck-moving blueliner from the ancient Siberian city of Barnaul, is the polar opposite. Stan Bowman believes the former Dallas Stars first round choice has a chance to challenge for a regular spot next year. Watching the 5’11”, 176-pounder play as a Star in a few games, he exhibited poise and potential. His scouting report from The Sports Forecaster tags him as a future power play quarterback.
Marty Reasoner is not a superstar, but the ex-Blues, Oilers and Thrashers stalwart was also a first-round pick back in 1996. Reasoner is a robust 6’1”, 205, and delivers value as a smart, dependable checking line center and penalty killer, for half the price of John Madden.
Other players who might surprise include Jeremy Morin, who came in the deal with the Thrashers. At 19 years old, he may need more seasoning, but his 47 goals last year in the OHL are evidence of his talent. At 6’1”, 190, he can reportedly use more strength, but won’t be pushed around, as his 76 PIM indicate.
The Hawks’ draft picks have already been discussed in previous articles, including my own here on Hockey Independent (“Blackhawks’ 2010 Draft: The Known Unknowns”). They appear to be well-considered selections. Among them, Ludvig Rensfeldt, a 6’3, 190-pound 18-year old Swedish winger chosen in Round Two, who patterns his game after Vincent Lecavalier, is an intriguing package.
The only UFA signing being hulking defenseman John Scott, confirms Bowman’s statement that the team would be looking for “low dollar guys to fill in” as necessary.
At about a half a million per year for two years, former Wild man Scott is a 6’8”, 258-pound heavyweight enforcer who can play defense and forward. Is he the second coming of Jerry ‘King Kong’ Korab, or the ‘new Buff’? If Hawk head coach Joel Quenneville, one of the smartest defensemen in his day, and who transmits his knowledge well, can help Scott polish his game and use his frame, the Blackhawks might have themselves more than a fan favorite.
Since Johnny Mariucci fought Detroit’s Black Jack Stewart in one of the NHL’s longest fights ever, a fifteen-minute mano a mano back in 1946, Hawks fans have showered their policemen with affection. Scott inherits the blood-stained cape of Reggie Fleming, Dave Manson, Stu Grimson and Bob Probert.
Another way of Stan Bowman ‘playing hardball’? A statement that the Blackhawks won’t stand for any nonsense from opposition goons? It remains to be seen.
Looking at the talent coming from the Hawks’ trading partners in Toronto and Atlanta, it is worthwhile noting that Bowman didn’t let any of his assets go to Western Conference rivals, or even teams that could pose a threat to the Hawks.
This recalls the tactics of his father Scotty’s mentor Sam Pollock, whose savvy in Montreal as a wheeler-dealer General Manager saw Sam funnel excess talent to struggling clubs and expansion teams. Pollock built relationships as he sent players that could help his partners now in return for players, prospects and picks that could help his own team in the future. Pollock also opened up spots for up-and-coming players eager to prove they were worthy of his, and the coaches’ confidence.
Two historic hockey families—the Wirtzes and the Bowmans—who know how Pollock worked, have gotten together. Their meeting of minds can bode well for the future, if the faith they show in their young, hungry Hawks bears fruit.
Before the experts and fans of rivals turn their noses up, they might want to remember how those ‘in the know’ slandered the Colorado Avalanche prior to the start of the 2009-10 campaign. They had the Avs living in the basement; too young, too raw to keep up, from GM on down. Greg Sherman, Joe Sacco, Matt Duchene and company proved them wrong.
Likewise last year, the doom-and-gloomers ripped Bob Gainey to shreds for daring to give his team a radical facelift. The only thing the Canadiens did was go to the Conference Finals, dethroning the reigning Penguins after winning a trench war against Comrade Ovechkin and his Capital Gang.
Those who snipe at the Blackhawks, might find themselves eating crow. Or not. The astute Paul Kukla (of Kukla’s Korner and NHL.com) , tweeted on July 1st to the New York Post’s Larry Brooks that Chicago would be “like an expansion team next year, with all new players”.
Not that Stan Bowman cares what the critics say.
Before and throughout the 2009-10 season, the talk about how much was ‘expected’ of the Blackhawks permeated discussions about the Chicago franchise.
Now that the Hawks have won it all, the talk will shift to whether or not they can do it again.
Stan Bowman might simply respond, “We’re comfortable with that.”
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.