Hawks’ salary cap troubles unravel wise choices

I love the salary cap. I really do.
It’s given a boost to teams in the NHL, especially, to compete for top free agents and give themselves a shot at viability in the league.
But it also seems to be the end of a time when dynasties were possible.
Thinking back to the two years in a row that Detroit and Pittsburgh played in the Stanley Cup final, it’s amazing to think that two teams were able to repeat as their conference’s champion.
That’s not to say that either the Red Wings or the Penguins were bad teams a year after facing off for Lord Stanley’s mug, but with a yearly “win now” cycle, rebuilding has to happen pretty much on the fly while teams are challenging.
No squad has embodied that more than this year’s champs, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Just weeks removed from winning the franchise’s first championship in 49 years, the dismantling of the team’s depth began. Since winning the Cup, the ’Hawks already have purged Antti Niemi, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Colin Fraser, Kris Versteeg, Ben Eager, John Madden, and Andrew Ladd from its lineup.
The ’Hawks certainly won’t be a doormat in 2010-11 given Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Toews and crafty Patrick Kane, as well as shutdown defencemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, all are locked up and will be in the fold.
For them to miss the playoffs would be shocking, but to see them as serious contenders for a second-staight title would be almost as jaw-dropping.
They’ll win a round, maybe two.
However, with the Wings looking like they’re successfully rebuilding on the fly, a Canucks team that looks poised to break its jinx, and a Sharks club that, despite some changes, at least doesn’t look any worse than it did when it was dumped by the ’Hawks in the conference final, Chicago looks like its fallen off the pace a little bit in the west.
Unfortunately for the ’Hawks, it was a couple of poor management moves that forced GM Stan Bowman to torpedo much of their forward lineup this off-season.
Defenceman Brian Campbell hasn’t been bad for Chicago, but he also hasn’t exactly lived up to the $56 million he was promised over eight years, nor has goalie Cristobal Huet been able to rekindle the fire that led the Blackhawks to sign him to a four-year, $22.4-million pact.
And even Marian Hossa’s 12-year, $62.8-million deal doesn’t exactly look cap-friendly considering that Hossa finished 91st in league scoring while chipping in just three playoff tallies.
Yes, Hossa has a supreme defensive awareness about him, and he does the intangibles all right. But that’s what a third- or fourth-line plugger is for, not a highly-paid second-liner.
The first two snafus, courtesy of ex-GM Dale Tallon, put Bowman in a tough corner in the off-season—and gutting the roster had to be done since no other team would want to take on those deals.
However, despite the hand-wringing over the huge dollars, Hossa and Campbell may have been the support guys needed to put the ’Hawks over the top.
That’s emblematic of a new “win this year” league, where teams have to put all their eggs in one season’s basket and hope for the best. Fortunately for the ’Hawks, the year in which they hoped to win, they won.
Unfortunately for them, it looks as though they’re going to be too top-heavy in years to come.
They’ll pose a fantastic top line and an outstanding top defensive pairing, but with all the money tied up in those contacts, the rest of the talent just will not be there, it seems.
As of Monday, Chicago’s roster featured only 16 skaters (11 forwards and five defencemen), including luminaries such as Jack Skille, Bryan Bickell, Jake Dowell, and Viktor Stalberg.
Maybe these players, all of whom are approaching their mid-20s, are ready to make the step to full-time NHL roles after marinating for years in the AHL, getting dashes of NHL experience at occasional intervals.
But maybe Chicago will surprise—and it will have to be in no small part to those players, who must take on the roles that players such as Versteed, Byfuglien, and Ladd left behind.
I don’t see it happening, but stranger things have happened.
And hey, if it works out, Chicago deserves possibly even more credit than they did for concocting this year’s Cup-winning elixir given Skille, Bickell, and Dowell all were Chicago draft picks while a successful Stalberg would be a coup from their forced hand in the Versteeg deal.
The most disappointing thing about this off-season’s bust-up is that a couple of mistakes undid so much savvy scouting and drafting (Versteeg, Byfuglien, Niemi, and Fraser) and shrewd trading (Ladd, Eager, and Sopel).
However, if the Chicago’s system truly ended up being deep enough to replenish the cupboards and keep the team in contention again next season, it certainly would be a “Miracle on Madison.”
• • •
With an arbitrator ruling Monday that the 17-year, $102-million contract the New Jersey Devils offered to sniper Ilya Kovalchuk circumvented the salary cap, does anyone else out there hope the Russian superstar has enough gusto to play until he actually is 44 just out of spite?
It would be a situation where he signs, say, a 10-year deal with the Devils this off-season but instead of retiring at the ripe old age of 37, Kovalchuk shows arbitrator Richard Bloch that he actually did plan to play until he was 44 and signs one-year deals, for peanuts (he’ll take anything because he’s doing it out of principle, of course) with the Devils each summer until he’s the magic number.
Imagine the game in 2027, where kids born last year will be rookies lining up against “Grandpa” Kovalchuk, still toiling as a fourth-liner for the Devils under Jacques Lemaire, Jr. or Pat Burns Jr., or maybe even Larry Robinson (the original, again) as 85-year-old GM Lou Lamiorello watches on.
As top banana in Atlanta, Kovalchuk probably could have challenged to be in the top 10 career scorers (currently Phil Esposito with 1,590), but signing with the Devils has tempered that total somewhat.
But that’s not what matters. If Kovalchuk were to average 70 games a season in this scenario, he would have played in 1,811 career games—knocking off Gordie Howe’s record of 1,767.
Of course, Bloch was too short-sighted to see that Kovalchuk was truly chasing this goal, and I will applaud when a totally selfless Kovalchuk celebrates the milestone by blocking a shot with his 44-year-old body to help preserve another Devils’ playoff appearance in front of an ageless Martin Brodeur.
Thank you for what I am signing you up to do in my mind, Mr. Kovalchuk. That is what you’re all about, right?
Right. You shall not falter.

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