Thursday, July 2, 2009

I'm a Gemini, So I Expect The Unexpected

In case you don't get the obscure reference in the post title, it's from Kentucky Fried Movie, one of the more tasteless and hilarious movies there is. It's from the guys who made Air Plane and the Naked Guns, and is best described as 70s era SNL w/o censors. I mean absolutely no censors. Well worth seeing - it's probably as quotable of a movie as you'll find.

And while I'm pimping movies - if you haven't seen Slap Shot at least three to five times and you're taking the time to read a blog like this, you need to immediately rectify that situation. You can't be a hockey fan w/o being able to consistently quote and recognize quotes from Slap Shot, even the obscure ones.

Now to the actual point of the post title - apparently the Hawks management cannot be expected to do what everyone thinks they're going to do. Last year there was a lot of talk about the Hawks getting Campbell, as he fit a major need, the Hawks had cap space, and they wanted to take a big step forward. But no one saw the Huet signing coming, not with Khabi locked up for another year at an untradeable (hell, turns out un-waivable) number.

This year, much the same. It seemed the Hawks were gonna find a way to get Havlat back in the fold, as he seemed to legitimately want to stay in Chicago (if you believe the tone of his tweets) and his teammates seemed to share those sentiments (there was a story about them all texting him to re-sign).

Even if Marty did go elsewhere, the Hawks would either use that money in a new direction (an upgrade on the blueline) or find a lesser but still talented forward to take Marty's spot as a top line forward.

But again, no one saw the Hossa signing coming. Getting the top free agent for the second year in a row, again for the longest and richest contract of the off-season? Nope, definitely did not have that high on the list of expected stories from this off-season for the Hawks.

At first it seemed to completely defy logic - so much money and such a long contract for a 30-year old? But here's the reality on Hossa:
  • He's as durable as any in hockey - only once in the last decade failing to play 74 games and that year he played 60.
  • He's as potent of a scorer as you'll find in any free agent class - the Crosbys and Ovechkins of the world aren't ever hitting the open market, so Hossa is as good as you can ever hope to get.
  • He's as consistent of a scorer as any in hockey - failing to net at least 29 goals only once in the last decade, in the same year he failed to play 74 games (still had 26 goals in 60 games that season).
  • He's a fairly big, fairly strong guy who is not easy to get off of the puck - this is no softy who will be lost in the rough-and-tumble of the playoffs. While he was a bit off this year (still scoring 6 goals and 15 points in 23 games), with the Penguins he had 12 goals and 26 points in 20 playoff games, and back during the Senators run to the Conf. Finals, he had 5 goals and 16 points in 18 games.
  • He's a good player in all three zones - another huge key come playoff time, you've got to be able to play defense and want to do it. That was my one issue with Havlat this year - he disappeared defensively in the playoffs after being a real hard three-zone worker in the regular season. But come the post-season, Havlat floated up near the blue line too much, clearly looking for that breakaway chance. This is something I don't expect from Hossa.
  • He's a winner - two straight trips to the Cup Finals and a Eastern Conference Finals trip back during his time in Ottawa show he's been there and can help his teams get it done. Sure he's still missing that Cup, but just getting there twice shows the impact this guy has.
Given all that, the Hawks signed Hossa to a very reasonable cap number - because of the goofy 12-year period of the total deal, Hossa will only count for a $5.2M hit, which compared to the injury-prone Havlat's $5M number (he signed with Minnesota for 6 years, $30M) and the uber injury-prone Gaborik's $7.5M number (he signed with the Rangers for 5 years, $37.5M), is definitely solid.

In fact, the Hawks actually saved money from last season's budget, as Havlat was a $6M hit. Coupled with the savings on Khabi (signed w/ Edmonton), the Hawks now have some room to maneuver. Amazing to upgrade your team and free up cap space at the same time.

And don't worry about the 12-year nature of the deal. It's really only an 8-year deal, as in the final four years Hossa gets paid next to nothing. So it'll be easy enough for the Hawks to unload him on a small market team who doesn't have the resources to approach the salary cap, but will appreciate needing to shell out less than $1M in real salary. And for the great majority of those years, Hossa should be worth every penny.

In all, I'm pretty damn stoked about this move. The reality is that the Hawks needed another top notch scoring option to go along with their young kids, and if it wasn't going to be Havlat, then getting Hossa w/o giving up any talent and only losing $5.2M in cap space is about as best case scenario as any of us could have hoped. Really - this is going to be a real winner of a signing.

Now like Campbell, Hossa will probably be hammered at times for not living up to his huge contract by the fans and the press, but just like Campbell, I expect that the actual knowledgeable fans will appreciate that he was well worth the price paid, especially when you factor in that the Hawks didn't lose any talent in acquiring him. Both guys are veterans who have rare skill sets and make their biggest impact when it matters most. A lot of money, a lot of years, but the Hawks will be successful because of it.

As for the rest of the Hawks' off-season moves, I love the Bolland signing. I think he will absolutely be worth the almost $3.4M he'll get each of the next five seasons. He's still very young (just turned 23 a few weeks ago) and is an impact player on both ends of the ice. I'd like to see Bolland really upgrade his work in the face-off circle, but he's got room to grow and fits this team well.

I'm also very pleased with the Kopecky and Madden signings. Kopecky is a guy who scored 5 and 6 goals in the past two seasons while playing a consistent 10 minutes a game on a highly talented and successful team. That means he brings something to the table besides scoring, which means toughness and strong defense. Plus, getting anyone who's come up in the impressive Wings system means you're getting a guy who knows how to play championship hockey on both ends of the ice. All those little things the Wings did to look so much better than the Hawks - Kopecky will bring those with him.

While Kopecky is still pretty young - turned 27 in February - Madden is fairly old (36 as of May). But Madden is a nice replacement for Pahlsson, bringin the same great defensive work and solid work in the face-off circle. A one-time Selke winner (top defensive forward), Madden brings years of the defense-first mindset and championship play of a longtime Devil.

I'm even more happy about these signings given that Pahlsson got almost $8M over three years from the Blue Jackets. I'd have loved to keep Sammy, but the Hawks couldn't afford that kind of cap hit for that long. Kopecky reportedly will only get a shade over $1M, which is inline with a talented 3rd or 4th line guy like he'll be. And while Madden will make about what Sammy got, it's only for one season, so next year, when the Kane-Toews-Keith triumvirate comes up, they'll have more flexibility.

And two bits of good riddance - not that I don't appreciate what they did for the Hawks last season, but I'm fine w/ the Hawks not paying their apparent market value. I'll take the more reliable health history of Huet and giving Niemi or Crawford a chance to back-up (tho remember, expect the unexpected with the Hawks... maybe there's still another goalie deal in the works) rather than paying another big chunk of change to Khabi. Similarly, Walker was of questionable worth at the league minimum last year, so no way I wanted the Hawks to match the $1.7M per that he got from the Lightning for the next four years.

So what now? Barker, Brouwer, Eager, Frasier, A. Johnson, and Versteeg all need to be re-signed (tho all are restricted free agents, giving the Hawks full matching rights). And w/ Walker gone, and AJohnson very possibly also (the Hawks didn't seem to think much of him), some plan needs to be made for the 6th and 7th defenseman positions (maybe a young kid like Jordan Hendry or a deal once free agency shakes out?). Given the signing of three forwards and the loss of only two, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Hawks package one of their forwards who makes a bit of money (maybe Buff?) for a blueliner.

The main hope for me is that both Eager and Versteeg, like Bolland, are locked up for a long time. Both are incredibly valuable players who will only get better, and bring a toughness and skill combination that is absolutely necessary to post-season success. On top of that, I'd like to see any remaining dollars plowed into a stable stay-at-home defenseman. Do those three things and I'm feeling damn good about the Hawks next year.

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