In his Jan. 9 article, Daily Herald columnist Barry Rozner stated that it was time to for the Blackhawks and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to part ways, and I couldn't agree more.
According to Rozner "the Hawks need to trade Nikolai Khabibulin before the March 4 deadline. Yes, the veteran goalie has taken the Hawks this far, but he's not going to be around after this year - unless you have a way to move Cristobal Huet's contract...Khabibulin is a commodity, and in the NHL you must maximize assets and get value in return."
Don't get me wrong, I have always been somewhat of a Khabibulin apologist.
True, his first few years with the Blackhawks were unremarkable. However, as pedestrian as his statistics were, the offense and defense in front of him were twice as bad.
Anyone that believes Khabibulin is the sole reason why the Hawks were able to draft Toews and Kane never watched a single, horrendous game in those two seasons.
This year, the 'Hawks have a defense that includes all-star Brian Campbell and former all-star Duncan Keith to go with solid blue liners Brent Seabrook, James Wisniewski, and the surprisingly serviceable Aaron Johnson.
On the offensive side, well, take your pick. Currently, there are several players that are on pace for more than 50 points this season (as compared to the the '05-'06 and '06-'07 'Hawks, where only one player on each squad managed to rise above that plateau).
In his contract year, with that kind of fire power, it's no surprise that Khabibulin has been a machine this season, posting a 12-3-4 record, a 2.37 goals against average, a .925 save percentage and one shutout.
So why deal him now?
Well, here is where Rozner and I part ways. He believes that the 'Hawks need to think long term and get players or picks that could help down the road, because hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup simply isn't in the cards for this '08-'09 squad.
To that, I say (kool-aid glass firmly in hand): Why not?
The '06 Edmonton Oilers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, and I defy you to find someone, even in Edmonton, that thought of that team as a bona fide cup contender before those playoffs started.
Those are just recent examples of good teams that went a lot further than the "experts" thought they'd go.
That's the playoffs: Anything can happen, any team can get on a roll.
I bring this up because this current Hawks team isn't just a playoff caliber team, they're good.
So I'd rather see Khabibulin traded, perhaps to Los Angeles, where the Kings sit only three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. They have gone through three goalies this year and anyone that has watched a Kings game in their life time would know that goal-tending is and probably always has been their Achilles' heel.
Would the Hawks be able to pry winger Alex Frolov away from Kings GM Dean Lombardi? How about Jarret Stoll?
It's doubtful that the Hawks would be able to get a huge return, even if Khabibulin's stock is probably at it's peak right now.
But clearing the salary cap space opens up several avenues for the Hawks to really improve this team not just next year, not merely in some far off, distant future (and yes, I subscribe to the adage that prospects are suspect until they prove it on the big stage) but now as well.
If Khabibulin is traded for picks and prospects, that leaves Hawks GM Dale Tallon around $7 million in cap space to play with. Ilya Kovalchuk just happens to make $7 million. Nathan Horton only makes $4 million.
Both of those players are young, both are signed through next year, and while neither of them would come cheap, the 'Hawks have the assets to make a deal work.
Tallon currently sits on two second round picks in 2009 and two in 2010 as well thanks to deals that sent Rene Bourque and Robert Lang north of the border. He also has a large expiring contract in Marty Havlat, should the need to make the money balance arise.
There are a few smaller contracts in the $2-3 million a year range that could be traded. Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel and former third overall pick Cam Barker all fall into that category.
Lastly, Tallon has a laundry list of upper level prospects that include Jack Skille, Kyle Beach, Petri Kontiola, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Igor Makarov...The list goes on and on.
So while I like Khabibulin and what he brings to the table, the chance to bring in an upper level, top-six offensive player is the more pressing need that ought to be addressed.
Khabibulin has become a luxury at this point, and while I certainly wouldn't give away that luxury for nothing, his counterpart in net has been just as equal to the task thus far.
Cristobal Huet, sporting a 10-6-3 record, a 2.41 goals against average, .914 save percentage and two shutouts is clearly the goalie of the Hawks future. Or at least the next three and half years. After that, it's looking more and more like European import and AHL standout Antii Niemi is up for the challenge between the pipes.
Rozner believes that it's time to trade Khabibulin and I couldn't agree more. His value is high, the Hawks are stacked in net and there are more pressing needs to attend to, but unlike Rozner, I honestly believe that the Hawks could contend in the tough Western Conference if they add a few pieces here and there.
If a team is winning, than that usually means that the window is always closing. If there is a good move to be made out there, I'd hate to see Tallon pass on it because he's gun-shy about trading his prospects, picks or current level talent.
But I'd really hate to see Tallon pass on acquiring a good player because he doesn't have the cap space.
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