Blackhawks trade two, re-sign Kruger

10-171460575-smallOn Friday, the Blackhawks sent forwards Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for a pair of young defensemen and a future draft pick. The move was made purely to free up enough cap space to re-sign Marcus Kruger before training camp begins on September 18th. Literally moments after it was announced that the Hawks had made this trade, it was also announced that they had in fact given Kruger a new one-year contract worth about $1.5 million, which is a huge bargain for the Blackhawks. As it stands right now, the Hawks sit roughly $900,000 below the league salary cap.

Doesn’t it seem like just yesterday that the Hawks pulled off that late-night trade with the Florida Panthers to bring Steeger back to Chicago? Now he’s already on his was to a new team after winning another Cup with the Hawks. While it somewhat hurts to see him go (simply because of his personality and off-ice likability), it is a move that had to be made. The Hawks needed to dump some salary to make sure that they would not lose a guy like Marcus Kruger. My belief is that Nordstrom was thrown into the deal to eliminate a bit more salary from the budget, but to also get Carolina to take Kris Versteeg who struggled mightily most of last season.

As for Kruger’s new contract, I’m seeing this as a classic “bridge” deal. What that means is that they signed him for an amount that would benefit the team this year given their cap constraints, and will likely sign him to a much more deserving and accurate contract next offseason. Kruger is without a doubt worth more than $1.5 million for one year and probably could have easily gotten a much larger contract had he decided to look elsewhere. That he took this deal to stay with the Hawks says a lot about his desire to stay in Chicago and help the team win on and off the ice. If you didn’t like the guy before for whatever reason, it’s hard not to now.

I believe that the Hawks are likely still doing what they can to try and move Bryan Bickell, which would free up another $4 million from their salary cap, however I think trading him is unlikely. As was the case with Versteeg, any team is going to want something or someone along with Bickell. Trading him straight up for anything will be difficult for Bowman to pull off simply because of Bickell’s contract, and I doubt he wants to lose even more assets from the NHL and/or AHL roster via a trade. At the same time, it would make a ton of sense for Bowman to sign or acquire a veteran d-man to avoid having to rely solely upon the likes of David Rundblad and Trevor van Riemsdyk on the Hawks’ third defensive pairing. If he can do so and spend less than $900,000 in the process, great. Otherwise Bowman will have to find a way to shed more salary from the NHL roster, which brings us back to Bickell in what becomes a repetitive sequence.

In fact, today it was reported that the Hawks will be bringing 37-year old defenseman Jan Hejda to training camp on a “tryout” basis. His four-year, $13 million contract with the Avalanche expired at the end of last season, so he is looking for a new home. And in all honesty, he’s not a bad option to at least consider. He’s been a rather reliable defensive defenseman throughout his career, and he definitely brings that veteran presence that the bottom pair needs. If he impresses the Hawks in training camp, we may see them extend a contract offer. For now though, he’s just here on a tryout, contract-less basis.

Training camp starts at Notre Dame in less than a week, and then the season is just around the corner. Hard to believe…


Blackhawks take four weekend points

184164326_slideOn Friday night, it was the Islanders who tried to take over the United Center. Their mission was unsuccessful as the Blackhawks won that game by a final score of 3-2. Then on Saturday in the second night of back-to-back games for the Hawks, the 0-4-1 Sabres looked to notch their first victory of the season in Chicago, but they came up short as well, losing 2-1. While the Blackhawks only won by one goal in both games, they really outplayed both New York and Buffalo for the majority of their respective games.

The Blackhawks outshot the Islanders 28-19 on Friday night, and really controlled the puck possession for most of the night. Some good goaltending by Kevin Poulin held the Hawks to just 3 goals on the night, but they generated a number of quality scoring chances.

Saturday night was some more of the same by the Blackhawks, as they only won by one goal, but dominated against the Sabres from start to finish. Ryan Miller was fantastic on the night, stopping 38 of the 40 shots that the Blackhawks put on net. At times in this game, the Blackhawks looked like they had one or two extra players on the ice. They had a number of dominating shifts in which the puck stayed in Buffalo’s end for a good 30-60 seconds at a time. Basically, the Hawks were skating circles around the Sabres pretty much the whole night.

182616912_slideNikolai Khabibulin looked good in his first start of the season on Friday night. He stopped 17 of the 19 shots that the Islanders took, and came up with a few huge saves near the end of regulation to secure the Blackhawks’ victory. The only noticeable weak spot with Khabi was his puck-handling behind the net. He had one really bad turnover that nearly resulted in an Islanders goal. All in all though, he looked good.

What had been a major weakness through the first 3 games for the Blackhawks was the opposite in both games this weekend. The Blackhawks’ penalty was a perfect  5 for 5, and they looked pretty decent in killing off all 5 penalties. Still, their penalty kill is a work in progress, but it is definitely progressing.

Michal Handzus, who started as the number two center on Friday, saw his role rapidly decrease as that game moved on. By the end, he was on the fourth line and finished with a total of 9:17 of playing time. Saturday night he was a healthy scratch. This is something to keep an eye on moving forward. Handzus is old and not very skilled. He is not a typical number two center, which is what the Blackhawks have been asking him to be. Because of his lack of speed and skill, he has been dragging down the play of Sharp and Hossa at times on the second line, therefore resulting in his role reduction. If Handzus can’t figure things out, he could find himself with a permanent limited role on this team, similar to Jamal Mayers last season.

Jimmy Hayes was sent back to Rockford late Friday night, and Brandon Pirri was recalled to Chicago. Hayes, who looked great in training camp and the preseason, just didn’t look like the same guy once the regular season started. He has the skill, size, and ability to be a really good power forward in the NHL, but at times it seems as though he’s afraid to be aggressive. He doesn’t seem to use his size to his advantage nearly enough, and that has resulted in him being demoted back to the AHL. However, that’s not the only reason he was sent back down to Rockford.

With the decrease in Handzus’ role over the first four games, the Blackhawks found themselves in need of another center to replace ‘Zus. They therefore brought up Brandon Banner-Raising-2013-1600Pirri, who is much faster and much more skilled than Handzus. In order to make room for Pirri, the Hawks chose to send down Hayes. So while Hayes didn’t impress anyone in the two games that he played, he was also the victim of an unfortunate circumstance in which an open roster spot was needed on the Blackhawks to accommodate Pirri. Watch for Brandon Pirri to slowly work his way into the number two center position between Sharp and Hossa. This is what the Blackhawks ultimately want to have happen, but it is up to Pirri to play his way into that position.

One big positive to take away from the two games over the weekend, and really from all 5 games up to this point, is the Blackhawks’ powerplay. They notched another PP goal against the Sabres, and are now 5-20 on the season (25%). That’s good for 8th in the league. When you compare that to where their PP ended last season and in the playoffs, this is a nice improvement. They are doing a much better job at entering the offensive zone, and they are getting a lot more movement from everyone once they have themselves set up. Last year was a bunch of standing around waiting for the puck. So far this season, guys are a lot more active for the Hawks on the powerplay, and it is helping the results. Hopefully this continues and improves as we progress through the season.

Another positive that I saw from these last two games was the emergence of Joakim Nordstrom. It’s amazing what scoring one goal can do for a guy. Nordstrom scored his first NHL goal on Friday night, and that seemed to give him a world of confidence for the remainder of that game and the next game. He was a lot more patient with the puck and did not hesitate to shoot when he had the chance. This is a real good sign for the Hawks moving forward.

Coming up this week, the Blackhawks head to Carolina on Tuesday night, then come back home for games against St. Louis and Toronto on Thursday and Saturday night, respectively. Dave Bolland will be making his first trip back to Chicago in that game on Saturday night.

Blackhawks’ final roster almost set

11985-statue-of-jesus-rio-de-janeiro-1280x800-world-wallpaperWith just three days remaining until the opening puck drop to the 2013-14 season, the Blackhawks still have some key decisions to make regarding their final roster. Currently, Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin, Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri, Joakim Nordstrom, Michael Kostka, and Ryan Stanton are all battling for the remaining three open spots on the Blackhawks’ roster. All seven of those guys are worthy of playing in the NHL, but only three will begin the season in Chicago.

There has been a lot of talk all summer long about who may get the number two center job with the Blackhawks this year. For a quite a while, it was looking like Brandon Pirri would be the guy. However, it is looking more and more like that potentially may not be the case. While he is certainly still a candidate, other guys like Ben Smith, Joakim Nordstrom, and Michael Kostka are proving this preseason that they belong on the opening night roster. If those three were to make the team, then that leaves Brandon Pirri headed back to Rockford (for now at least). It is possible that the Blackhawks may not keep 8 defensemen on the roster like they have right now. They may choose instead to hang on to 3 forwards, which would be a good thing for Pirri.

As training camp came and went and as the preseason has come and (almost) gone, Joakim Nordstrom has really stood out as the possible replacement to Michael Frolik on the fourth line and top penalty-killing unit. Joel Quenneville has commented that Nordstrom has looked really good on the PK with Kruger, and Kruger has voiced the same opinion. Nordstrom has made it clear that he is willing to do whatever it is going to take to make the team, and right now he seems to be doing the right things. His hustle and defensive awareness have apparently really stood out to the coaching staff.

Right now, I would pencil in Ben Smith and Joakim Nordstrom on the opening night roster. The last open spot will most likely go to either Pirri or Kostka, based on how things have played out this preseason. Personally, I would keep Brandon Pirri on the roster. That would mean that someone like Brandon Bollig would have the be a healthy scratch, but I am okay with that. Pirri is a better all-around player than Bollig.

Regardless of what the Hawks’ coaching staff and management decides to do with the remaining three empty spots on the roster, this is going to be a good team. Almost everyone from last year’s team is back, and the rookies who do make the team should fit in just fine. The Blackhawks’ have done a real good job of developing their minor league prospects in recent years, and because of that they have a number of young guys who are more than capable of playing on the NHL team.

This should be another fun season.