The Blackhawks’ signing of Patrick Sharp to a five-year $29.5 million contract extension last week represents the culmination of some excellent work by their GM Stan Bowman, the Montreal native whose father Scotty named him after the Stanley Cup.
It’s strange to think that a team that won the Cup 14 months ago required major attention from its general manager, but the Blackhawks were in need of a remake even before winning the Cup and entered this offseason with some serious areas of concern. Now it seems as if Bowman has met the challenges and has his team ready to take another run at the Cup in the wild Western Conference.
As is widely known, the Hawks won it all with a player budget that was teetering on the edge of salary cap disaster, the result of some generous spending by Bowman’s predecessor, Dale Tallon, and the subsequent need by Bowman to contractually lock up the very talented young core of this team. When Bowman signed contract extensions for Johnathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith all on the same December 2009 day, it was clear that by the end of the 2009-10 season, some key players would have to go to keep Chicago under the cap.
But he didn’t panic. Assessing his roster carefully, Bowman adroitly avoided moving those players he and his hockey department identified as untouchables, namely defenceman Brent Seabrook and Sharp, who had 34 goals and 37 assists last season and is becoming an elite player in the NHL. The rumours began flying even before the Hawks’ Cup victory that they would be forced to move Sharp or Seabrook — maybe even both — to get under the cap and the rumours kept flying all through last season and into this summer. But Bowman held on.
Bowman was instead forced to jettison other Cup veterans, starting with nine players in the 2010 offseason. Trading some of them — like big Dustin Byfuglien, 20-goal scorers Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg, and Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi — not only raised eyebrows but decidedly weakened the team last year. Also departing were Brent Sopel (who eventually ended up in Montreal), Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, John Madden and Adam Burish and, totaled up, it meant the Hawks’ depth and physical dimension were severely compromised. They were no longer a tough team to play against, which is a big reason they struggled for a playoff spot all last season (slipping below the eighth spot at one point), and why they ultimately succumbed to their rivals in Vancouver in a thrilling first round series last spring.
Bowman went back to work this offseason. He had already had signed Seabrook, Keith’s partner on one of the NHL’s top defence tandems, to a long-term deal during last campaign. Then, starting in late June, he cleared more cap space by trading Troy Brouwer to the Capitals for a first round pick (that became Victoriaville captain Phillip Danault) and then engineered the huge trades of Brian Campbell (the NHL’s highest-paid defenceman prior to Shea Weber’s arbitration award last week) and Tomas Kopecky to Tallon in Florida.
Trading a giant contract like Campbell’s was no easy task but Tallon needed to rebuild and add salary to get his team to the cap floor. It didn’t hurt that the Panther’s GM had been Bowman’s mentor in Chicago and also had negotiated Campbell’s big free agent contract for the Hawks; he’d be glad to get Campbell back.
Then Bowman started rebuilding the depth and grit he had lost last summer. He traded picks for free agent defenceman Steve Montador and signed him. Then on July 1, he signed free agent forwards Andrew Brunette, Dan Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, Brett McLean and defenceman Sean O’Donnell. He later re-upped Viktor Staalberg and Michael Frolik, two veterans he acquired last year. He also signed UFA Sami Lepisto, which allowed him to walk away from d-man Chris Campoli, who was asking for almost three times what he’s giving Lepisto. Bowman also invited goalie Ray Emery to training camp for a tryout, trying to regain depth there behind Corey Crawford.
Signing Sharp last week nailed down a very important asset. “It’s no secret teams would ask about Patrick all the time,” Bowman said after the signing. “They’d say ‘What about Sharp? Would you trade him?’ And the answer was always no. So you know there’s a lot of value there and a lot of interest in him.”
Bowman is not a GM whose name is often in the headlines. But when you look at this series of moves as well as his 2010 under-the-radar trade that brought Nick Leddy from the Wild, it’s clear that he knows how to make deals to address his hockey and contractual needs. This is now his team, not the one assembled by Tallon, and it could be time to start thinking of him as one of the better GMs in the NHL.