Kukla's Korner Hockey
by David Morris on 11/04/09 at 01:00 PM ET
Hockey writers looking to fill their columns and generate eyeballs, find few easier ways these days, than to zero in on the so-called “Cap Crisis”. Per the pundits, the sky is about to fall in on teams as their salaries smash up against a steel ceiling, their rosters set to implode as the time bomb ticks.
The Chicago Blackhawks are a favorite target for sensation-seeking scribes. The scenarios they paint have rivals licking their chops as Hawks’ GM Stan Bowman pounds his calculator furiously, trying in vain to find ways to keep his treasured stars, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith secure within the Hawkey Flock.
Prognosticators conjure up a disaster in the making, the high-flying Hawks suddenly crashing back to Earth. Discussion boards are fired up, and the fur flies as they fulminate.
But is this fact, or fiction formulated by hockey hacks and fuelled by frantic fans?
Taking a closer look at the landscape, there is as usual, a story behind ‘the story’…
Backgrounder: Fixing Holes While Mortgaging the Future?
Since Tommy Ivan in 1961, no Hawks General Manager has won it all, and the pressure mounts with every year. When Dale Tallon took over as GM in Chicago in June 2005, the Blackhawks had not only been suffering in the standings, they were struggling at the box office.
From his first day, Tallon sounded the war cry: “We will not rest until we win the Cup. That is our goal and we will use every resource available to reach that goal.”
Tallon went out and grabbed a fistful of free agents, but the Blackhawks finished Tallon’s first season with a record no one could be proud of. At 26-43-13 and 65 points, the Hawks stumbled to 14th out of 15 Western teams, and the third least points in the league.
The names Lang, Aucoin, Samsonov, Lapointe, Handzuš, Calder, Zyuzin, and Brown popped up on the list of Hawkey players whose play did not match their pay; and they would be dispatched to other regions with haste.
Does any Hawks fan pine for Andrei Zyuzin?
Of Tallon’s UFA band-aids, Nikolai Khabibulin and Martin Havlat, each would provide one season of peak performance while collecting for four and three respectively.
When patriarchal owner ‘Dollar Bill’ Wirtz passed on, and his son Rocky took the reins, the spending increased nevertheless.
NHL Numbers provides salary cap chart comparisons 2007-08 through 2010-11. According to the site, which gets its figures from the NHLPA, Tallon had gone into 2007-08 with a $44 million cap hit based on a $39 million dollar payroll.
After his transactions, he had managed to reduce that payroll amount to $39 million. But by the time the 2008-09 season began, the figure had risen to $50 million in salary, with a $57 million cap hit.
Almost $13 million in salary was spent on two players: defenseman Brian Campbell and goaltender Cristobal Huet. What raised eyebrows was not only the amount, but the length of the term.
Cap space had dwindled, from $4.75 million to $0.66 million. The logic might have been, “spend to win”; this logic would also, some concluded, expose the Hawks to the downside of high risk.
Did Tallon, as he forged ahead, foresee his impending exit?
While the fans started to come back, and the Blackhawks became a team on the rise, there were skeptics. Beyond Tallon’s confident words, his face showed the strain.
Having spent a king’s ransom on Campbell and Huet, Tallon looked for wiggle room. He dumped center Robert Lang for a draft pick; Lang became a clutch scorer in Montreal until his freak injury. Caught with two high priced goaltenders under contract when Khabibulin could not be traded or even waived, the Blackhawks were squeezed all season long. They had to send young defensemen like Cam Barker and Niklas Hjalmarsson, and former first round forward Jack Skille, to the minors. Goalie prospects Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi could only see limited action.
Later in the year, Tallon was forced to let Stanley Cup winner and ‘glue guy’ Craig Adams go on waivers (claimed by Pittsburgh). He then traded tough, dependable young d-man James Wisniewski to Anaheim for pending UFA checking center Samuel Pahlsson (who left the Hawks after the postseason).
But Tallon was unable to secure the veteran ‘stay-at-home’ defenseman often talked about as a key component. This was highlighted by the Chicago Daily Herald’s Tim Sassone.
It has been argued that Tallon’s moves—and the one he did not make—actually hurt the Hawks in the playoffs.
Though Scotty Bowman downplays his coming to the Hawks as an advisor, few doubt his influence on the decision process in Chicago. After all, he had long been looking for the challenge of building a team, and the fruitless, though very public discussions with Toronto confirmed that the guru wanted to transmit his hockey karma to a willing recipient.
Seeing how Tallon had liberally spent Wirtz’ money, the elder Bowman may have wished for the day when he could have a $65 million squad at his disposal as he did in Detroit. But with his son Stanley Glenn Bowman, named for the Cup and Hawks goaltending immortal Glenn Hall, poised for ascension to the GM chair, the elder Bowman must have liked the team’s chances going forward.
New Blackhawks President John McDonough, eager to deliver a product and a brand that produced winning results and revenue, moved to re-shape the organization.
Signing Bowman The Elder to bring Championship DNA was one step. Then, Hawk legend Denis Savard was moved out of the coach’s chair and replaced by Joel Quenneville, just a few games into the new campaign. More change was rumored in the front office.
But Tallon, a holdover from the previous regime, was in the driver’s seat for 2008-09—as long as the Hawks were winning.
However, when Brian Campbell’s and Cristobal Huet’s playoff mistakes against Detroit were underscored by a four-games-to-one Conference Final defeat, one could sense the clock was indeed ticking for Dale.
Without a contract extension, Dale Tallon continued to say “I’m not concerned about that. I’ve been a Blackhawk for thirty-five years, and I expect to be one for a long time.”
Indeed, Tallon was speaking the truth; but with different implications than one might have expected.
The grist mill churned on, with reports of failed attempts to trade Huet in March surfaced as negotiations with Khabibulin went nowhere.
Martin Havlat, angry at what he felt was ‘betrayal’ by the Hawks organization when Marian Hossa was signed, waged his own Twitter campaign that was gleefully scooped up by press and public.
Word that RFA offers had not been mailed in a timely manner was somehow leaked. As the media pounced, rumblings of disquiet among the faithful swelled.
Major corporations have distinct aversions to negative publicity. Being a disciple of corporate philosophy as applied to sport, John McDonough champions image making as a driving factor for the Hawks’ business model. With negativity perturbing the Hawks’ image, it was decided Tallon and his passion-driven approach would be “re-assigned”. Stan Bowman was appointed; calm needed to be restored.
The organization asserted there was no crisis: the situation was being managed by executives more conversant with sound financial planning. Talking about the transition, both Wirtz and McDonough acknowledged Tallon’s accomplishments, while underlining that Stan Bowman was a more suitable number cruncher. Tallon appeared to agree.
Bowman’s first test was an ‘exposé’: Marian Hossa’s injured shoulder requiring surgery. The howl that went up from the media and the fan base suggested Hawks’ management was blind, stupid or both. Bowman, however, remained unruffled and explained that not only did the Blackhawks have prior knowledge, but the Red Wings had as well when they had signed Hossa.
And no one pointed out that, by being creative, the Blackhawks were actually lowering the cap hit by a million dollars a year, compared to the hit they had previously taken on Havlat, given the structure of the Slovak’s deal.
But Bowman stood firm. His quintessential accountant’s demeanor, the polar opposite of Tallon’s Type A personality, seemed to be the soporific that quieted the hounds. At least for the time being.
Crisis? What Crisis?
In the heat of debate, it is seldom mentioned Toews, Kane, Keith are RFA’s, not UFA’s. Blackhawks could, in principle, to try to remand their anticipated raises in June 2010 for an additional year; the counter argument holds they could expose themselves to an offer sheet from a rival.
But since the lockout, very few offer sheets have been tendered, the reason given is that teams simply don’t want to give up the first, second and third round draft picks that might be required as compensation.
When cornered, as Boston’s Peter Chiarelli demonstrated, unloading an RFA is something a judicious GM is not afraid to do. While the pain of letting go of a top talent may hurt in the short term, the pipeline is so full of new talent nowadays; one player lost rarely makes a major difference.
Perhaps this was what Dale Tallon was alluding to in response to reporters’ questions about his vision of the franchise going forward, before his re-assignment: “We’re going to get younger.” As cryptic as that might have sounded, it suggested the idea that the Blackhawks would retain a small core of key players and fill the rest of their roster with value-priced prospects and short term veterans.
According to the website Hockey’s Future, Chicago is more than well stocked at all positions. Players like Akim Aliu, Kyle Beach, Shawn Lalonde and Dylan Olsen are already being talked about as competing for NHL spots within the next few years.
That kind of ‘big picture’ thinking has been validated. The Penguins’ Ray Shero has proven he is a savvy shopper as he finagled his way to a Stanley Cup despite the departure of players like Hossa, Conklin, Ruutu, Roberts, Laraque, Armstrong and Christensen. Letang, Goligoski, Kennedy and Jordan Staal are but a few names who have picked up the torch.
The oft-quoted saying by Conn Smythe, “Put the kids in with a few old pappy guys who still like to win and the combination is unbeatable” may be a guiding principle.
Colorado and Los Angeles are also confirming that young players can get the job done. Seeing the KIngs’ Dean Lombardi, and now the Avalanche’s Greg Sherman, espouse the model with surprising success, the Hawks have good reasons to examine the road of affordable youth.
Stan Bowman: Poker Star?
As the new CBA looms just a few seasons away, Stan Bowman appears to be playing his cards close to the vest. The Hossa deal attracted much scrutiny, but a month into the season, nothing has actually happened as a result of the NHL ‘investigation’. Can he hope to sign Toews, Kane, and Keith to scaled deals that reduce their cap hit?
The fact that Toews and his colleagues are RFAs gives Bowman another option. As per the NHL’s website: “Players earning $660,000 or less will be entitled to qualifying offers (QO) at 110% of their prior year’s salary; players earning more than $660,000 and up to $1 million will be entitled to QOs at 105% of prior year’s salary; players earning more than $1 million will be entitled to QO at 100% of their prior year’s salary.”
Bowman might propose that the parties agree to the qualifying offer for 2010-11, with a new deal to be discussed that year, presumably come into effect for the 2011-12 season; by which time the salary cap might have risen sufficiently to allow more room.
The possibility that Bowman locks up his young stars with fifteen to twenty year deals, while unprecedented, is also not out of the question.
The wording of the existing CBA also raises another question. As quoted from the league’s website: “Clubs will have a one-time opportunity, during a six-day period, to exercise buy-outs of existing player contracts. Amounts paid to players pursuant to these compliance buy-outs will not be counted against a club’s upper limit or the League-wide players’ share. Clubs that choose to exercise compliance buy-outs must pay the buy-out amount over the remaining term of the contract.”
Could the Blackhawks sign what would be, effectively, ‘interim contracts’ with their stars, and later effectively ‘renegotiate’ these under a new CBA?
Whatever route Hawks management takes, one can expect Stanley Bowman’s administrative and financial skills will be tested to the maximum.
Salary Dumping: Deal or No Deal?
The thrill of playing armchair GM is one that seduces certain hockey writers. They are always ready to foment rumors sending players to destinations as easily as one flips a hockey card.
Sites like Cap Geek give fans license to extrapolate their permutations using an endless variety of roster configurations. This promotes the fictional trade frenzy.
The trade bait usually includes Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg, and Cam Barker, with Dustin Byfuglien occasionally added as a spicy side dish. The wild cards in this online game include Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet, whose multi-year deals are now called “albatross contracts”, often scoffed at.
The lists of dance partners and trade scenarios are as varied and amusing as the hockey community is diverse.
All of this is perfect material for a hockey soap opera, especially during the doldrums of summer. There’s nothing very sexy about balancing the books, but if you believe the colorful concoctions of pundits, GMs play chess matches worthy of a James Bond movie.
There are, however, voices who suggest the cap crisis kerfuffle is being augmented by professional fluffers. Long-time Hawks observer, the Chicago Tribune’s “Blackhawks Confidential” correspondent, Mike Kiley, reacted to the recent assumptions of Sun Media’s Bruce Garrioch—who opined, in keeping with the fashion, that Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker were likely to be moved—with a verbal hip check.
“Sharp is earning $4 million this year and Versteeg $3.066 million. But if they continue to be as critical to the Hawks as they are now, I can’t see how Bowman can pull off a trade in four months that makes the Hawks stronger for the 2010 playoffs and also eases his cap woes for the future.”
Kris Versteeg’s reputed affinity for Jay-Z may not jibe with Stan Bowman’s musical tastes, but if he and Sharp are deemed key components for a Cup run, StanBow may just roll the dice and delay his dealing until the Hawks are sipping champagne from the big silver.
Kiley continues: “I suppose it’s possible, but I think it would be a mistake to trade away Versteeg. He had his doubters after being a Calder Trophy finalist last season for his impressive rookie performance. Some predicted a sophomore collapse. They have been wrong. Versteeg has shut up those doubters. His on-ice energy has been captivating and a positive influence on the entire team. Versteeg has been one of the most aggressive and essential Hawks in the opening weeks. Do you throw potential away for cap room? I don’t think so.”
Kiley takes another swipe at virtual GMs. “It seems the consensus favorite around the internet to get traded out of Chicago in March has become defenseman Cam Barker. He has 8 points so far with 3 goals, 5 assists, which has him one point ahead of Campbell.”
While acknowledging the cap issue is real, Kiley concludes that Garrioch’s suppositions are nothing more than fantasy in a slow news week, adding, “The Hawks have a cap problem and there has to be a solution. How long can Bowman go without addressing it, and will he really need to trade a key element or two of his team before the playoffs when that happens? No one knows where we’ll be in four months. But I can’t believe the Hawks will be trading Sharp or Versteeg.”
Kiley’s comments address the core of the so-called cap crisis. Yes, the Blackhawks have five forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender on their current roster who are restricted free agents come June 2010, and about $13 million in projected cap space to work with. But is that a gun to Stan Bowman’s head, or just another day at the office?
Conjecture aside, the truth is that all teams must use their budgets wisely in a salary capped NHL. Those who are expected to contend for the Championship push the envelope to its maximum, and hope they can, as Detroit’s Ken Holland has pointed out, “rotate their personnel” efficiently. A glance at collective salaries in Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston and Detroit reveals symptoms similar to those being attributed to Chicago.
Essentially, what the Blackhawks are facing may be no different than any other ‘elite’ team. If that is the case, Stanley Glenn Bowman has an opportunity to show he is a General Manager worthy of elite status.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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