Olli Maatta

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Stan Bowman’s big bet on Blackhawks’ core

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With no postseason series wins in four years, no postseason appearances in two years, and a veteran team with big contracts it would not have been a huge shock if the Chicago Blackhawks decided to tear things down a little this offseason in an effort to start a new chapter for the organization.

Sure, some of the contracts remaining on the team are ugly in terms of the commitment and dollars still owed, and they are loaded with no-trade clauses, but there are always ways around all of that that. No contract is so bad that it can not be moved, clauses can be waived, deals can be bought out.

But instead of tearing down the core or making drastic changes to the foundation of the team, Bowman has instead doubled down on his championship core and worked to try and fix the flaws that existed around it.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factor]

  • He signed Robin Lehner for one year to give the team a safety net in case Corey Crawford is limited by injuries or poor performance.
  • He acquired veteran defenders Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan.
  • He re-acquired Andrew Shaw from the Montreal Canadiens, continuing his longstanding trend of bringing back players he previously traded or lost to free agency.
  • He made the bold and controversial decision to trade one the team’s top prospects — defender Henri Jokiharju — for what is probably a lesser prospect in Alexander Nylander.

By doing all of this, and by going after the type of players he did (mostly established veterans built to win now), he is pretty much telling the hockey world he still believes this Blackhawks team is good enough to compete and win this season. Maybe there is some reason for him to believe that. As long as a team has high-end players in its lineup the window will always remain cracked open and you never want to truly punt on a season as long as you still have that. And the Blackhawks certainly still have some of that element with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and Duncan Keith at the top.

But it is still a big bet that is going to depend largely on what happens with the Crawford-Lehner duo in net, how much they can get out of their top-returning defenders, and if he acquired the right players to improve what has been one of the league’s worst defensive teams.

The issue for Bowman is going to come if he is wrong on these bets.

The Blackhawks have not come close to reaching the standard they set for themselves between 2010 and 2015 and have won just three total playoff games over the past four years (all coming in a Round 1 loss to the St. Louis Blues during the 2015-16 playoffs).

Given that the team has already fired a three-time Stanley Cup winning, future Hall of Fame coach within the past year we have probably reached the point where any continued lack of success is going to start falling on Bowman. He is the one that chose the direction of the team, he is the one that brought in the players that are supposed to help fix the problems, and it’s not like his recent track record of deals and moves is beyond reproach.

Everything about the Blackhawks’ offseason points to a team that thinks it can win this season.

If it doesn’t, it could be costly for the general manager.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Depth, defense, Nylander will be Blackhawks’ biggest questions

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

It is time to ponder three significant questions for the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks.

1. Did they do enough to fix their defense?

The Blackhawks have steadily devolved into one of the worst defensive teams in hockey over the past couple of years and seemingly hit rock bottom during the 2018-19 season, wasting what turned out to be a pretty good offensive team.

The front office spent most of the summer working to fix that problem by acquiring Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Calvin de Haan from the Carolina Hurricanes. Both players should be at least marginal upgrades when they are in the lineup (de Haan may not be ready for the start of the regular season as he recovers from offseason surgery) but there are still a lot of unanswered questions on this unit.

Among them: How much do Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have left in the tank? Keith is one of the best defenders of his era and has a Hall of Fame resume, but he is also entering his age 36 season and has showed signs of slowing down the past couple of years. Seabrook has a terrible contract and is a shell of his former self, rapidly becoming an anchor on the team’s blue line.

Then there is Erik Gustafsson who is coming off of a monster year offensively (17 goals, 60 total points) but has to show it wasn’t a fluke.

The new additions might be fine for the 4-5 spots, but if the top-three aren’t able to play at a high level the new guys really won’t that matter much.

The curious move this offseason was the decision to trade Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander. Jokiharju showed a lot of promise last year and figured to be a key part of the team’s future blue line. But he never seemed to gain the trust of new head coach Jeremy Colliton, was banished to the AHL, and then traded for a player that so far has been a massive disappointment. Trading him is a big risk that could backfire in a big way if they are wrong.

[MORE: 2018-19 Summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Do they have enough depth at forward?

What gives the Blackhawks a chance this season is the fact they still have impact players throughout their roster. Patrick Kane is still on of the league’s best offensive players, Jonathan Toews resurrected his career offensively a year ago, Alex DeBrincat looks like he has the chance to be a superstar, and Dylan Strome started to show some of the potential that made him a top-three pick in the draft. Their top two lines should be good enough to compete.

The issue is going to come on their third and fourth lines that seem to be produce more questions than answers.

Teams need to roll four lines that can score in today’s NHL, and even with the return of Andrew Shaw the Blackhawks’ bottom-six still leaves plenty to be desired.

One player that could go a long way toward helping that depth is the recently acquiring Alexander Nylander.

Speaking of him…

3. Will they be right about Alexander Nylander?

In a vacuum the decision to trade Jokiharju isn’t completely ridiculous. Teams deal top prospects all the time in an effort to get better, and given the numbers the Blackhawks have on defense it makes sense that someone at the position would get moved.

Trading him for Nylander, a player that is starting to border on being a bust, is what is so confusing.

If you are an optimist, you might point to the Blackhawks’ success with Dylan Strome after he blossomed following a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. The problem with that comparison is that Strome had at least shown the potential to be an impact offensive player. Prior to the trade to Chicago he was a point-per-game player in the AHL and was starting to produce a little bit in his limited NHL action, especially at the end of the 2017-18 season

Nylander to this point has done none of that.

Over three years in the AHL he managed just 30 goals in 165 games and was only a .522 point-per-game player.

Strome, on the other hand, scored 22 in only 50 games in his one full AHL season and doubled Nylander’s per-game point production.

If you are supposed to be an offensive player and you don’t score at the lower level, it’s hard to expect much production at the highest level.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Signing depth players long-term is usually losing move for NHL teams

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The Nashville Predators’ decision to sign Colton Sissons to a seven-year contract earlier this week certainly raised a lot of eyebrows around the NHL.

As PHT’s James O’Brien argued immediately after the signing, the salary cap hit is pretty reasonable and it might even be a decent value right now.

But it’s the salary cap that puts every contract in the league under a microscope. Teams only have so much money to spend, and every dollar they spend on one player is a dollar they do not have to spend on another player. Every dollar counts, especially if you a contending team that is probably going to be spending close to the cap. Mistakes and misevaluations matter, and if you get caught with too many of them at once it can have a negative impact. Because of that, teams need to make sure they are using their limited amount of money in the most efficient way possible, properly prioritizing what matters and what doesn’t, and the players that are worth committing to.

Traditionally, teams have mostly avoided long-term commitments to players that are not top-line players. This is especially true among teams that win and go deep in the playoffs. I say “mostly avoided” because there have been several instances outside of Nashville where teams have given lengthy term to depth players. The New York Islanders signed forwards Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck to five-year deals, and third-pairing defender Scott Mayfield to a seven-year deal. The Detroit Red Wings have Justin Adbelkader and Darren Helm on five-plus year contracts. The Kings gave Kyle Clifford a five-year deal several years back. The Pittsburgh Penguins gave Brandon Tanev a six-year contract this summer to play in their bottom-six after giving Jack Johnson a five-year contract one year ago.

Those are just a few examples of players that are currently under contract.

The question, though, is why teams would ever want to do this.

The answer is simple: By giving the player more term and more individual long-term security, it brings the salary cap hit down a little and helps the team in the short-term. But is that extra savings worth the long-term commitment to a player that may not retain their value over the duration of the contract?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

One thing that has stood out about recent Stanley Cup winners and contenders is that pretty much none of them have had long-term commitments (five years or more) to players that played regularly outside of their top-six forwards or top-four defenders. It is practically unheard of. Identifying consistent lines and who is a “depth” player is a mostly inexact science. Coaches change line combinations constantly over the course of a season and a player’s role within a team can be a very fluid situation. For this, I simply tried to use even-strength usage as a way to identify a player’s spot in the lineup.

The table below shows the past six Stanley Cup winners and the players they had signed to contracts of five years or more in the years they won the Stanley Cup. Players highlighted in yellow were signed for six years (or more) at the time of the championship. Take a look at the names and see if you can identify a trend … they are almost all top-line players.

The only players on that table that were not either a starting goalie, a top-six forward, or a top-four defender are Olli Maatta with Pittsburgh in 2016-17 (he was top-four in 2015-16) and Mike Richards with Los Angeles in 2013-14 (he signed that contract in Philadelphia when he was a first-line center, and was a second-line center upon his arrival in Los Angeles in 2011-12).

I also looked at every team that made at least the Conference Finals in those seasons and found only five instances where a depth player was signed for more than five years. And even they have some asterisks next to them because they were at least signed with the intention of being more significant parts of their team.

  • Alex Killorn, signed for seven years, was outside of Tampa Bay’s top-six during their 2017-18 Eastern Conference Final run, but was in its top-six during its runs in 2014-15 and 2015-16. When he was signed, the Lightning probably figured he was going to be more of a top-line player. He has since been surpassed by a wave of talent that came after him.
  • Ryan Callahan also played third/fourth-line minutes for the Lightning during the 2017-18 playoffs but, like Killorn, played bigger roles in 2014-15 and 2016-17.
  • The Sharks had defensemen Brenden Dillon signed for five years to play third-pairing minutes 2018-19 and 2015-16 during their postseason runs
  • John Moore and David Backes (both signed for five years) were depth players on the 2018-19 Bruins.

Pretty much all of the Conference Finalists, and especially the Stanley Cup Finalists, over the past six full seasons had long-term investments in their stars and filled out their depth with younger, entry-level players and short-term veterans.

They were not giving out term to non-core players.

The problem with giving out term to depth players is that they can tend to be replaceable talents that may not maintain their current value throughout the duration of that term. You run the risk of that player regressing and not having the roster flexibility to bring in a cheaper and/or better player. If a star player ages and declines, they are still probably going to be giving you a solid return on that investment. The depth player may not, if they are even able to justify a roster spot.

Let’s take Sissons as an example. Right now he is a fine NHL player. Solid defensively, can chip in some offense, and plays a tough and often times thankless role within the Predators lineup. At around $3 million per year he is a fine investment … for now. Between the 2000-01 and 2012-13 seasons there were 14 players that were at a similar point in their development: Players that had played at least 140 games during the ages 24 and 25 seasons and averaged between 0.30 and 0.40 points per game, exactly where Sissons is right now.

Only five of those 14 players played an additional seven seasons in the NHL.

In professional sports dollars, an extra million or two over a couple of years is nothing more than a drop in the bucket to teams. But when the teams are limited by their leagues in what they can spend on players, little mistakes can quickly add up to big mistakes. The Penguins, for example, are now on the hook for $7 million over the next four years for the Johnson-Tanev duo, which is an egregious use of salary space for a contender pressed against the cap that is trying to get another Stanley Cup out of its Hall of Fame core over the next few years.

It is not just good teams, either. The Vancouver Canucks have spent the past two offseasons throwing big-money at the bottom of their roster and will enter this season with $12 million in salary cap space going to Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, and Tyler Myers for multiple years. The result of that is a bad team that only has $5 million in salary cap space and still needs to sign restricted free agent Brock Boeser. They are now in a position where they have to play hardball with their second-best player to get him signed, or have to make a desperation trade to clear salary cap space. It’s a headache that would have been easily avoidable had they not overspent on the bottom of their lineup.

As much as teams want cost certainty with their players and trying to secure their long-term salary cap outlook, it just doesn’t seem to make much sense to commit so many years to a player that isn’t going to be an impact player or a part of your core. The value probably will not remain, and it is going to limit what you are able to do in the future. There is not a third-or fourth-line player in the league right now that is so good at what they do that it is worth committing to it for five, six, or seven years. Age will eventually catch up to those players, and when they decline it is going to hit them even harder than the decline of a star.

Commit to your stars long-term because they can not easily be replaced.

The players around them usually can be.

More NHL Free Agency:
Sissons, Predators agree to seven-year contract
Predators being bold with term, but is it smart?
NHL Free Agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Trade: Blackhawks send Anisimov to Senators for Zack Smith

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Artem Anisimov‘s name has been floating in trade speculation for more than a year now, and on Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Blackhawks finally moved him.

The Blackhawks announced they have traded Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for forward Zack Smith. It is a one-for-one deal that will probably make a bigger impact on both team’s financial situations than on the ice.

Both players are 31 years old, have two years remaining on their current contracts, and are coming off of somewhat similar seasons in terms of their performance. Anisimov scored 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games for the Blackhawks this past season, while Smith had nine goals and 28 points in 70 games for the Senators.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So what is important here for both teams? Money, obviously.

For the Blackhawks, the Anisimov-for-Smith swap saves them a little more than $1 million against the salary cap as they go from Anisimov’s $4.5 salary cap hit to Smith’s $3.25 number. For a team that is consistently pressed against the cap and still has a ton of big-money players, every little bit of extra space helps. Especially as they have to work out new deals for Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome over the next year.

The Senators, meanwhile, had a different set of problems.

They were still sitting under the league’s salary floor before the trade and are now finally above it.

Anisimov’s contract not only gets them over the floor, but because the Blackhawks have already paid Anisimov’s signing bonus for this season the Senators actually owe him less in terms of actual salary, which is also probably an important factor for a team that is seemingly always in a cost-cutting and money-saving mode.

The Blackhawks have been extremely busy this offseason making multiple changes to their roster after a second straight non-playoff season. Along with acquiring Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades to try and upgrade their defense, they also signed goalie Robin Lehner in free agency and brought back veteran forward Andrew Shaw.

This past week they traded former first-round pick defender Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander.

Related: Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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It is easy to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and come to the conclusion that their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut.

They have missed the playoffs two years in a row, have not won a playoff game in three years, and have not been out of the first round in four years.

Their championship core is older, some of them are gone, and they still have some flaws on their roster that could hold them back.

But if recent NHL seasons have shown us anything it is that we should take the idea of “a championship window” and throw it in the garbage (and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to referring to “windows” … it’s time to stop). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship window in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang era was thought to be closing … before they won two in a row. The Washington Capitals were thought to have missed their chance in the Alex Ovechkin era … before they finally won it all in 2018. Then this season we had the St. Louis Blues whose window, again, seemed to be perpetually closed … until they won.

The takeaway from all of those teams should probably be this: If you have elite players that are still capable of producing at elite levels, you probably still have a chance to win the big trophy at the end of the season as long as you can put the right players around them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is what makes the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s biggest boom-or-bust teams heading into the 2019-20 season.

The thing about Blackhawks this past season is they definitely had the offense to be a playoff team. They finished the year eighth in goals scored (one of only two teams in the top-16 that did not make the playoffs) and still have the always important top-line players that are capable of producing at an elite level.

Alex DeBrincat is an emerging superstar. Patrick Kane is still one of the best offensive players in the league. Jonathan Toews had an offensive resurgence this past season and is still a great defensive player. Brandon Saad may not be what he was expected to be or what the Blackhawks want him to be, but he will still give you 25 goals just by showing up.

Then there was perhaps the most significant development this past season, which was the emergence of Dylan Strome, the former No. 3 overall pick that is still only 22 years old and seemed to start realizing some of his potential following the mid-season trade over from Arizona. He is still a gifted player with enormous potential that has performed and produced at every stage of his development and finally started to do so at the NHL level once he got an increased role in Chicago. If he builds on that it gives the Blackhawks yet another key building block in place.

Top-line players are the most important pieces of a championship puzzle and the hardest ones to acquire, and the Blackhawks already have them. The problem the past two seasons has been everything that surrounds those pieces.

They still have some pretty glaring holes among their bottom-six forwards, but the return of Andrew Shaw from Montreal should help their forward depth a little bit.

The key to any success or failure will be what they can do when it comes to goal prevention, and that is where much of Bowman’s work has focussed this offseason.

The Blackhawks were a disaster of a defensive team this past season, and when combined with the health issues that have plagued starting goalie Corey Crawford it resulted in one of the worst defensive performances in the league. Nothing else held them back more than that.

What makes the Blackhawks such a wild card team this season is that they seem to have the potential to see some significant improvement in this area.

[Related: Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable]

While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a shell of their former selves (especially Seabrook), there is some hope for the future of the blue line due to recent first-round pick Adam Boqvist.

(Update: Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick, Henrik Jokiharju, was initially mentioned here as well, but he was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander hours after this post was published)

When it comes to a more short-term outlook, the Blackhawks invested heavily this offseason in goal prevention with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, and goalie Robin Lehner. de Haan may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery but has the potential to make a significant impact. His strength is shot suppression and the Blackhawks badly need defenders that can keep the puck away from their goalies. Maatta doesn’t do anything to improve the team speed or its offensive firepower, but he is a capable defender that cuts down chances against.

Both players should help.

But the biggest potential improvement could come from the presence of Lehner.

His addition in free agency was one of the more eye-opening signings in the league, not only due to the short-term and bargain price, but because the Blackhawks already have a starting goalie in Corey Crawford … when he is healthy. The problem for Crawford and the Blackhawks is he has had significant health issues the past two seasons, while the team has had no capable replacement. Just look at what has happened to the Blackhawks the past two seasons without him.

Pretty significant drop there without Crawford, and over a pretty significant stretch of games.

With Crawford (or any competent goalie), they have at least been close to a playoff spot. Without him they are pretty awful. With Lehner now in place they have two above average starters which should give the Blackhawks options. They not only have a Plan B if Crawford is not available, but they have a great platoon option if he is and just want to better pace out his minutes and playing time. Even if Lehner doesn’t duplicate his 2018-19 performance, he will still be a significantly better option than what the Blackhawks had. They don’t need Lehner to be a savior, they basically just need him to NOT be Cam Ward, Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, or Jeff Glass.

Even a .916 save percentage from Non-Crawford goalies (Lehner’s career average) would have trimmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals off of the Blackhawks’ total this past season on the same number of shots. That alone would have moved them from 30th in goals against to 20th. Still not great, but closer to where they need to be. Add in a better defensive performance with the additions of de Haan and Maatta, and they get even closer.

Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” and “this needs to go right” in this discussion, but the potential is definitely there.

They still have the right pieces in place at the top and they made additions in the right areas to complement that.

If those additions work out as planned, this team could once again be a fierce team to deal with in the West.

If they don’t … it might be back to the lottery for another season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.