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Thursday, February 29

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Blackhawks Thu Jul 01 2010

Blackhawks Keep Bleeding

After the Kris Versteeg (and the rights to minor leaguer Bill Sweatt) trade hit last night, I figured I'd wait til the end of the first day of free agency to wrap up the moves the Blackhawks had made. Little did I imagine the amount of movement, and non-movement, that would follow.

Heading into the start of free agency, despite GM Stan Bowman's assertions to the contrary, it was pretty clear the Hawks had to make some cuts to work with the salary cap. Even assuming Crisotbal Huet is shipped to the AHL or plays overseas next season to get out from his overpaid contract, the Blackhawks had only 12 players signed and roughly $7.5 million to work with.

Sending Versteeg to Toronto helped clear up some space, as his $3 million-a-year salary that resulted from last year's contract snafu was a clear target to move. Despite his speed and stickhandling abilities, and the career year he had, he still has a tendency to make some bad plays and no backhand to speak of. As a 24-year-old, there's still some upside to Versteeg that could come back to haunt the Hawks, but their concerns are elsewhere. In return the Hawks got Viktor Stalberg, another 24-year-old who bounced between the Leafs and the AHL in his rookie season, as well as prospects Chris DiDomenico and Philippe Paradis. Stalberg's a 6'3", 210 forward who also has speed, and seems like the kind of player who might blossom in the Hawks system, but is also not nearly as established (and hence the cheaper price). It's a deal that makes sense for both teams, but if Stalberg's development stalls doesn't do much for the Hawks this season. As versatile and clutch as Versteeg was last season, it was tough to see him go, but given the cap constraints and the need to sign goalie Antti Niemi and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, it was a necessary deal.

But then came the start of free agency, and while it's not worth panicking on day one, both Niemi and Hjalmarsson have yet to sign. Both players are restricted free agents, giving the Hawks the ability to match any offer or receive compensation, but the last thing Chicago needs is another team forcing their hand with a high offer and forcing bigger salary cap issues then they're already in.

Case in point, restricted free agent Andrew Ladd, who the Hawks made a $1.6 million qualifying offer to, only to turn around and trade him to the Atlanta Thrashers for defenseman Ivan Vishnevskiy and a second round pick. While it seems pretty clear that Ladd received offers well above the Hawks, given the rumors of $3 million-plus per year, he's an underrated but vital component to the team's success. Given that Chicago couldn't afford him at that price, they did well in getting both a prospect and a pick out of the deal, but Ladd's loss will be felt much more deeply than some of the other deals this offseason. There's only so much a team can do when a player goes after the highest offer, and in this case, the Hawks hands were tied, but it's the first offseason move that really causes some concern.

To wrap up the day, unrestricted free agent Adam Burish went to the Dallas Stars on a two-year, $2.3 million deal, and in the one signing for Chicago, the Hawks got 6'8" enforcer John Scott from Minnesota for two years at $500,000 a piece. Letting Burish walk on the hockey-side of things isn't much of a loss, as despite his energy and absolute passion, he didn't bring much to the ice in terms of skill, but no one gave more effort or had more pride to wear the jersey. More importantly, Burish seemed like one of those intangible chemistry guys, and his departure from the locker room could change the team more than any of the other deals so far this offseason. As for Scott, while he's an absolute beast of a man and more than makes up for the loss of agitators like Burish and Ben Eager (while giving the Hawks a true enforcer, necessary or not), he's probably only good for a few minutes a game, and doesn't have the skating or offensive skill of either of those players.

The Hawks core group of talent is still together (assuming Niemi and Hjalmarsson are able to be resigned at a fair price), but today leaves little doubt this team will look vastly different when the puck drops. Chicago's stars still rival any teams, but role players are also a key factor to postseason hopes, as last season showed all too well. The Hawks have made the necessary moves, as tough as it is to see some fan favorites depart, and Chicago has a wealth of young players ready to step in and fill the void.

It's been an eventful offseason so far, and things have only begun. While it's easy to conjecture on what it all means, what matters most is once the season starts and whether the team Bowman puts together can create their own mix of character, talent and chemistry.

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