Analysis: don’t confuse a cost reduction with a “rebuild”


Hockey twitter can collectively be like your unmedicated relative who devolves into an unfocused ranting rage at the slightest change in the direction of the wind—with every account trying to out “hawt take” eachother—leading to completely missing the point.

This dynamic is what resulted over the weekend in response to the news that Corey Crawford would not be returning to the Blackhawks this season, followed by the trade of Brandon Saad to the Avalanche for, largely, Nikita Zadorov.

Here’s the first thing everyone seems to be missing: the Blackhawks have really shown no actual evidence that they’re even starting to “rebuild.”

They traded Olli Maatta last week for an ECHL player who will, in all likelihood, never get a whiff of the NHL. But they saved a couple of million dollars in salary.

They let Crawford go seek his best deal elsewhere, installing Malcolm Subban (for now anyway) as the team’s number one. And they saved probably $3 million in salary hit.

They dealt Saad to the Avs. And saved about $1.8 million in salary.

Did they get what a rebuilding team would want in return in any of these deals (draft picks or quality prospects)? No.

They’re just cutting costs and getting whatever they can back, and then trying to “backfill” each position with less salary. They know it. Their trade partners know it. Fans and the media should therefore also know it.

Don’t confuse this with a rebuild.

Why not? Well, first, the NHL salary cap is not growing and every team in the league is in a seriously reduced or negative revenue situation. So, virtually no team can absorb a $3-$6 million contract in trade without asking the other team to retain salary and/or take another salary back.

Second, the Hawks behaved like, well, the Hawks. While trading Saad, letting Crawford leave and even to an extent trading Maatta were not overly popular moves, no one was really surprised. The Hawks could do these things and still say with a straight face, “we’re trying to remain competitive. We intend to compete for playoff spot.”

Which they will say. Because, for the last 3 years at minimum, the Blackhawks have behaved like they think their fanbase is stupid and will buy anything. And a large chunk of the fanbase, in turn, has largely done nothing to disprove it.

If Bowman had dealt Duncan Keith or (“heaven forbid”) Patrick Kane, then there’s literally no meatball in any corner of Hawk fandom who would be confused—it would be an actual rebuild, where the team has committed to tearing down, and really rebuilding.

The Hawks haven’t done that. They’ve just nipped around the edges (yet again) with these moves. Purely to reduce salary commitment in the only way possible in a flat cap league.

Again, look at the moves in full context:

Let Crawford go—but re-sign Subban for a lot less money.

Trade Maatta—but then pick up Zadorov and sign him for (slightly) less than Maatta was making.

Trade Saad—then sign Matthias Janmark (for a lot less salary.

It’s doesn’t take a genius to see what’s going on. When it comes to “rebuilding” the Hawks are still half-pregnant—even if veteran players like Jonathan Toews feel “betrayed” by these moves and Bowman was talking about having to have “hard conversations” with those vets.

They’re just trying to continue the “half-rebuild” a lot cheaper due to reduced revenue.

Nothing’s changed as far as any kind of actual plan. Just that ayroll will be lower and the 20-21 team will be worse—maybe a lot worse.

I’m not making excuses for Bowman. I have been riding the Bowman Must Go train for a while now. But these moves feel a lot more driven by the Wirtz family, and their notorious affinity for the bottom line, than anything else.

For all the emotional attachments we have to our teams, traditions and colors, hockey is first and foremost a business. A big money business.

And for all the indignation about a rebuild where the team isn’t getting returns in trade that would support a real rebuild, the sad truth is what the team is actually doing is even more painful than a rebuild.

The mediocrity will not only continue, it will get worse—with less quality goaltending, less size/skill combination up front, and far too much reliance on young, undeveloped players.

Don’t let the drama on Twitter or Bowman’s statements fool you. Not much has changed. And this isn’t about rebuilding (so far anyway). It’s strictly about reducing.

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