So that’s it. The deal has been completed. In order to make sure the Thrashers were well under the 50-contract maximum, they also sent Joey Crabb as part of the deal. So now Evan Brophey will have a winger to play with on Rockford’s third line.
There are so many ways to digest this trade. Good, bad, indifferent. In the end, it had to be done. The only thing I’m really disappointed about is Kris Versteeg wasn’t the first to go. That’s sort of petty and won’t mean much once he is dealt, but either way.
The centerpiece of the trade is Dustin Byfuglien. The much-maligned Dustin Byfuglien. Back in December, I asked whether it was alright that Buff was a regular season anchor so long as he was a fire-breathing dragon in the playoffs. That’s more or less what happened as Byfuglien put together one of the better post-seasons in Hawks history.
Since the trade was announced, there seems to be a lot of poo-pooing of Byfuglien’s contribution this season. Let’s break it down.
In the last month of the regular season, he played defense after Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson went out. Before that, Byfuglien was a shoo-in for 20 goals. Going back to defense while never saying a peep, his play naturally regressed. In the opening round, Byfuglien was a 5th-6th defenseman and basically an afterthought. Once Campbell returned, he was shifted to the 4th line for the remainder of the Nashville series.
Then in Game 2 against Vancouver, Byfuglien was shifted to a line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. And the Hawks, pretty much, never looked back. Byfuglien responded with a hat trick in Game 3. Three game-winning goals in the San Jose series. In the Cup Finals, he had 3 goals and 2 assists in the final two games including a highlight reel hit on Chris Pronger in Game 5.
That was the good.
The bad, well, Byfuglien was inconsistent during the regular season. Again, if this was a huge issue for you, then you had a problem with Byfuglien. The criticism of Byfuglien only playing well against inferior defensive talent is a tad silly, though. If you’re going to hammer Byfuglien for not playing well against the opposition’s best, then your expectations for him probably needed to be re-calibrated.
He was a physical specimen with above-average speed and a limited skill set (booming shot with little accuracy, low hockey IQ, terrible hands); could you really expect 50 goals from someone like that? Not to mention, you can also point your finger at plenty of players across the league who can’t get it going against the likes of Chris Pronger, Nicklas Lidstrom, Shea Weber or Drew Doughty.
Of course, I’m making it seem like I’m really broken up about this trade. That’s not really the case as Byfuglien had his ticket punched out of town two years ago when Dale Tallon offered him the obscene qualifying offer he’s currently sporting. $3 million is simply too much for a cap-strapped team to pay for a playoff weapon. So this shouldn’t come as a surprise and we all knew this was going to happen eventually.
Brent Sopel and Ben Eager are also ex-Hawks. I said in Sopel’s player preview last August that his season would be a success if the Hawks can find some team to take him off their hands for the final year of his contract. That’s exactly what happened.
After missing the majority of last season with elbow surgery, Sopel put together a string of games that could be best described as really good and really bad. For the first three months of the season, Sopel was excellent. His play tailed off towards the end of the season including a three-game stretch in March where he was a -5.
The playoffs were a microcosm of his regular season. He was terrific in the opening round against Nashville, countlessly throwing his body in front of Shea Weber bombs. He was arguably the Hawks best defensemen in that opening round. As each round passed, though, Sopel’s play got worse. By the Finals, it was a minor miracle if Sopel didn’t have his doors blown off by Danny Briere or Ville Leino.
Sopel’s fate was similar to Byfuglien’s, in that the moment his pen touched paper on the 3-year extension he signed in the summer of 2008, his time in Chicago would be short-lived. The Hawks simply can’t afford a 2.33 cap hit on a 5th defenseman. The fact they were able to get out of Sopel’s final year without a buyout should result in multiple champagne poppings as no one could’ve expected this a year ago.
Ben Eager’s season started off on the wrong foot by trying to hide a concussion from the team. He ended up missing the majority of the first few months because of it. Once he returned, he clearly wasn’t the same player as last year. A dynamic fourth line player from a year ago, Eager’s play really dropped off the table. His goal in Game 2 of the Cup Finals is what everyone will remember but he’s simply not worth the risk or the expensive qualifying offer he’ll receive.
Akim Aliu started the season in Rockford and was a non-factor for the majority of the season. By February, he was shipped to Toledo in the ECHL and that all but sealed his fate with the Hawks. So after all that talk and hype, Aliu will never become a Blackhawk. The most interesting part is that in a two-day span, the Hawks completely disemboweled their 2007 2nd round. Gee, I wonder if those were Tallon or Bowman picks.
Coming back to the Hawks are Marty Reasoner, Jeremy Morin, Joey Crabb, and the 24th and 54th picks in Friday’s draft. I originally gave Reasoner 50/50 odds to open the season with the Hawks when I first heard the trade announced. Then, word broke last night that Colin Fraser was sent to Edmonton for a 6th round pick. So Reasoner’s odds are now 60/40. He may become the modern day Kelly Kisio, who was once a Blackhawk for two days in the off-season before getting shipped off.
Morin is the centerpiece of the deal for the Hawks. A 19 year-old winger that was a 2nd-round pick in last summer’s draft, Morin was signed to his entry-level deal at the beginning of this month. He was also a member of USA’s Gold Medal World Junior Championship team this past year. In 7 games, he racked 2 goals and 5 assists. He’s also set to participate in Team USA’s training camp for the upcoming World Juniors.
He played this past season with the Kitchener Rangers where he amassed 47 goals and 36 assists in just 58 games. In the playoffs, he was just over a point per game player with 12 goals and 9 assists in 20 games.
I refuse to get overly excited about the draft picks coming back because quite simply, this is an incredibly top-heavy draft and the Hawks are still on the outside looking. Having two first round picks and Kris Versteeg could certainly entice someone if the Hawks see someone they like in the top 15. Still, with the Hawks launching two 2nd-round picks in consecutive days (2 guys who were once considered to be part of one of the best draft classes in Hawk history), it’s hard to get giddy about something that may turn out to be nothing.
So there you have it. Of course, I didn’t mention the big $4 million in cap space the Hawks opened up in trading Byfuglien and Sopel. Along with Morin, that’s the best thing coming back to the Hawks. It should open up enough room to offer qualifying offers to the likes of Ham Sandwich, Jake Dowell, Bryan Bickell, and Andrew Ladd. They’ll probably need to launch one more contract before they can get the room for Antti Niemi, but we shall see.
As I write this, I just saw WGN’s morning poll that asked viewers if they agreed with the trade. 88% said no. So at least people are being reasonable about this.