Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Blame the System, not the Hawks, for Crushing Saad Loss

When the Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons just two short weeks ago, we all knew what was coming next. Both of the 2010 and 2013 Stanley Cup seasons were followed by a mass exodus in the offseason, as the Hawks looked to retool their team while keeping the core intact. In this horrific hard salary cap NHL era, winning one Cup is difficult, let alone winning three in six years. And unfortunately, getting to that level requires difficult business decisions involving players we love.

This year, all signs pointed to Patrick Sharp being the big piece moved. He's a beloved player, someone who helped kickstart this new Blackhawks cultural revolution when he was acquired 10 years ago. With his $5.9 million cap hit the next two seasons though, and father time knocking on the door, the obvious move would be to trade him to allow room for the Hawks to resign Brandon Saad, the 22 year old "man child" who has been a beast now for the past two seasons and part of a third. This was a sound, logical plan that adhered closely to the Blackhawk model of keeping crucial pieces of the young elite core together. And yet, that all came to a grinding, screeching halt today with the stunning trade of Brandon Saad.

When I saw the alert on my phone this afternoon that began with "Blackhawks trade.." I immediately thought that here, finally, is the news that either Sharp or Bryan Bickell, both of whom were/are prime trade candidates, were being traded. After all, the narrative amongst reporters, analysts, and Stan Bowman himself all year and in this short offseason have been that Saad is an absolute crucial part of the future and that the Hawks would do nearly anything to keep him. Sharp and Bickell were lined up to be the so-called cap casualties due to the giant (and deserving) contracts coming due for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane next year, as well as the fact that Sharp is now 33 and Bickell has massively underperformed the big deal he got after the 2013 Cup.

The problem was, though, that the Hawks premised their strategy and their thought process on Saad taking a bridge contract. In the NHL, most elite players coming off their entry level contract (ELC) take a bridge contract that gives a slightly lower than market value annual cap hit for a shorter time frame. This allows the team to create some cap flexibility for the later bigger deal while providing the player with decent compensation until that big deal comes through. For the Hawks, both Toews and Kane took bridge deals in 2009 when they signed matching 5 year, $31.5 million deals. Yes, for those elite, top 5 players, that is a bridge deal.

The problem is, Saad and the Hawks could not come to an agreement on a deal. From the start, it doesn't appear that Saad was interested in taking a bridge deal at all. Saad is a restricted free agent. In the NHL, this means that beginning tomorrow, any NHL team can give him an offer to sign a contract, Saad can sign that offer sheet, and the Hawks can match any offer. Depending on the contract's annual average value (AAV), if the Hawks do not match they are entitled to compensation.

The Hawks were expecting to negotiate a deal with Saad somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million AAV over 2 years or so while they find a way to either create more cap flexibility for a bigger deal for him in 2 years, hope the cap goes up, or both. That in essence is the concept of a bridge deal, something that every single team does. These deals exist because offer sheets are rare in the NHL, partly because of the compensation required to acquire that player, and partly because of the worry that poaching players with offer sheets could start a dangerous trend.

At the same time, players of Saad's caliber don't hit the market like this at his age very often. Reports surfaced today that Saad never considered a bridge deal for the Hawks. Perhaps because other teams were going to provide offer sheets at extreme amounts tomorrow, Saad was reportedly asking for $6.5 million AAV for 6 seasons. Nothing against Saad, and I am certainly not the type to ever ask an athlete to take less money, but that is an absolute ridiculous amount that even Kane and Toews did not get in their first deal off the ELC.

That amount is absurd, and would have been absolutely impossible for the Hawks to afford without gutting more of their roster than they wished. So, instead of hating on the Hawks front office because of how much we love this player (and damn, he is good), understand that Bowman did what he could for the organization in a dire circumstance. He certainly couldn't have expected to walk into negotiations with a player the Hawks drafted, with the indication all year he wanted to stay, and be blindsided by a $6.5 million AAV asking price. This price was absolutely market-driven, but Bowman did what he had to do. He doesn't have the luxury of reacting with emotion like we do, and he has rebuilt this team on the fly twice already with three Cups to show for it.

And hey, the haul he got back wasn't bad. Veteran center Artem Anisimov is a big presence (6'4) up the middle of the ice who should slot in nicely as the second line center. The advanced metrics for him aren't great, as he is an average Corsi (think puck possession) guy who underperformed in 52 games last year. At the same time, though, he's still young, and being stuck on the Blue Jackets is enough to saddle anyone's career. He still puts up 40 points per 82, so hopefully he can provide some two-way punch. The Hawks also reacquired Jeremy Morin, a player Bowman has always been high on but seemed to live in Joel Quenneville's doghouse. The real gem, though, is 20 year old center Marko Dano. In only 35 games last year as a rookie, the former first round pick had a very solid 54% Corsi and registered 21 points in 35 games. He is a gifted two-way player who fits in nicely with elite playmaking talent Teuvo Teravainen. He has the talent and skill level to be a truly special player.

Still though, it hurts to lose a guy like Saad. He had all the makings of the elite two-way player the Blackhawks love, and it was incredible to watch his development from Q's doghouse to playoff impact performer. I'm going to miss his unbelievable speed down the ice, his outstanding back checking skills, and his ability to come up clutch at such a young age. It isn't often that 22 year olds become mainstays on a line with two hall of famers in Toews and Marian Hossa. It hurts, and hurts worse than any other player that the Hawks had to jettison in the last 6-7 years, no doubt.

We all thought that we were going to watch him for years to come, but unfortunately, the NHL has a horrific, stifling salary cap system that actively exists to prevent teams from staying together. The NHL should adopt a soft salary cap akin to that the NBA has, where teams can go over the salary cap to keep their own developed talent. In doing so, they pay a luxury tax that spreads wealth to other teams. Think of it this way: if the NBA had the NHL's salary cap, the Bulls would enter this offseason needing to trade Taj Gibson and/or Joakim Noah to afford Jimmy Butler. Instead, they can offer him a max deal at his market value and simply go into the luxury tax. That is a system that makes infinitely more sense than this godawful NHL system.

But regardless, we knew tough decisions were coming, we just thought they would be with other players. Losing Saad is crushing, sure, because we watched him grow and loved him as a player. But this team still has Toews, Kane, Hossa, Duncan Keith, Teuvo, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Corey Crawford, and some solid younger pieces to add in,  and now with the possibility of keeping Patrick Sharp. It doesn't help with the loss of one of our favorite players, but please remember, when you are looking for who to blame, don't point the finger at the 3-time Stanley Cup winning front office. Blame the archaic, stupid system responsible for the circumstances to begin with.