Despite the Blackhawks struggles of late that have seen them finally beat lowly 30th overall Columbus at home to halt a 4 game home losing streak and their slide to 5th in the Western Conference standings, the hawks have shown they are in the mix for a top seed and to seriously contend for one. They also have shown that they have some glaring holes to fill if they want to gain an edge on the top teams in the league and make a deep playoff run.
With a 9 game road trip coming up at the end of the month prior to the deadline, and missing sniper Patrick Sharp for about a month due to injury, it would figure that Bowman may look to do his dealing sooner rather than later - in fact, he's publicly stated he would prefer to bring in new players before the deadline to give them more time to adjust.
Forwards - the hawks offense is blessed with 4 of the top 25 scorers in the NHL. The problem is their offense relies excessively on these 4 players - Toews, Kane, Sharp & Hossa. Among those 4, there is only 1 full-time center. Kane & to a lesser extent Sharp, have been tried in the middle with a number of different line combinations with varying degrees of success, but so far they haven't provided a permanent solution. Rookie center Marcus Kruger was moved up to 2nd line but was hurt before he had a chance to prove he could handle the job.
The 3rd line of Bickell, Bolland & Frolik has been a bust in terms of production - they don't come close to the Ladd Bolland Versteeg line that was so effective for the hawks in 2010. Bolland's role seems to be primarily viewed as defensive, playing to shut down the other team's top line(s), which overlooks his underrated offensive capability.
Possible Internal Solutions
Move Bolland to 2nd line C
I think moving Bolland up to 2nd line center, paired with Hossa and Stalberg is worth a try, putting them up against the top line(s) of the other team - Bolland & Hossa are both noted for their strong defensive games and Stalberg has good speed. Hossa obviously has offensive credentials...putting them together with Stalberg would allow Sharp to rejoin Toews & Kane giving the hawks a strong top line and a pretty decent 2nd line. In addition it would leave Kruger to better handle a 3rd line center position, with Frolik & Bickell as his wingers. Carcillo, Mayers & Brunette finish out the 4th line.
Kruger as 2nd line C
While Kruger has impressed in his 1st full NHL season, the jury is out regarding 1) his health & endurance and 2) how he'll handle the responsibility of a #2 center position & whether his offensive game will allow Hossa and other linemate to achieve their potential. I think its too early to move Kruger into a pivotal 2nd line center job and rely on him permanently given his limited experience.
Longer-term Brandon Pirri
Longer term, Brandon Pirri who is currently top center in Rockford has shown glimpses that he has offensive potential to fill the 2nd line center spot, though as with most young players, his defensive game needs work. The hawks seem to be high on him, but it is possible that in an effort to better contend this season, Pirri could be dealt for more immediate help at center if the right deal comes along.
Possible acquisition candidates
1. Antoine Vermette - Columbus is clearly going to be an active seller, looking to move UFAs Pahlsson, Prospal, Huselius, etc. Given that they are nearly at the cap and the contract structure of their top players (Nash, Carter & Wizniewski are each signed for 5 more years at least (& Carter for the next 10!) all with restrictions on their movement), it is very likely that Columbus will be looking to shed some longer term contracts where possible, to lower their cap hit and maximize flexibility going in to next season. Vermette is potentially one of those players - he's been a 2nd line center, who is very good on faceoffs, and has good career numbers at the UC and may be the odd man out in Columbus with the emergence of rookie center Ryan Johansen and another younger center Derrick Brossard, also signed for 3 more years.
It seems plausible that Columbus will look to dump longer term salary where they can & Vermette appears to be a prime candidate, assuming they can get a suitable return. Columbus needs help in all areas, and would likely take a good young player or prospect (with lower salary) back - the hawks do have several good young players, some whom they likely don't want to part with, including Jimmy Hayes, Jeremy Morin, Brandon Pirri, and Brandon Saad, however, not all of these young prospects will find room with Chicago given how young Toews & Kane are & how long Hossa & Sharp are signed for. I'd offer Columbus Bryan Bickell, who has been a disappointment for the hawks this season after a promising rookie campaign including playoffs last year. He's only 25, has size, great wrist shot and comes with a low cap hit, with a $541K cap hit this year & next. Jimmy Hayes has shown in his brief stint that his upside appears quite high & his size, speed & hands, make Bickell expendable. If push came to shove, the hawks might have to give up one of their up & coming young prospects, like center Brandon Pirri to get Vermette.
2. Saku Koivu - Anaheim, like Columbus, is essentially out of the playoff race and looking to get a return for their UFAs (& perhaps make bigger changes). The two most prominent UFAs for the Ducks are Saku Koivu & Teemu Selanne, who are 37 & 41 yrs old respectively. Despite their age, Selanne leads the Ducks in scoring and Koivu is a +10 on the 29th overall team. The biggest question surrounding both players is their willingness to waive their no-movement clauses for a chance to win a cup before the end of their career. Selanne already has his name on the Cup, and may decide to stay put with is family in Anaheim & participate in the World Championships hosted by his native Finland this year as his career swan swong.
Koivu T 37 has yet to win a Cup, and arguably may still have a couple of more productive years left in him. Former hawk & current Anaheim GM Bob Murray has indicated he is not looking to move either player, tho you can bet he'd love to get something in return now for two assets that may be gone in any case next season. It may come down to whether the hawks (or other team) can entice Koivu with a contract extension to convince him it is worth the move. Tho it is quite likely that Anaheim may be happy with a mid round (i.e. 3rd rd) pick (as opposed to a prospect or player), given the uncertainty with a new CBA and the fact that Koivu is over 36 and any contract given to players his age count against the cap in full for the length of the contract even if he were later bought out, the hawks may favor a simpler deal for Vermette, tho Koivu certainly provides more intangibles of character & leadership.
3. Tuomo Ruutu - the former hawk has played a lot of wing in Carolina alongside Eric Staal, and been fairly productive, though his natural position is center. As a UFA with a $3.8M price tag and young Jeff Skinner clearly slotted for 2nd line center in Carolina, they likely won't be looking to resign Ruutu as a 3rd line center or winger for that matter, for the kind of money he is currently making so he probably is available for the right return. In Chicago, he was noted for his rambunctious style, never shying away from a hit when it was there, along with putting up some points on some very bad hawk teams. The hawks could certainly use more hitting up front, but Ruutu is weak on draws and would probably be more of a 3rd than 2nd line center with the hawks, though is versatile enough to play wing as a top 6 forward. Still, a return to Chicago, with a chance to win a cup along with lowered expectations for him than his first stint in Chicago may provide just the impetus needed for him to thrive - giving up a 2nd or 3rd rd pick would be a reasonable deal.
Other candidates -
Sami Pahlsson - Columbus 3rd line center UFA, decent on draws & pk but doesn't have offensive skill to produce on a 2nd line
Olie Jokinen - UFA with Calgary - has the offensive ability to play on a 2nd line, tho not good on draws & the Flames are still in the playoff hunt and likely won't be looking to move him unless & until they are out of it.
Dominic Moore - Tampa 3rd line center UFA - good on draws, pk and overall utility player, tho questionable in 2nd line role and may not be available as Tampa is still in the hunt.
Defense - The additions of Steve Montador, Shawn O'Donnell & Sami Lepisto in the off-season were supposed to provide the hawks with more grit and toughness at the blueline (as well as make up for the loss of Bryan Campbell & Chris Campoli), however, Montador, O'Donnell & Lepisto are #5, 6 & 7 defensemen who don't get much regular playing time, leaving the hawks with only one physical type Dman in their top 4 - Brent Seabrook. The hawks clearly miss Bryan Campbell's puck possession & transition game, tho Nick Leddy has shown as a 20 year old playing top 4 minutes mainly with Nick Hjalmarsson, that he has a bright future ahead of him, where he could very well eventually make hawk fans forget Campbell. While Leddy has done an admirable job, he has had stretches where he's struggled (as any 20 yr old would), leaving the hawks exposed in their own zone. In addition, Nik Hjalmarsson's game hasn't really progressed and in some ways has actually regressed - he doesn't hit nearly as much as he did in his first year, and in fact, he takes much more punishment blocking shots & on the receiving end of big hits, you wonder how long he can go before breaking down physically. Hjalmarsson also appears much more conscious of forecheck pressure & getting hit, which too often results in poor clear attempts and turnovers in the hawks zone.
Montador & O'Donnell have done as much as could be reasonably expected from them, but they aren't capable of playing regular #3/4 defensive minutes, especially for an extended number of games. Besides depth needs, the hawks current 3/4 defensemen have question marks about their ability to handle the workload at crunch time.
The hawks could definitely use a big defenseman who can play top 4 minutes and be physical and clear the front of the net. Internally, Dylan Olsen appears to be the only prospect in Rockford who has the ability to possibly crack the hawks defensive corps who possesses the size & physicality needed, however, it is unrealistic to expect him to upgrade the defense for the playoff push this year.
Possible acquisition candidates
1. Tim Gleason - a young 28 yr old UFA, top 4 dman with Carolina that is likely attracting interest from several teams, including Philadelphia looking to replace Pronger, tho he is not overly big, but does have a physical edge to his game. The asking price may be high, given his age and experience and the demand for top 4 defensemen, tho it could be complicated by his contract status - some teams will be reluctant to pay a high asking price if he is a rental only, and thus will likely want to negotiate a new contract before agreeing to a trade, which may in turn increase the asking price.
2. Francois Beauchemin - Anaheim's veteran 31 yr old UFA top 4 defenseman who despite not being overly big can be physical and has Cup winning experience which will likely mean he'll be in high demand given his credentials.
3. Corey Sarich - He was a healthy scratch earlier in the season for Calgary, though has been in the lineup lately, playing regular minutes as a 6/7 defenseman. He is an older UFA at 33, but has good size at 6'4", can be physical and fight if necessary, is a right hand shot and won a Cup with Tampa. No longer the 4/5 defensemen the hawks could use now, but would provide good depth and capable of playing top 4 minutes to fill in.
Other candidates - Ryan Suter - tho it is very likely that the 26 yr old potential UFA will re-sign in Nashville, if contract negotiations hit a snag, Poile will want to get a decent return for their top 2 defensman (unlike when they lost Timonen & Hamhuis to UFA with little or nothing back). There would be plenty of contending teams with cap room lining up to bid on him, including Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Tampa, Dallas, Colorado, etc., and give Poile several offers difficult to refuse. One aspect that could potentially play a role in the Suter negotiations is the emergence of rookie defenseman Ryan Ellis - if the playmaking Ellis is judged to be ready to take that next step into a top 4 role, Poile may decide the return of several good young players/prospects he could get in return for Suter could position the Preds better than putting too many money eggs in Suter's basket.
The hawks may have an advantage if Suter becomes available - 1) they have good young players/prospects to offer Nashville in return & 2) they have cap room to sign him longer term & 3) Chicago is an attractive cup contender with the city offering one of the best places to live with great supportive hockey fans (as his uncle Gary could vouch for), not far from his hometown in Madison, Wis. Nashville might be reluctant to deal him within their own division, however, if he doesn't re-sign with them, they have little control over where he ultimately ends up and future realignment may make it a moot point in any case.
Bryan Allen, another Carolina UFA defensman, is a bit older than Gleason at 31, but also bigger at 6'5, 226 and plays as a #6. The asking price for the former Canuck would be lower (3rd or 4th rd pick) than for Gleason, but he would not be the top 4 dman needed but would add to the hawks blueline physicality & depth.
Jaroslav Spacek - already had two previous stints with the hawks & at 37 the pending Carolina UFA would come fairly cheap (likely a mid to late i.e., 5th or 6th round pick), tho it is questionable whether he could be a regular top 4 contributor, tho would add experience & depth, tho not exactly the big physical Dman the hawks could use, tho he is solidly built.
I expect the hawks to pick up Vermette as well as Beauchemin and/or Sarich (unless Suter becomes available, in which case, I expect they'll make a serious pitch for the top 2 Nashville blueliner)
Other potential moves
Frolik has been a disappointment this season after seemingly coming on in the playoffs last year - He's still young at 23, (compared to a young Jaromir Jagr back in his native Czech when he was drafted 10th overall in 2006) and has two 20 goal seasons to his credit with Florida, but has not produced commensurate with his new contract in his first full year in Chicago. It might be premature to give up on him, but the hawks do have some promising young talent coming up that is pushing for ice time in the likes of Jimmy Hayes, Andrew Shaw, Ben Smith and Brandon Saad that may make Frolik expendable. If the right deal came along, I'd move Frolik.
Nik Hjalmarsson has plateaued and while I admire his willingness to take abuse blocking shots & often taking a pounding from opposing forwards who seem to delight in targeting him for big hits, he has become more susceptible to forecheck pressure & prone to turnovers, partly since he doesn't have an experienced Bryan Campbell on his other side to bail him out and skate away from pressure and out of trouble with the puck. The loss of his former veteran D partner has exposed Hjalmarsson more to the forecheck and his new defensive partner, 20 yr old Nick Leddy, is still adjusting to the league and his own increased responsibilities as a top 4 dman playing the right side as a left handed shot, to provide much support to the more experienced Hjalmarsson.
Hjalmarsson himself is only 24 - still has his prime years ahead of him, but he has stopped progressing from his solid play in 2010 and is no longer making regular big hits for whatever reason.
If the hawks get the right deal, eg. if Suter or perhaps Iginla became available, Hjalmarsson & Frolik are two players I would not be reluctant to move in such deals.