23 days ago, the Blackhawks made what now appears likely to be their most significant move of the offseason, trading what is essentially the remainder of future Hall of Famer Marian Hossa’s contract, Vince Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle, and a 3rd round draft pick to Arizona for Marcus Kruger, 2 AHL players, a fringe prospect, and a 5th round pick.
Ok, this trade can be viewed today as it likely will be years from now—as Vince Hinostroza being the price of losing the cap hit and annual long-term injured reserve headache that comes with the last three years of Hossa’s deal.
I heard from sources going into the summer that the Hawks intended to deal Hossa’s contract, and that was why, as first reported here, the team had engaged Hossa in talks about his returning to the organization at the end of his contract in an “organizational” capacity, most likely coaching.
Mission accomplished. Hossa is a Coyote on paper, and remains a Hawk in everyone’s hearts. The $1 million actually owed to Hossa in salary is off the Hawks’ balance sheet—and the team now has a boatload of salary cap room.
Almost immediately, in the aftermath of the Hossa trade, rumors began flowing that the Hawks intended to move quickly to acquire one of 2-3 high profile left wings rumored to be on the trading block: Max Pacioretty, Artemi Panarin, and/or Jeff Skinner. Intermittently, rumors had also been out there of interest in defensemen Justin Faulk or Erik Karlsson.
I heard and reported the Faulk, Karlsson and Pacioretty rumors here on The-Rink.
Meanwhile, when Hawk GM predictably went into “tamp down expectations” mode (“we like our team,” “if we make a move it’s more likely to be inseason”), the usual suspects lapped it up and took it as Gospel: “See, Bowman says they aren’t gonna make any moves. Must be true.” LIke GMs never play their cards close to the vest with the media. I mean, I am not the biggest Bowman fan out there, but even I give him more credit than that. Because I know better.
The truth is, for about a week to ten days after the Hossa trade, rumors quietly intensified, especially surrounding Pacioretty—who I was told had been recommended to the Hawk brass by none other than Patrick Kane, who had played with the Montreal winger for the U.S. team in the World Championships.
But then, one day, I opened my inbox and found this:
“(A Hawk source has) expressed serious frustration in the FO and their ability to get deals done to a point that there are ruffled feathers…. the FO A) Overvalues their players B) Think the Hawks are still THE premier destination for FA’s (low-balling contracts) C) Overthink deals to the point where they get over-complicated (which rd pick, retained salary, prospect rankings) and the potential partner backs off the deal. The FO feels they need to “clearly win” any deal instead of the deal being “equally beneficial”. This explains why they have had such an issue trading anyone of potential value to another team and why they are having a hard time signing any FA’s of importance.”
Skeptics out there (and there are always some) will say that is “made up” (easy for them to speculate, but I have better things to do on a Sunday morning), not from a valid source (this source tipped me on Ryan Hartman being dealt before anyone else had it—among other accurate rumors). So, to them, I say, God Bless and believe what you will.
But I will also tell you this is not a new narrative. I have separately heard essentially this from two other sources over the previous 4-5 years. That it can very hard to deal with the Hawk front office as an agent or a GM because there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, all deals need to be “approved” (or endlessly tweaked) from above, and that the Hawks tend to overvalue (and perhaps, not coincidentally, overpay) their own assets and players.
To be fair, there’s nothing wrong at all with adhering to the principle that sometimes the best deal you make is the one you don’t. And there is nothing wrong with winning a deal. But as Bowman has said himself, GMs like to be able to make value for value deals—where both teams benefit by dealing from each team’s relative depth and strength to add to their relative weaknesses. And the Hawks, having finished 13th in the West last season and rumored to be suffering from softening demand for things like like the recently concluded Fan Convention and actual game tickets, would seem to need to make some deals.
Now, some will point to the theory first mentioned on our RinkCast a few weeks ago, that the Hawks might, in fact, be in the midst of a “Silent Rebuild.” Great.
But the Hossa trade makes almost no sense in that scenario. There is no reason to trade an asset like Hinostroza—who, although he might not be quite the elite offensive prospect some believe him to be, is regardless a useful, young NHL player—to just lose cap hit, if you are in fact rebuilding.
The reason for that move has to be to lose cap hit in order to do something relatively soon with the restored cap space. In terms of actual dollars paid out, Hossa’s deal only cost $1 million a year.
But here we sit, 3+ weeks out from that deal, with other teams still making moves (Skinner was traded to Buffalo last week for a handful of middle round draft picks. Karlsson and Pacioretty at minimum, appear to still be the subject of trade talks), and the Hawks having done very little improve their team for the 2018-19 season.
Last year’s porous blue line, on paper, is only “improved” by the acquisition of Brandon Manning. Now that the always dubious “it was a playoff team with Crow” narrative has been rendered moot by the likely eventuality that Corey Crawford might not even play this year, the goaltending tandem appears to be Cam Ward (the guy Carolina deemed not as good as Scott Darling) and maybe Anton Forsberg. At forward, the team has added Kruger and 38 year old Chris Kunitz.
There are those who will always see the glass as half full: that this is just a rebuild and the next great Era in Chicago Blackhawks hockey is only a season or two away.
The truth, in all likelihood, is not so pretty. The fundamental problem with a “halfway,” or “silent” rebuild (not unlike that of the Detroit Red Wings over the last 8-9 years, among other teams) is that you don’t ever quite get the years of very high draft picks that typically drive a rebuild. In other words, Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz, Dylan Sikura et al may end up being good to very good NHL players in the right roles, but none are ever going to be comparable to Kane, Jonathan Toews, or Hossa.
Not even close.
This year’s first round pick, Adam Boqvist, selected 8th overall, has obvious talent—but he is also tiny and has apparently already had a concussion or two. Again, the optimists will point to Duncan Keith as a comparator, who was about 165 pounds when drafted in 2002. And that may be perfectly apt—but it remains to be seen if Boqvist possesses the legendary desire Keith had to work and sacrifice and push himself to become an elite NHL player.
Many take for granted the hot, some might say lucky, streak the Hawks went on from 2002-2007 or so in terms of acquiring young talent. And that it was made possible by several years of on-ice struggles—and a lot of empty seats in the stands.
Losing Hossa’s cap hit has provided the Hawks a unique opportunity: to complement their aging, but arguably still potent, core with another young, but proven NHL star. But it also would mean Bowman giving up 1-2 of the “rebuild” assets mentioned above. Value for value.
And it seems—for now anyway—the Hawks can’t do this, even as hope for a return to the playoffs this season are not very realistic in the very competitive Central Division.
So, we return to the abiding question of the offseason: what’s the actual plan? Is there a plan? And if there is, why can’t the Hawks seem to execute it?
Sure, a lot of things could miraculously go right for a team that has not seen that happen much over the last couple of seasons and painfully short playoff runs, but it usually works out differently. In hockey, there’s a degree to which good luck is a by-product of hard work and sacrifice.
And yes, there’s still time for a big move.
Perhaps said big move might really ignite the team on the ice, versus one that is primarily meant to garner some headlines and spur ticket sales. Who knows, Bowman might even pull of a great acquisition before the in-season trade deadline, but historically, “buyers” get completely taken to the cleaners at that time of year.
All of this seems to poin to a front office paralyzed by conflicting beliefs and agendas—and not adapting well to the worst personnel situation arguably since the 2006-07 season.
It seems that, for the time being, the Hawks organization want you to believe, because apparently enough of them still believe—or want to believe—that this is still an elite or near-elite team in the NHL.
In spite of mounting evidence to the contrary.
All I have for now. Discuss below and give me a follow @jaeckel.