Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chicago Blackhawks: Are they ready to return to championship form?

The Chicago Blackhawks got off to an extremely slow start to the season last year, and it seemed that they were still hungover from their Stanley Cup victory the year before. The Hawks are looking to battle the Wings for the top spot in the Central Division and they hope to have an easier time getting into the Playoffs this time around, instead of waiting until the final week of the season to clinch a spot in the playoffs.

What Happened Last Season:  The Blackhawks started the season off extremely sluggish. They were sitting between the seventh-thirteenth seed for most of the season, and with a late surge at the end of the season, they managed to make the Playoffs and were granted the opportunity to face the mighty Canucks in the first round. After losing the first three games, the Hawks came back and forced overtime in game 7, only to lose on a foolish clearing attempt by Chris Campoli that went right to Alex Burrows.

While the results of the season were a bit disappointing, the play of Corey Crawford was a pleasant surprise. The Hawks after losing Niemi due to financial constraints, were placing their trust in Marty Turco. After Turco showed how inconsistent he can be in the first fifteen games of the season, the reins of the starting job were handed to Crawford and he ran with it. I am sure GM Stan Bowman is the happiest man, as he probably had no chance at landing a solid big name goaltender this season. (Although I might add, inviting Ray Emery to camp was an extremely smart backup plan, should Crawford have a sophomore slump).

Summer Cap Space and Off-Season Needs: The biggest need for the Blackhawks this off-season, was to sign some depth forwards and defencemen. In order to accomplish that one of the big contracts on the roster needed to be cleared off the cap. Bowman did just that by trading Brian Campbell and his albatross $7 million dollar cap hit for the next five seasons to the Florida Panthers. Bowman made some solid depth moves by signing veteran Andrew Brunette and Jamal Mayers up front, and the extremely underrated Steve Montador on defence. Combined with the acquisition of Michael Frolik at the end of last season, the Hawks have gotten some solid secondary scoring and will not be forced to rely on the big guns all the time for goal scoring production.

Stan Bowman is a very intelligent general manager. While many analysts, including myself spent a lot of time praising him for the Campbell trade, the biggest and perhaps most important that happened this off-season was trading Troy Brouwer to the Washington Capitals for a first round pick.Troy Brouwer, while being a talented player, was looking to cash in this summer on a new contract. Bowman realized that players like Brouwer are replaceable cheap on the open market, and if you can get a first round pick for him you go for it. Ultimately Brouwer was replaced with Brunette, a much more talented scorer, and provides some more veteran leadership for this young Hawks roster. Brunette also comes at approximately half a million dollars cheaper than what Brouwer ultimately signed for with the Capitals

What the Future Holds: The Blackhawks will be a surefire playoff team for years to come, and look for them to continue challenging for the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis. They have their core of superstars (Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Sharp and Hossa) all signed through 2015, and it looks like they have found their goaltender for the future as well. If some of the depth and young players like Dave Bolland, Brian Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy can continue to grow, this team will remain extremely dangerous in the future.

The Hawks biggest problem last season, which contributed to their cap woes, was all of the bonuses that their players received after winning the Stanley Cup. This season, the Hawks are only on the hook for half a million dollars in bonuses, and still remain over three million dollars under the cap, look for them to add a significant piece at about the halfway point in the season if they feel that they are in Cup contention.

What I like most about the way that Bowman has handled the cap issues facing his team is the return that he has been getting for his players. When he traded Byfuglien and Ladd in separate trades to the Thrashers (now Jets) last summer, he received a couple of first and second round picks. This year as well, he received for Brouwer a first rounder. The calculation is simple; Bowman is not looking to draft a star player with these picks. He is looking to continue to have talented depth on entry level, or cheap deals to surround his superstars. While it would be nice to draft another star, if he can continue to replace players like Bolland when their contracts get too expensive with first round talent, he will be able to support the talent he has on the roster for many years to come. Just like when Versteeg, Byfuglien, Ladd and Brouwer got too expensive to retain, they were replaced by Stalberg, Leddy, and Bickell, Bowman is accumulating talent to eventually replace these players as well, should they become too expensive in a couple of years time.

Predictions: Without the Marty Turco experiment to start the season, the Hawks will easily make the Playoffs and as always, will be a tough team to beat in a seven game series. I have them finishing fifth in the Western Conference, barely losing to Detroit for the Central Division title.

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Carolina Hurricanes: Are they solely relying on internal growth for this season?

The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the least talked about teams in the entire NHL, and have been that way ever since they transferred over from Hartford. What is interesting is that they have kept such a low profile despite being in the Cup Finals twice in the last nine seasons. Only the Red Wings, Ducks and Penguins can boast such a gaudy track record. Part of the reason for the lack of excitement surrounding the team is due to the lack of big name free agents that have been signed over the years. Historically they always have brought in solid veterans a la Brind Amour and Whitney, but always fail to show interest in the big name players. It seems that this summer's game plan was to sign all the former ex-Leafs available on the market, as they signed Thomas Kaberle, Alex Ponikarovsky and Tim Brent.

What Happened Last Year: The Carolina Hurricanes finished the season tenth in the Eastern Conference after making a push for the Playoffs towards the end of the season before finally fading in the last few games. While the Canes did not make the Playoffs, they did have a number of bright spots on their roster. The play of Jeff Skinner was absolutely remarkable, being the only player in the NHL born in 1992, not much was expected from the young Skinner, but not only he did win the Calder Trophy, he was also the youngest player in the history of hockey to appear in an NHL All-Star Game, since the the league started making two teams of All-Star players, instead of formatting the contest as the Stanley Cup winners versus the rest of the league. Together with the growth of Jamie McBain and Brandon Sutter, Canes fans have some young players to be excited for in the future.

Summer Cap and Off-Season needs: The Hurricanes had an extremely peculiar off-season, in which I do not see how they managed to solve any of their off-season troubles. The largest weakness on what was an extremely mediocre team overall, was their lack of depth on the blue-line. The Canes are going to be placing a lot of hope in some of their young prospects on defence to provide them with some depth. Prospect Ryan Murphy, who the Canes were lucky to nab with the 12th pick, has a very good chance of making the team this season at the tender age of 18.

GM Jim Rutherford took part in one of the most perplexing transactions of the summer. He signed former Bruin Thomas Kaberle to a three year deal with an average salary of $4.25 million per season. My assessment of the signing is that he paid market/ marginally above market for his services, which is fair considering he was drawing a free agent to Carolina. However what is perplexing is that he subsequently traded his best goal scoring defenceman, Joe Corvo, to the same Bruins for a late round draft pick. Joe Corvo and Thomas Kaberle are both offensive minded defenceman and the same age. However there are two key differences between Corvo and Kaberle, and both of them are what make this "swap" so perplexing. 1) Corvo is the better goal scorer. He outscored Kaberle 11-4. With Rutherford re-signing Joni Pitkanen, one of the best playmaking defenceman in hockey, it would have certainly made a lot of sense for Rutherford to keep a goal scoring defenceman instead of trading him away. 2) With the Hurricanes barely above tha cap floor it is quite obvious that they are in a financial crisis. With that in mind, it is perplexing to trade away Corvo, their top scoring defenceman who has a salary of $2 million and a cap hit of $2.25 million, only to sign Kaberle at double the amount of money. Also, it is not like Corvo was the highest paid defenceman on the Canes roster. Pitkanen (rightfully so) Bryan Allen and Tim Gleason all have higher salaries for the upcoming season and the latter two should have been the ones to be moved. If Rutherford was not able to move either of them he would have been well advised to keep Corvo and invest that $2 million in another offensive player. I would really love an explanation from Jim Rutherfod, as this sequence of events continues to baffle me a month later.

On offence I really like what Rutherford did with his limited financial resources. He rightfully did not match the $18 million deal that the Canadiens gave Erik Cole, as he is one of the most injury prone players in sports. He replaced him with Alex Ponikarovsky, who despite having an awful season last year is still only a season removed from back-to-back 50 point campaigns. At $1.5 million on a one year contract, there is basically no downside to this signing. Rutherford also added former Leaf favorite Tim Brent, and will be pleased with the work ethic and penalty killing ability of his off-season signing.

The one move that I really liked which nearly makes up (not quite actually) for the Corvo debacle is the Anthony Stewart signing. The Jets chose not to tender him a contract, thus making him an unrestricted free agent, and Rutherford nabbed him for two years at $900,000 per season. With 39 points last season and showing some flashes of star talent, pairing him up with youngsters Sutton and Skinner has the potential to create a fantastic trio for many years to come. Also, with proven talent in the family it is always worth taking the risk!

What the Future Holds: I am not sure exactly the plan that Jim Rutherford is looking to put into place, but the team structure is not very strong by any stretch of the imagination. For a team that is sitting near the floor of the cap with team salary slightly above $49 million, it is almost crippling that $15 million is invested in superstar Eric Staal and slightly above average goalie Cam Ward. Both of these contracts are above average wage for players of their skill set (with Ward being way above average) and a team with an alleged internal budget these contracts are extremely restraining. I am going to go out on a limb that if the Canes will ever climb out of mediocrity, it will either be because they start spending to the cap, or that Eric Staal will be moved, as Ward's contract is simply too prohibitive. Despite the young talent on the roster, I simply do not see a significant improvement in the near future. Yet, I feel a bit nervous to count out the Canes as they always manage to overachieve.

My Prediction: I want to say that they will be close to competing for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but with teams like Toronto, Buffalo and New York improving both internally and via acquisitions, I simply don't think they have much of a chance. I think they will end up 11th in the Conference.

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