Stan Bowman solidified his repackaged defense corps on Thursday, inking Steve Montador to a 4-year $11 million agreement. The $2.75M annual cap hit is slightly more than you would have wanted to spend, but the difference isn’t significant enough to debate over.
The Blackhawks had acquired Montador’s rights late Wednesday from Buffalo for the seventh-round draft choice Chicago received from Florida this past Monday when the Hawks sent Tomas Kopecky’s negotiating rights to the Panthers. Kopecky signed with the Panthers two days later; $12M over 4 years.
Montador, 31, isn’t huge (6-0, 210) but he’s tough and plays with an edge the Hawks lacked on the blue line. He’s best-suited as a third-pair defenseman on a contender, which the Blackhawks should be again in 2012. But he will kill penalties and fill time on the power play if need be. He’s solid all around, but not really above-average at anything in particular. He gets into trouble when he leans too heavily into the offensive end or in the physical side of his game. But he makes good reads, a solid first pass and is trustworthy. Montador also has a big shot the Hawks might use on a second power play unit and he’s adept and willing to patrol the crease on the defensive end.
So, with the addition of Montador and the expectation that Nick Leddy will eventually move into Brian Campbell’s vacated position next to Niklas Hjalmarsson, the Hawks blue line is now set as far as the top six is concerned.
Corey Crawford has his new three year ($2.666M cap hit) deal in place. Immediate depth at the position is a big concern, but nothing they’re expected to address this weekend. Bowman has said he intends on going with Alexander Salak, the Czech netminder acquired last February as part of the Frolik-Skille swap, as Crawford’s back up. Salak posted impressive numbers over in the Swedish Elite League last season. The year before he was the main goaltender for the Rochester Americans of the AHL. Each of the last three Hawks’ seasons the backup at the beginning of the season wound up the number one at the opposite end. So history says the Hawks better be convinced Salak can start in the NHL.
So with goaltending and the defense largely in place, Bowman will focus on improving his team up front.
Complicating things slightly are Michael Frolik, Chris Campoli and Viktor Stalberg, who have yet to reach new terms. With how highly Stan Bowman has spoken of the first two, they’ll figure in somehow. It’s just a matter of time. Bowman told the media on Thursday he now expects these negotiations to “stretch out” a bit.
Although the cap hits of those three players are still pending, with how money is being thrown around right now you can figure collectively they’ll take up around $6.25 million this season. If the three come in for less (and as RFAs they really should, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to work that way), as a GM today you’re winning. Campoli and Frolik are Bowman’s priorities. If they get too pricey or Stalberg’s agent wants too much more than a million, million and a quarter, then you’d have to imagine Bowman would wait him out or just excuse Stalberg from the Hawks plans and go with a cheaper young guy on the fourth line.
But expecting that $6.25M for those three (and with Rostislav Olesz, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith figured in), right now that leaves the Blackhawks approximately $5.2 million under the cap. That’s with three spots open on the 23-man roster.
If Bowman is planning to buy-out or trade the Olesz contract, that would give him around $8.3M total of space under the upper limit. He’d spend no more than $7M of that, but that would also give him the flexibility to sign two players in the $3-3.25M range and perhaps Ryan Johnson or another flexible fourth line center type as the extra utility forward.
–The defense appears to be set, with one vacancy to be filled.
Duncan Keith – Brent Seabrook
Nik Hjalmarsson – Nick Leddy
Chris Campoli – Steve Montador
Joel Quenneville will continue to follow the model he’s set the last three years. Leddy will slide into Campbell’s spot and learn on the gig. Hold on tight and away you go. If he struggles early, Montador or Campoli should bump up, or perhaps the Hjalmarsson-Leddy tandem will slide down together. In the long run however, Montador and Campoli best serve you as a third pair. Asking more of them on a Cup contender is a gamble.
Since John Scott’s on the team but really doesn’t have a position, you still could see Brent Sopel signed as the 7th blue liner. There are bound to be injuries. It’s very likely a 7th defenseman will play 60 games. And judging by last season, it’s almost a certainty. Really, you must plan for it. Jassen Cullimore played in 36 games over the first half of 2010-11 as a Hawk. Leddy and Nick Boynton kind of meshed as one spot splitting the 82 games. Hendry was on the lineup card as a d-man 25 times, John Scott about 17-20. So, another serviceable body on the blue line is the utmost of importance. Unless of course Bowman feels safe with Scott playing 50-60 games on defense, he must fulfill that need with the cash he has left. Sopel could come cheap and fit in nicely.
Up front, things can go a few different ways.
If the plan is to move Sharp back to wing permanently, then Bowman will need two centers. He could be bluffing, but Bowman keeps repeating and appears confident Marcus Kruger will be one. Kruger is too frail to skate the wing night after night and you don’t want to be any softer there than you are already with the loss in size of Brouwer and Kopecky.
–Here’s how the Hawks’ forwards look right now:
Patrick Sharp – Jonathan Toews – Patrick Kane
___________ – _____________ – Marian Hossa
Bryan Bickell – Dave Bolland – Michael Frolik
Ben Smith - ______________ - Viktor Stalberg
(Rostislav Olesz) - Marcus Kruger
We’ve left the Bolland playoff line in tact since Bowman’s been quoted a few times now indicating his (and the coaching staff apparently) intensions to keep that line together to start the season.
Again, Bowman keeps saying Kruger is ready to contribute on the Blackhawks. So, in taking Bowman at his word, Kruger is one of your centers. In that case, you’re looking for a fourth liner long term, who also is talented enough to skate 15-20 minutes a night now while Kruger gets settled and gains more confidence. If Kruger’s in Bowman’s starting twelve, Ryan Johnson makes sense for one more year in the utility role.
Max Talbot’s the best option out there for a third line role without bleeding the checkbook. If you sign Talbot, that’s basically declaring Dave Bolland you’re second line center. As far as getting Hossa a table-setter, that would have to come by trade. Vernon Fiddler is another option, but he’s better defined as a fourth liner. An item of concern with Fiddler is his offensive struggles to end the season with Phoenix. Seeing increased ice time over the final quarter of the regular season, Fiddler failed to score a goal. Including playoffs (where his minutes were cut back in half) Fiddler went his final 27 games with the Coyotes with 0 goals, 8 assists and a minus-4. He’s a great face-off guy and a bit of an agitator. But at an inflated open market price, you really must ask yourself how much of an improvement would Fiddler be over Ryan Johnson?
Zenon Konopka’s a name that pops up because of his faceoff winning percentage and accumulation of penalty minutes. Other than that he can’t play. Konopka is often guilty of taking emotional penalties and unlike Ryan Johnson, can’t contribute on a penalty kill. He’s stocky for an NHLer, but he isn’t big.
Tomas Fleischmann is more of a winger who can play some center. That flexibility though is what the Hawks covet and he is probably the one affordable player on the open market Friday who can help in the second center role. But Fleischmann comes with health concerns. The 27 year old missed the start of the 2009-10 season with a severe blood clot. His 2010-11 season ended in January when a recurrence of clotting diagnosed Fleischmann with pulmonary embolism.
The Hawks need beef on the wing, so Ville Leino shouldn’t figure in the plans Friday. He’ll be seaking more than the $3M the Hawks are looking to spend anyhow.
Joel Ward. Expect this will be the first call the Blackhawks make on Friday. Ward, 27, fits the profile Stan Bowman is calling for. He’s an intelligent, defensively responsible, physical winger (6-1, 220) who can chip in some offense on any line. Ward can skate on either wing, lines 2 through 4. He’s not really a fighter, but Ward gets to the corners and creates that net-front presence the Hawks are now severely lacking with Brouwer and Kopecky gone. There will be plenty of other teams calling Ward, so the bidding could get a little crazy for a winger whose career highs are 17 goals and 35 points.
Other possibles: Sean Bergenheim. We suggested him last summer along with Ruslan Fedotenko (also a UFA on Friday) when Bowman was bargain-basket hunting. Instead, John Scott and Fernando Pisani were signed. Tampa Bay signed Bergenheim for a year and $700,000. The 5-11, 27-year old skates with a feistiness the Hawks could use on their fourth line. However, coming off a 14 goal season and 9 goal playoff, Bergenheim will be looking for a larger role and close to $2M.
Unless he’s willing to take less money from Chicago, the Hawks won’t get into the Erik Cole bidding. Cole is 32, coming off a 26-goal season and $2.9M cap hit. Unless Bowman has more tricks up his sleave, the price will get too rich for the Hawks cap.
Eric Belanger is another center. Smart all around but again, he’s a second or third line guy on an average to below average club – A third or fourth line center on a contender. How much would you be willing to spend on him if you’re a contender with bigger needs on the wing?
No to… John Madden, Raffi Torres, Zenon Konopka, Marco Sturm, Michael Ryder, Radim Vrbata, Ethan Moreau,
4th liners possibilities at bargain price.. Matt Bradley, Michael Rupp, Cody McCormick, Eric Boulton,
If not Brent Sopel…. Kent Huskins, Jeff Woywitka, Paul Mara, Randy Jones
–The Blackhawks spent close to $69 million in real cash on players, organization wide, in 2010-11. Expect that to drop at least a few million this year even with cap going up from $59.4 to $64.3, essentially nine million where the Hawks are concerned (with last season’s four million dollar penalty prohibiting Stan Bowman from spending to the $59.4M official cap).
When Tomas Vokoun signs with Colorado on Friday (just my guess), Dale Tallon might have little choice but to have his assistant ring Stan Bowman’s phone again. Actually, the two sides might get crossed ringing the other simultaneously. There’s a very real possibility Cristobal Huet could be a Panther in the fall. Tallon doesn’t want to disrupt his long term plan, and Swedish goalie Jacob Markstrom could be ready as soon as this fall, so the one year and $5.65M Huet has left on his deal kills two (really three) birds. One, gets Tallon a little closer to the $48M cap “floor” he’s currently $22M away from with ten vacant roster spots and not much within his mitts to use it on. Two, Huet’s expiring contract wipes out before the new cba and in time for Markstrom to be the clear number one. This would also make Rocky Wirtz a happy man. Profits on 44 home games alone doesn’t cover his team’s payroll. One year and five million is one thing. I see ten million out the door, just to make a goalie disappear, sitting well with a Wirtz.
–Starting at 10:30am (central) Friday, I’ll be taking part in a live chat over at HockeyIndependent.com. All are welcome to join in or just observe.