Saturday, February 18, 2012

Trading activity picking up....Bowman watches from sidelines

With 3 trades consummated within the past 24 hours, including two involving defensemen as the principals, the hawks biggest need, it is getting down to crunch time for teams with aspirations of solidifying their playoff position and preparing for a post-season run.  Niklas Grossman, Dominic Moore & Hal Gill clearly aren't the biggest names out there, but at least in Gill's case, he provides excellent help for a pk (something the hawks clearly could use), excellent size to clear bodies from in front of his net (also something the hawks clearly need) and has significant playoff experience, including a Cup with Pittsburgh, something the hawks have, but could always use more of.

In the case of Groosman, its quite possible that Dallas wasn't really looking to appear to be helping the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year by giving them a player off their current roster for draft picks in return...wouldn't sell very well to the fans in Dallas...that is likely why they apparently asked for Saad, who tho a 2nd round pick, was ranked as high as 8th overall at mid-season last year...and is probably the hawks top junior prospect...and also remember, the Stars got to see him play in the 1st two games this NHL season...

So Stan gets a pass there...but letting Gill go to a key rival despite the high price makes me question his thinking and what else might be going on...

Nashville isn't exactly a big market in terms of the NHL & not a cap team, mainly because of their limited revenue & resulting self-imposed cap.  For them to pay the price they did for Gill sends their existing roster as well as fans a loud & clear message, namely they are prepared to pay the price to bulk up for a deep playoff run this year.

The hawks meanwhile, just coming off a 9 game losing streak that included 3 regulation losses to Nashville which has put them closer to 9th place in the west than 5th place Nashville, have acquired Brendan Morrison to fill the 2nd line center position, tho he has been scratched for several recent games.  Essentially his acquisition has used up a roster spot that previously belonged to promising rookie Jimmy Hayes who had to be sent down to Rockford (while Andrew Shaw was kept up in Chicago.

The failure to land Gill could be due to a number of reasons - Stan wasn't prepared to pay the asking price, or he doesn't particularly value the player as highly as others do, or he is in the midst of acquiring another player to address his team's needs.

The first possible reason, not prepared to pay a high price, seems pretty hollow given the cap room and prospect depth he has available to help improve the current roster, and considering the size of the Chicago market and fans' expectations that the team will do whatever it takes to put together a strong contender and given the team's struggles of late.

Perhaps Stan is being constrained by an internal team cap installed by Rocky/McDonough, who are perhaps for good reason getting a bit tired of paying NHL salaries to players who aren't playing in the NHL just so Stan has more available NHL cap space.  Rusty Olesz should have been bought out when he was acquired in exchange for Bryan Campbell (which would have cost a bit of money & cap room, but much less than what it is costing Rocky now & in future). And if reports are to be believed that the hawks are in fact looking for goaltending help despite their public denials, it would provide more fuel to McDonough's concerns about Bowman's maneuvering...since it was Bowman who decided to match defenseman Hjalmarsson's offer sheet he signed with San Jose, and let Stanley Cup winning goaltender Anti Niemi walk.  In hindsight, that appears to have been the wrong move, and leads to the question of why should anyone expect Bowman to get a trade for a replacement goaltender right this time.  (Bowman gets a pass on Huet's salary since he was signed by Tallon, but it is doubtful that fact makes McDonough feel any better about Bowman's handling of the goaltending).

The coaching staff is also probably not doing much to alleviate Rocky/McDonough's fears about how the hockey side of things are being run - it is difficult to imagine that Mike Kitchen did not have any input on both the Frolik & Olesz acquisitions (& whether to buy out the latter on acquiring him), since he coached both players while head coach in Florida.  Clearly those acquisitions have not panned out as expected, with Olesz buried in Rockford but collecting his NHL salary (without any escrow deduction) and Frolik sitting in the pressbox for several recent games.  The situation may also be causing some friction between GM & coaching staff, since Kitchen is clearly Quenneville's man (he was assistant to Q going back to their St. Louis days & long before that (1979-82), they played together for the old Colorado Rockies & New Jersey Devils in 82/83), yet Quenneville is sitting out Frolik, perhaps to Stan's (& Kitchen's) chagrin.  And this latest 9 game losing streak probably tested ownership & senior management faith in the coaching staff, especially given how poorly the hawks were outplayed in several losses, many to teams lower in the standings, who are now within striking distance of the hawks and legitimately threaten the hawks playoff chances.

In such circumstances, and given that Rocky is still a Wirtz, it would not be surprising that he may have put his GM on a short leash when it comes to utilizing the "available" cap room and instructed him to get it done without adding more net salary.

For Stan not to have highly valued what Gill would have provided is a major error in judgement since his size and ability to be physical, his pk ability and playoff experience would have perfectly complemented the hawks.  It was up to Stan to pay the premium, especially given the turmoil the club has been in, to give the defense a boost (reduce the pk burden on & overall minutes of Keith & Seabrook).  He may have to have given up several prospects & a couple of draft picks, but most will not be able to displace current hawk top 6 players in any case.

The only other acceptable scenario (from a fan's standpoint) is that Stan actually is working on something bigger...perhaps even a blockbuster...  The odds of that seem long, given that his superiors' confidence levels in his performance may be lower now than ever.  He failed to leverage early season success to address roster holes that were obvious from the start, (i.e., top 4 Dman & 2nd line C) and trying to do it now, as the deadline approaches from a position of weakness, if not desperation...well, even if he is working on a blockbuster, the odds of it working out seem small.

One interesting, if not curious  tidbit reported yesterday by Toronto media indicated that Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller would waive his No Trade Clause (NTC) to go to Chicago in a trade.  It would seem unusual for Miller to make something like that public if there were not some consideration already on the part of Buffalo management of moving him and that there was already interest by some folks in the Windy City in his services...

Of course, Buffalo management, and in particular the new owner, Terry Pegula, may have his sights set on local Buffalo hero Patrick Kane...and by announcing that Miller has no objections to moving to Chicago, he is sending a strong signal that Buffalo is ready to do some business...

If Bowman for a second entertains thoughts about moving 23 yr old Kane in return for 32 yr old Miller as the two principals, it would seem he is acting in sheer panic & desperation.  Kane has his faults - he sometimes doesn't go all out defensively, and sometimes will make poor decisions with the puck leading to turnovers and scoring chances against, and his scoring especially but also overall production is down this season (perhaps due to not having fully recovered from wrist surgery before training camp), but his skill set is unique and rare.

Even if he is still suffering from a bad wrist, he has made plays that only a handful of players are able to and he poses a threat every time he is on the ice with his speed, shiftiness and hands.  Buffalo would be getting the best player in the deal by far and would win any trade with the hawks were Kane involved.

If Buffalo is interested in moving Miller, it is Stan's job to make it clear that Kane is unavailable but at the same time  provide an appealing, alternative return....

This is where it would get interesting...the Sabres are clearly sellers at the deadline and looking to move dollars to make cap room for retooling their roster in the offseason.  They have a couple of other players that the hawks might have interest in, besides Miller.  In particular, 31 yr old Robyn Regehr who hasn't really panned out as expected this year (is 6th in ice time/game for Buffalo defensemen, having been surpassed by younger Dmen) He has 1 more year left on his contract at $4M, but provides size and ruggedness the hawks lack and has some deep playoff experience, losing the finals with Calgary in 2004.

Buffalo also happens to have a big 6'4 229lb, 30 yr old UFA center available in Paul Gaustad, who is good on draws, can obviously handle himself physically, tho his production is down and he may be more of a 3rd line C than 2nd line.  (On the downside, there are reports that Miller was not happy with Gaustad failing to challenge Lucic after the Boston player ran Miller over earlier this year, which apparently lead to some team dissension and a falling out between Miller & Gaustad in particular, so bringing both over together may also bring some issues with them).  Another alternative could be 28 yr old Derek Roy, who would fit in much better as a 2nd line center, even tho he is having a poor season in terms of production, but he is small, and not as good as Gaustad on faceoffs.  He has 1 yr left on his deal at $5M salary & $4M cap hit.  I would take Gaustad over Roy simply because I think he would provide the better physical presence that is lacking on the hawks otherwise skilled top 6 forwards.

It would appear then that Buffalo has potential solutions to most if not all of the hawks perceived roster holes...and dealing with only 1 team instead of several to acquire the missing pieces may in some respects be simpler this close to the deadline.

What then would Buffalo want in return for Miller, Regehr & Gaustad?

The obvious answer is local kid made good Patrick Kane....tho that should immediately be put to rest as not happening by the hawks.

Stan does have some other interesting pieces to offer a team that is otherwise obviously looking to rebuild/reload and clear some cap room so they can move out any malcontents and bring in some new players.  It would appear they have little interest in resigning Gaustad and Regehr has disappointed with their younger, lower salary defensemen Mike Weber & Marc-Andre Gragnani stepping up in their defensive depth chart, so the return for these players may not have to be that great, tho with Miller included, the entire offer would have to be enticing enough to do the deal without landing their prime target, Patrick Kane.

To start, the Sabres would obviously want a starting goaltender back as replacement for Miller - Enroth has played reasonably well for them this season as a backup with a .917 save percentage, but he is small (only 5'10) and not really a #1. Crawford is the obvious choice going back to Buffalo.  The Sabres gain 4.5 years and $3M in cap space in the goalie position, tho Miller's resume is clearly superior.  That said, Crawford as a rookie, was stellar in the playoffs last year and the only reason game 7 got to overtime (much like Miller's Olympic performance in the Gold Medal game also in Vancouver).

The hawks could additionally offer a good prospect, former Atlanta 2nd round pick Jeremy Morin who is still only 20, and while clearly he isn't Patrick Kane, he has decent offensive upside and hails from upstate NY.  A third player the hawks could offer in return might be 19 yr old Niagara Falls, NY native Adam Clendening, a defenseman taken in the 2nd round 36th overall in last year's draft (ahead of hawks top prospect Brandon Saad).  So those two would each offer a combination of decent upside and local connections that are especially important for smaller markets and they would replenish the depth lost with the moving of Gaustad & Regehr.

To clinch the deal, I'd also offer the hawks top prospect at C, Brandon Pirri, 20 yr old taken in the 2nd rd (59th overall) of the 2009 draft and who happens to be in the top 10 in the AHL in scoring this season, who could help replenish Buffalo's depth at center (while the hawks still have 2011 1st rd picks Phillip Danault and Mark McNeil in their system to make up for Pirri's departure).  Finally, I'd throw in Michael Frolik, who while disappointing in Chicago, just turned 24 and as a 10th overall pick from 2006 had back to back 20 goal seasons in his 1st 2 years in the NHL and presumably has some upside left, plus his salary declines over each of the next 2 seasons after which he is still an RFA, making his contract fairly friendly from a small market team.

The hawks have the cap room to make the deal fit this year, and in net terms would add an approximate $5M cap hit next year with Miller & Regehr, before any consideration to Gaustad who is a UFA.

It would certainly be a blockbuster deal, but one that might be doable, depending on the Sabres willingness
to move 32 yr old Miller & not get 23 yr old Kane back.  If the hawks sweeten the pot with enough good young players & prospects, it might sway the Sabres enough to move players that are no longer happy or welcome in Buffalo in any case.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

9 games & counting...

The Blackhawks find themselves in a frightening nosedive in the Western conference that could actually see them fall out of a playoff spot, after they were challenging for 1st overall in the entire NHL mere weeks ago.

The dismaying part is the way they have lost many of these games - there seems to be a general lack of willingness to pay the price, defensively in particular, to prevent easy goals against. Even worse was the lack of response to ANOTHER complete humiliation by the 29th place team in Edmonton, where Sam Gagner got his name alongside a guy named Gretzky in the Oilers' record book.

The hawks weaknesses as a team have finally caught up to them, tho they were masked the first half of the season thanks to a very favorable schedule that included many home games & weaker teams.  Even while winning, they were near the bottom in goals against, which should have created more urgency with the GM to add a physical top 4 defenseman, to help take some of the workload off Keith & Seabrook.

It appears Bowman has overrated his team and instead of leveraging the advantage of a fast start to the season to make a deal with a struggling team in November/December to fill the hawks obvious holes, he said he was happy with the team & did nothing.

Now, I'm sure there is considerable angst as the team spirals downward with a distinct possibility of missing the playoffs altogether, given the difficulty of their remaining schedule.

There is now even speculation that hawks are looking for a goaltender, as well as talk of firing the coach - two extreme moves that would reflect absolute panic on the part of management and which would make things actually worse instead of better.

The hawks weaknesses haven't changed since the start of the season.

Expecting a 20 yr old to fill the top 4 skates of departed Bryan Campbell was & is simply unrealistic, and it should have been obvious early on, if not before, that Montador, O'Donnell & Lepisto were at best 5/6 defensemen not capable of playing top 4 minutes on a regular basis and replacing the departed Campbell & Campoli.   Leddy has played well, perhaps even better than expected, but he still is inexperienced and subject to stretches of inconsistency.  His pairing partner Hjalmarsson, clearly misses his former partner Campbell' steadying influence in puck possession and quick transition, which helped to neutralize opponent's forecheck.  Now, Hjalmarsson seems to have lost his confidence and too often simply gets rid of the puck when pressured without looking or thinking..resulting in turnovers and sustained zone pressure.

In terms of forwards, the hawks have an excellent core, but rely too much on finesse and the complementary cast has not served to take any pressure off them.  Now, it is apparent the core simply can't carry the team offensively and defensively they have been exposed by focusing too much on offense.

The personnel has changed considerably from the 2010 cup team & not for the better - yet the hawks have failed to adjust to this reality.  They still focus on offense first, at the expense of defense and their goaltending.  Crawford had an excellent rookie year, but the hawks are even weaker defensively this year and given up too many excellent chances against - which eventually undermines the confidence of any goalie, especially one in only their 2nd year in the NHL.

The hawks simply haven't committed enough to team defense - whether it is taking the body in front of their goaltender, blocking shots, hitting players to eliminate them from the play.  It seems they challenge teams on speed & skill alone as they did in 2010, but are now learning that simply isn't enough.  And as the losing grows, there is an apparent attempt by players to make unrealistic individual efforts to beat 2 or 3 opposing players at the same time that result in turnovers & more good chances against (& create more frustration when it results in a goal) rather than making smart, simple plays and relying on linemates for support.

Perhaps the most disconcerting part of all this is that these weaknesses should not be a be a revelation to anyone who has regularly watched the team this season (or even last season), yet the GM, despite having the leverage of early season success, cap room & prospect depth, has failed to act to address those weaknesses. Now there is apparent panic setting in.  Deals made in desperation generally aren't good deals that work out...

The game tomorrow night in New York vs. the Rangers is the biggest game of the season.  The hawks need to look at this as an opportunity to not only put an end to the losing streak, but more importantly, to re-create the belief within themselves that they can compete with & even beat top teams.  A win helps their mental state and changes their outlook from negative to positive, which is certainly needed if they wish to put their season back on track.

A loss on the other hand,  may be devastating, especially if they get blown out ala Edmonton style and may result in a panic move by management to try to right the ship, which will likely only make things worse. They need to show more urgency and willingness as a team to pay the price at both ends of the ice and support each other & especially their goaltender more.