With the Chicago Blackhawks scheduled to make their annual appearance at PNC Arena on Saturday, today’s Daily Cup of Joe will “go back to that same old place…Sweet Home Chicago.”
Few probably know that I am a native Chicagoan…sort of. I actually grew up in Northwest Indiana. There has always been a weird thing whereby anything west of Chicago and Illinois (regardless of if it was 110 miles away) was considered a Chicago suburb though anything across the Indiana line (despite often being 20-30 miles from the city limits) was not ever, under any circumstances considered a suburb. But I grew up watching the last three innings of the Chicago Cubs’ home games after school and full games after lunch in the summer on WGN BEFORE it was a cable station. And though anything food-related is obviously personal preference, I know my Chicago style pizza well enough to know respectable versions and also when someone horribly confused simple deep dish pizza with Chicago style. But alas, except for the coffee that sometimes fuels the site, Canes and Coffee is not a food site but rather a hockey site. So staying with Chicago, but back on the hockey thing…
The recent player pipeline from Chicago to Raleigh
The past few offseasons have seen a steady flow of former Chicago Blackhawk players make their way to Raleigh either directly or indirectly. I detailed the complete collection of nine former Blackhawks acquired by the Hurricanes in recent years in a guest article at The Loop Sports during the summer. (Six of those players are still on the Hurricanes roster.)
The player list includes Kris Versteeg, Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell who are no longer with the Hurricanes and Klas Dahlbeck, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Joakim Nordstrom, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger and Scott Darling who are still with the Hurricanes.
The alleged fleecing with Ron Francis taking advantage of Chicago’s salary cap woes
A key contributor to all of these moves has been Chicago’s perennial challenges to squeeze under the salary cap with their top-heavy salary structure and constant ability to manufacture more players who deserve raises.
The word on the street in Raleigh, North Carolina is that Ron Francis has been able to take advantage of Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman’s limited options and challenging financial situation. The word “fleeced” has been used on more than one occasion to describe Francis taking Chicago players for virtually nothing.
The final verdict on the whole thing cannot be rendered for at least a few years. As noted above the Hurricanes till have six former Blackhawks on their roster and are just transitioning from rebuilding to trying to win now. And Scott Darling who is arguably the former Blackhawk who will most determine the Hurricanes’ success in the coming years is only 13 games into his four-year contract with the Hurricanes.
So while any final verdict is premature, I think it is interesting to revisit the sequence of acquisitions and make an interim evaluation on what the Blackhawks maybe thought they were giving up and what Francis hoped he was receiving.
Did Stan Bowmanactually have it right?
Joakim Nordstrom and Kris Versteeg (Summer of 2015): The first salary cap deal between the Blackhawks and Hurricanes came just before the start of training camp before the 2015-16 season. The Hurricanes parted ways with only modest futures with a fifth-round pick being the biggest asset traded. (CORRECTION/NOTE ADDED: The Hurricanes actually received a third-round pick in this deal too, essentially getting paid to take salary/players. That makes the trade in terms of risk/reward even better at the time but does not change the interim November 2017 assessment that so far Bowman had it right in terms who he chose to part with.) At the time, the deal looked like a steal for the Hurricanes. Bowman had to part ways with someone to get under the salary cap ceiling before training camp, and Kris Versteeg and his $2.5 million contract were the casualty. With Nordstrom reasonably likely to see waivers, he was included too. On a Hurricanes team that was still incredibly light on forward depth, both players hopped right into key roles. Versteeg eventually found himself on the Hurricanes’ top line with Eric Staal and Nordstrom played his way up to the second line with Jordan Staal. Based on where the players slotted, the deal looked like a landslide win for Ron Francis. And while the two players did help fill holes in the lineup for cheap, I actually think Stan Bowman had this deal about right. Nordstrom has since proven to be a decent but by no means irreplaceable fourth-liner, and Versteeg is at best a top 9 depth forward also of the variety that is replaced by youth on deep teams.
In the end, the first deal was not a bad one for Ron Francis. How could it be? He really did not give up anything of significance in the trade. But when you net it out, all Francis really acquired were two replacement level players who were not significantly better than what is available for free on the free agent market. A data point that reinforces this point is that Versteeg was more or less replaced by a similar veteran at the same price in Lee Stempniak who came off the free agent market. And I would loosely put Nordstrom in the same category as VIktor Stalberg (last summer) and Josh Jooris (this summer) who were acquired via free agency to fill a fourth line role for a modest cost. Shorter version is that it is not clear that Versteeg or Nordstrom from the first deal really turned out to be more than could have been obtained on the free agent market for free.
Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell (Summer of 2016): Returning to the well and again providing salary cap relief as a service (SCRAAS), Francis pulled off an even bigger deal early in the summer of 2016. In return for taking on Bryan Bickell and his $4.5 million salary cap hit, Francis received young but NHL-experienced Teuvo Teravainen. At the time, the deal looked like a tremendous deal for Francis. Teravainen was only 21 years old but with 102 games of NHL experience, first-round draft pedigree and alleged offensive upside. He had yet to establish himself as a true offensive talent at the NHL level, but the potential was there. On the Hurricanes side, the hope was that he would progress to become a top 6 scoring type in the next couple of years. On the Blackhawks side, Teravainen had been surpassed by Artemi Panarin who rose up from nowhere and due to Panarin and also Teravainen’s inconsistency, Teravainen had been most relegated to a third line/depth role down the stretch of the 2015-16 season.
If you fast forward two years later, I think the Chicago version of the story again wins the vote. Now two years later, Teravainen is still pretty much the same as when he packed up and left the Windy City. He shows flashes of having the skill to be a higher-end scorer, but the reality is that the top 6 scoring version of Teravainen still shows up only intermittently such that he is still only a top 9 depth scorer without any semblance of game to game consistency.
Teravainen is only 23 years old, so the final chapter of his NHL story is far from written, but as of November 10, 2017, I think Stan Bowman again had it about right. With a few different options for how to cut salary, he made a somewhat risky call that Teuvo Teravainen would not become more than offensive depth. Thus far, Bowman has nailed this one too.
Klas Dahlbeck: Dahlbeck came to the Hurricanes indirectly after a stop in Arizona. At one point, it seemed odd that the Blackhawks would let a young defenseman potentially with upside slip away. But again, Bowman had it right. Dahlbeck continues to collect NHL experience, but the prospect of him becoming more than a serviceable #6/#7 defenseman is decreasing not increasing with each day that passes. To be clear, Francis acquired Dahlbeck only as emergency and free blue line depth off waivers, but I still think this is another example of Bowman correctly evaluating a young player with upside and making a decision that he would not reach it.
Marcus Kruger: Kruger is another that took an indirect path out of Chicago before ultimately arriving in Raleigh. Obtaining a player who was a third-line center on a championship team only a few years ago for merely a fifth-round pick seemed to be a steal. Kruger has settled nicely into a fourth-line role. Pending the usual solidifying of Steve Smith’s penalty kill as the season wears on, Kruger has been a good acquisition so far. But as with the other former Blackhawks, it is about role, upside and Bowman’s personnel assessment being mostly on target. Yes, Marcus Kruger played a vital third-line checking role on good Chicago teams, but it was within a structure that had two top heavy scoring lines and really needed only a good checking line center for the third line. Kruger’s one point in 13 games and eye test that mostly matches suggest that Bowman again had it right pegging Kruger as a good, but fairly limited player (somewhat like Nordstrom actually) who was expendable once salary necessitated it.
Trevor van Riemsdyk: When the Blackhawks were healthy, van Riemsdyk slotted into the third pairing, but the Blackhawks were banged up on the blue line in 2016-17 which afforded van Riemsdyk a couple opportunities to play in a top 4 role. When the Hurricanes acquired van Riemsdyk, I checked in with a couple people who track the Blackhawks on a game by game basis, and the unanimous report was that van Riemsdyk was a decent puck-moving #5 or #6 defenseman but had yet to prove capable of being more than that.
Important to note is that Francis obtained van Riemsdyk for exactly that role and thus far he is playing well in that role and also providing support for rookie Haydn Fleury as he transitions to the NHL level. So while this is by no means a miss by Francis, I think it is fair to say that Bowman just might have again assessed a young player with potential upside and been correct that it might not be realized.
The last hope?
That leaves the player who arguably could have as much say in the Hurricanes neart-term future as any former Blackhawk and maybe even any player on the current roster – Scott Darling.
Again, this is not completely the case of Stan Bowman deciding if he wanted to or did not want to keep a player. With Darling coming off a strong season and having a claim to a starter’s role somewhere, there really was nothing Bowman could do to make the math work to keep Darling short of trading Corey Crawford which was not happening.
That said, he does represent another case of a player who looked pretty good in Chicago and departed with upside potential.
Will Scott Darling prove to be the one player that Stan Bowman parted ways with who realizes his upside and makes at least some element of the ‘fleecing’ claims accurate in the near future? We, as Hurricanes fans, will watch it play out of the next four years.
Other Stan Bowman notes
By no means has Bowman been perfect, but in a financial situation that has forced him to shed significant players on a yearly basis simply because of salary cap issues, I think his track record on non-Canes losses is also pretty good.
The list of players who were better wearing a Blackhawks jersey than they were after departing is a huge one. All of Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer, Brian Campbell, Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya, Andrew Shaw, Antti Niemi and others were better in a Blackhawks jersey than they were after they departed. Bowman sold high on Brandon Saad and then managed to get him back and managed to fill holes left by the departure of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Nick Leddy and others.
Considering the volume of tough calls Bowman has had to make on keeping versus parting ways with productive players, I would say his track record is pretty good and also that betting against his player assessments has met with many more losers than winners.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Has Stan Bowman just been fortunate, or does he deserve some credit for his ability to assess players’ futures?
2) Closer to home, will Scott Darling prove to be the big one that got away from Chicago and also a key part of the Hurricanes return to the playoffs? Or is there a chance that Bowman had this one right too?