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…

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Quick hits on the Blackhawks

10-171460575-smallIt’s been a relatively slow past couple of months for the Blackhawks, who seem to be waiting as long as possible before making some final contract and roster decisions. In the meantime, they’ve been waiting for any new details in the whole Patrick Kane case. With training camp being right around the corner, here’s what to look for in the coming weeks.

  • First of all, let’s just get this one out of the way. Patrick Kane’s alleged sexual assault case was set to be heard before a grand jury yesterday, only to have it postponed out of nowhere at the last second. This has led some to believe that Kane and the accuser could be working out a settlement, though nothing has been confirmed. The Blackhawks are surely keeping close tabs on this situation as it significantly affects how they construct their roster heading into this season. As it stands right now, it would be a safe bet to assume that unless the Kane accuser drops this case, he could be missing some games to begin the season. The number is anybody’s guess. That could be determined by A) how this situation unfolds between him and the accuser, and B) how the NHL and NHLPA decide to respond to whatever ends up happening with Kane. In addition, it’s not out of the question that the Blackhawks could decide to enforce their own punishment on Kane depending how the case plays out. Rumors have already begun flying that the Hawks could look to trade Kane regardless of what happens with the allegations. The best way to approach this situation as a fan is simply by letting it play out. Let the sexual assault case play itself out before anything else.
  • Marcus Kruger is still without a new contract. The Hawks seem to be waiting on something before extending Kruger an official contract offer. There’s no question that the Hawks want to keep Kruger on the team for the foreseeable future and are waiting for the right time to make him an offer, but at the same time, they don’t want to let this thing play out for too long.
  • Bryan Bickell and/or Kris Versteeg could get traded quite soon. With training camp knocking on the door, the Hawks will want their roster to be virtually finalized before heading to South Bend. Going back to the Kruger situation, it could very well be that the Hawks are waiting to trade either Bickell and/or Versteeg before making Kruger an offer. Freeing up some cap space would make things a lot easier on the Hawks when offering contracts.
  • If the Hawks can trade one or both of the previously mentioned trade candidates, we might see them not only re-sign Kruger, but also sign a veteran defenseman who could either play on the third d-pairing, or at least offer some competition for guys like TVR, Rundblad, and Svedberg.

The Patrick Kane stuff is what has been and will continue to dominate the Blackhawks’ headlines, but that doesn’t mean other important stuff won’t be happening.

One question I think we all have is if Kane is suspended for a significant amount of time (and the possible terms of any suspension are completely unknown right now), would that have an effect on the Hawks’ salary cap situation? I’ve heard multiple answers to this question, some of which from professional hockey writers and analysts. No one seems to have a definitive answer, which makes the whole situation that much more difficult.

For now though, keep an eye on Stan Bowman. A trade or two could be on the horizon.

Teravainen up; Versteeg out

20131211_151215Yesterday, the Blackhawks recalled their top prospect Teuvo Teravainen who has spent all year down in the AHL with the Rockford Ice Hogs. Teravainen is the Hawks’ top prospect and one of the more highly regarded prospects in the game. This will be his second stint in the NHL, as he was called up near the end of last season and played in three games. The reason for his call-up is due to the injury that Kris Versteeg suffered in the Winter Classic against the Capitals. Versteeg took a shot to his hand, left the game, and never returned. He is expected to miss about a month.

Versteeg’s absence from the lineup will be felt, as he is having a very solid season thus far with 9 goals and 18 assists in 34 games played. His 27 points rank third on the team. Ever since Joel Quenneville united Versteeg, Richards, and Kane on the Hawks’ second line, that trio has been arguably the team’s best.

With Versteeg now out, someone will need to fill the void left on the second line. As of right now, it appears that someone will be Patrick Sharp (let’s just take a second to think about what a luxury it is to promote PATRICK SHARP to the second line…). This “new” second line has all kinds of potential to remain the team’s best line, as all three players on it are highly skilled, veteran players.

So what about Teuvo? If today’s practice is any indicator, he’ll be centering the fourth line in between Carcillo/Nordstrom and Smith. Not exactly the role that most fans would like to see him in, but it’s probably the smart decision at this point. You don’t want to put the kid into an important role that puts him under pressure to succeed. Placing him on the fourth line will limit his minutes, but it will also allow him to somewhat ease his way back into the NHL game. If he does well there, expect to see him jump up to the third line with Kruger going back down to the fourth.

Right now really might be the best time possible for Teravainen to come back up to the Blackhawks. They currently sit near the top of the league in the standings, meaning they won’t be fighting for a playoff spot or desirable playoff position like they were the last time Teuvo was up. There isn’t much pressure on the Blackhawks to win every game right now, meaning less pressure on each individual player to play great every single night. Also, we’re entering what many consider the “dog days” of the season. This time of year, January-February, can become a drag for some teams, especially the good ones. With Teravainen coming up now, he’ll bring some excitement to the team, which they may or may not need at this point. Instead of looking at the next couple months as a boring, “let’s just get to April” part of the season, Blackhawks players might see this as the beginning of an era with Teuvo, who has all kinds of potential to be a lethal top six forward on this team in the future.

I think a lot of people thought that the next time Teravainen got called up after being sent down last year, he’d stay up for good. Sort of like the Kris Bryant situation with the Cubs. With Teuvo coming up as the result of an injury to a Blackhawk player, his “staying up for good” might not be the case. That is unless he performs well enough to convince the coaching staff and management to keep him in the NHL. If that happens, then the Blackhawks will have added yet another highly skilled, potent player to their already loaded lineup. Of course, that would essentially mean someone would have to go from the NHL roster, but that’s a problem that we should all welcome.

Teravainen will be making his season debut with the Blackhawks Sunday night at home against the Stars. Ironically, his debut last year was also at home against the Stars. I’d expect some butterflies early from him, but he seems to be in control of his emotions based on what we saw last year. Hopefully he plays well and gains confidence in his game. If that happens, this could be a late Christmas present to all of us Hawks fans, not to mention the organization.

Things starting to click for the Blackhawks

130107_gq_trout_aEarlier in the season, not that it’s late now, the Blackhawks were struggling to win hockey games. They would win one, lose one, win one, lose two, and so on. The biggest reason for that was their inability to score goals. As I said in a previous blog, that trend was destined to hit a brick wall. This team is too talented and gets way too many shots on goal to not be among the league leaders in goals by season’s end. Well, here we are at the beginning of December, the Blackhawks fresh off their annual Circus Trip that took them out west for six games where they won five of those six and have won eight of their last ten overall. Needless to say, that whole goal scoring problem kind of disappeared.

The Hawks’ Circus Trip was bound to be a telling one with regards to this year’s team. Either they would come limping home after getting beat up pretty badly against some of the league’s best teams, or they would come back to Chicago looking like one of the NHL’s best. Fortunately, the latter scenario is the one we are currently looking at as the Hawks get ready to play their first home game tomorrow night in quite some time.

On the six-game road trip out west, there were a handful of things that we learned or continued to see from this team:

  • First of all, Corey Crawford is on pace to be an All-Star this year. He’s currently third in the NHL in goals-against average, fourth in save percentage, and sixth in wins (all among goalies with at least ten games played). He started every game on the Circus Trip (14 straight since returning form injury) and was really good in pretty much every one of those games. I’m seeing no signs of him slowing down.
  • The Hawks’ penalty kill continues to dominate opponents. They rank first in the league with a 91.3 kill percentage.
  • The Blackhawks rank second in the NHL in goals-against per game at 2.00. In fact, the top four teams in that category, and five of the top six, are all in the Central Division.
  • Patrick Kane is starting to be himself again. He dominated the latter half of the road trip. None of this is a good sign for the rest of the league.
  • Going along those same lines, the Hawks’ second line of Versteeg, Richards, and Kane was absolutely dominant over the last three games of the road trip. All three players are playing great at the moment, and we are finally seeing the Versteeg and Richards we were all hoping for.
  • Defensively, the Blackhawks look fantastic. The top two pairs of Keith-Seabrook and Hjalmarsson-Oduya were great out west. The third pairing of Rozsival-Rundblad/Clendening is a work in progress because of the inexperience of Rundblad and Clendening, but they haven’t looked bad. Losing TVR was big, but not insurmountable.
  • The Hawks dominated some of the league’s best teams out west, all without Patrick Sharp in the lineup. He’s due to return sometime very soon.
  • Oh, and remember that whole “we can’t score” thing? The Blackhawks now rank eighth in goals per game and are tied for first in goal differential.

Two stats that I just mentioned, the Hawks’ PK and goals-against per game, often mean a lot more than goals scored per game. NHL teams, especially the Hawks, will get their goals, but if you can’t keep the puck out of your own net, you’re screwed. Last year’s Stanley Cup champion, the LA Kings, finished the season first in goals-against per game. The year before that, the Blackhawks finished first in goals-against per game, and we all know how that season ended. Going back all the way to the 2010-11 season, all teams to win the Cup finished top five in goals-against per game. A huge part of that stat is how good a team is on the penalty kill. If you’re getting scored on while down a man, your goals-against average will rise. Right now, the Hawks’ PK and goals-against per game numbers are incredibly good, and there’s no reason why any of that should change. Come playoff time, those numbers mean a lot more than goals scored.

So the bottom line here is that the annual Circus Trip for the Blackhawks taught us that this team is a force to be reckoned with. It took them a while to finally start firing on all cylinders, but now they are and they look to be one of the leagues top three teams. That’s not to say that they won’t hit some bumps in the road between now and April, but this team appears to be well poised for yet another Stanley Cup run.

Now we just have to wait for April to come around…

Blackhawks-Stars preview

940-toews-jonathan-8colThursday night the Blackhawks will officially open their 2014-15 season in Dallas when they take on the much improved Stars. Already, there are story lines heading this game. Injuries, line juggling, and new faces in the lineup will all have an impact on the Hawks’ season opener.

Let’s start with the injuries. First off, Joel Quenneville said today that it looks like Kris Versteeg will be out around three weeks with a lower body injury. He suffered the injury in practice the other day, but the Blackhawks won’t specify as to how or what happened, per the usual. That stuff is “secretive” in the NHL these days. This is really unfortunate for both Versteeg and the Blackhawks because it appeared during training camp and preseason that Versteeg finally had his legs back under him. Many coaches and players said that he looked like his old self again (the guy from 2010). If that Versteeg is the one that shows up this year, he’ll be a big asset on the team’s third line.

Aside from Kris Versteeg, Michal Rozsival also will be out of the lineup in Dallas it would appear. He suffered an upper body injury during the preseason, but has been skating well in practice and may only miss a couple games. His absence from the lineup is not as crucial as Versteeg’s, but he’s out nonetheless.

In place of Versteeg and Rozsival, expect to see Dan Carcillo and Trevor van Riemsdyk (TVR) in the lineup Thursday. TVR (the younger brother of James of the Toronto Maple Leafs and U.S. Olympic team) unexpectedly made the Blackhawks’ opening night roster and figures to be the Hawks’ sixth/seventh defenseman until Rozsival returns from his injury. He was practicing with Hjalmarsson as his partner this week, while Oduya and Rundbald were the third d-pairing. Once Rozsival comes back, I’d expect van Riemsdyk to be sent back to Rockford. The Hawks likely won’t carry eight healthy defensemen.

If it’s not one of David Rundblad or TVR in the lineup Thursday night, it’ll be Kyle Cumiskey in their place. He is quite similar to Nick Leddy in that he’s a very fast, puck-moving defensemen that likes to be involved in the offense.

As for what lines you should expect to see Thursday, look for them to be Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Shaw-Kane, Bickell-Richards-Smith, Carcillo-Kruger-Morin. As you can see, it looks like Quenneville has already decided that he doesn’t like the Saad-Richards-Kane trio and will instead start the season off with the second line that owned the Kings in last year’s Western Conference Final. I would anticipate that sometime in the very near future Q will go with Richards centering the second line, but for now we’ll have to wait for that. I don’t understand his reasoning for giving up on Richards with Saad and Kane before the regular season even starts, but it is what it is.

Now, the game itself. Dallas is coming into this season already with a ton of momentum behind them. They ended up shocking a lot of people last season by making the playoffs as a wild card team, and they really did put up a good fight against the Ducks in the first round. This summer, they acquired Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky to really bolster their offense that already consists of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They’re going to be a tough team to beat on a nightly basis.

940-toews-jonathan-8colI’m expecting the Stars to give the Hawks all they can handle in the season opener, and there’s a good chance that they win the game in front of what should be a very lively, sold-out crowd in Dallas. Remember, these two teams developed some bad blood for one another over the course of last year, thanks to Antoine Roussel and his aggravating style of play. This will be a great test for the Blackhawks right off the bat.

Five questions surrounding the Blackhawks

940-toews-jonathan-8colHeading into this season, the Blackhawks have major expectations placed on them not only from the fans, but from themselves as well. This is a team that looks poised to finish as a top team in the NHL standings yet again and make another deep run in the playoffs. There are, however, a few questions about the Hawks as they prepare for another long season. Here are five questions I have for this team:

  1. Who will get traded? Training camp just started the other day for the Blackhawks, and they are still 2.2 million dollars over the league salary cap. Someone has to go by October 9th when the Hawks start their season in Dallas. Most signs are indicating that it will be either Johnny Oduya or Nick Leddy that gets dealt. Oduya currently has a 3.375 million dollar cap hit, and Leddy has a 2.7 million dollar hit, so if either gets traded away the Blackhawks would be under the salary cap. While trading Oduya might be the more popular thing to do among the fans, the Blackhawks could get a lot more in return for Nick Leddy. Leddy is still just 23 years old and has an incredible amount of talent. I don’t think you’ll find one team in the NHL who wouldn’t take him. If it were up to me, I’d still probably try and find the best deal possible for Johnny Oduya. Trading Oduya means the Hawks will have to find a new “shut down” partner to go with Hjalmarsson, but I’m not overly concerned about that.
  2. Will the new second line work? The Blackhawks finally have what appears to be a true number two center in Brad Richards. The guy used to be one of the game’s best centers, but is coming off a few disappointing seasons in New York and now finds himself already 34 years old. He will be between Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane on the Hawks’ second line to start the season, which on paper looks like one of the league’s best second lines. The question is whether or not those three will find good chemistry between them. We know Kane and Saad can be successful on a line together, but Richards is the unknown. You wouldn’t think that there would be a problem with this line, but you never know until the real games start. If the first day on training camp was any indication, these three won’t have a problem playing together.
  3. Kris Versteeg. Versteeg is coming off a very disappointing 2013-14 campaign in which he notched 10 goals and 19 assists. In the playoffs, he managed just 1 goal 130107_gq_trout_aand 2 assists and routinely found himself either scratched from the lineup or benched for long stretches of the game. He was not the same guy that was traded away following the Hawks’ 2010 Stanley Cup parade. It could be that he was still not 100 percent after having serious knee surgery during the 2012-13 season. This is what most fans are hoping was the case. Either way, Kris Versteeg is going to have to win back the coaching staff and the fans early on this season or else he’ll probably see minimal playing time and become the subject of trade talks. Personally, I’m expecting a good bounce-back season from Versteeg. He was so awful during the postseason this past spring that it’s hard to believe he was his normal self physically. If he hasn’t shown any signs of improvement by mid to late November, then we can hit the panic button on him.
  4. Will any rookies make the NHL team? We all know who Teuvo Teravainen is by now, but what about Brandon Mashinter? Mashinter is a 26 year old winger who has played in 23 career NHL games with the Sharks and Rangers. He is known for his physical presence on the ice (6’4″, 212 lbs) and is not afraid to drop the gloves. Last season in the AHL, he scored 15 goals to go along with 20 assists and amassed 94 penalty minutes in 58 games between Hartford and Rockford. The NHL has seen that “fourth line grinder” position somewhat disappear in recent years, but if Mashinter has some offensive skill to go along with his grit, he may just make the team. Joel Quenneville has already given Mashinter high praise and has said that there will be a place for someone like him on the NHL roster this year. We saw Brandon Bollig in this role last year with the Hawks, and it was excruciating to watch. If Mashinter does make this team, he better have some skill and not just toughness.
  5. Speaking of Teravainen… Will he make the NHL team to start the season? Probably not. Will he be in the NHL at all this year? Most likely. What the 940-toews-jonathan-8colBlackhawks should and probably will do is have Teuvo start the year in Rockford with the Icehogs. This will allow him to better adjust to playing on North American ice and it will give him time to familiarize himself with the center position. In Europe Teravainen played mostly right wing, so the more time he has to improve at being a center, the better. The last thing the Blackhawks want to do is bring him up too early and have him fail as a center, ultimately killing Teravainen’s confidence. They will wait until they feel he can handle that role at the NHL level and then bring him up. When they do bring him up, they’ll probably start him off on the third or fourth line and let him work his way up. This season will be a tricky year for that to happen though, seeing as how Brad Richards will be the team’s number two center (the hopeful destination for Teravainen). If and when Teuvo gets to the NHL this year, don’t be surprised to see him play some center and wing.

Like I said before, the Blackhawks have some serious expectations on their shoulders this year. They’re going to be good, but just how good? How these five questions get answered could help determine where this team will end up. Obviously, there are many other factors that need to be considered when analyzing the Hawks, but I’m anxious to get these questions answered.

Versteeg back in the mix

Banner-Raising-2013-1600Following the Blackhakwks’ shootout victory over the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday night, Stan Bowman met the media and announced that the Blackhawks had traded for former Blackhawk, Kris Versteeg. Versteeg was a huge part of the Blackhawks’ success from the ’08-’09 season through the ’09-’10 season when they won the Cup. Following their Stanley Cup victory in 2010, the Hawks were forced to trade away many of their key players in order to accommodate the salary cap. Versteeg was one of those players, and he was one of the harder players to lose seeing as how valuable he was to the team. But now, that is all a thing of the past, because Steeger is back.

In acquiring Vertsteeg from the Florida Panthers, Bowman was forced to part ways with minor leaguers Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen. Both of which had played in a fair amount of games with the Blackhawks over the last 2 years or so, but neither really stood out when with the NHL club. Jimmy Hayes, who is 6′ 6″, was never really able to figure out how to use his size to his advantage when here with the Hawks. That, coupled with the fact that he is a weak skater, led to his departure. As for Olsen, He played in 28 games with the Hawks back in the ’11-’12 season. During that time, he played just alright, and never proved that he belonged in the NHL. Following the end of the 2012 season, he was demoted back to Rockford and has been there since.

While the Blackhawks did give up 2 prospects that the organization had been high on until recently, many, myself included, believe that the Blackhawks got the better of this deal. Versteeg is a dynamic forward with high-end skill who can play in many different situations throughout the game. Also, Florida is eating half of Versteeg’s remaining contract. Currently, he is earning $4.4 million per year, but the Panthers have agreed to take on half of that amount for the remainder of his contract. That leaves the Hawks with just a $2.2 million cap hit per year on Versteeg.

Versteeg will be making his second Blackhawks debut tonight when the Hawks take on the Predators in Nashville. Many had speculated and Joel Quenneville confirmed this Kris Versteegyesterday that Versteeg will play on the third line with Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell. That’s where he spent the majority of his time when he was last with the Blackhawks, except his line-mates then were Ladd and Bolland. By adding Kris Versteeg to this third line with Shaw and Bickell, he brings a lot of skill that that line has been lacking. While the line of Bickell, Shaw, and Morin/Smith/Brookbank hasn’t been bad, they have lacked a consistent threat to score. Add Versteeg to that line in place of Morin/Smith/Brookbank, and you immediately have an upgraded line offensively.

Defensively, Kris Versteeg is underrated. In his previous time with the Hawks, he saw a lot of time on the PK unit, and one would have to believe that will be the case again this time around. The Blackhawks have really struggled on the penalty kill this season, so Versteeg is a welcomed sight in that aspect of the game.

The biggest positive about Versteeg coming back to the Hawks is the depth that he adds to this team. Like I said before, the third line hasn’t been bad for the Hawks, but it hasn’t been great. Now, that line is a serious threat, which means that the Blackhawks can roll out at least three dangerous lines against their opponents. Depth was their key to success last year, and they are now well on their way to replicating that same success this year. There will probably be a bit of an adjustment period here for Versteeg seeing as how he’ll have to get acclimated to playing with Shaw and Bickell, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem. He is already familiar with most of the Hawks’ current system of play.

After watching Versteeg’s interview after practice on Friday, it is clear that he is more than 1306350614happy to be back where his career began. He’s got great relationships with the guys who were on the 2010 team, and he already knows this city very well. His presence in the locker room should only help strengthen what is already one of the closest, most tight-knit teams in the league.

Versteeg and the Hawks play tonight at 7 CT in Nashville. He’ll be wearing number 23.

To be honest, I can’t find a single negative in this trade, and that’s a rarity. Good work Stan.  

Here’s one of Versteeg’s top moments as a Hawk: