After a 6-1 drubbing at home in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals, the Chicago Blackhawks made one thing clear: Without winger Martin Havlat and goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, Chicago is not a championship team.
To add salt in the wounds of 'Hawks fans, both players are hitting the free-agent market when the Blackhawks' season comes to an end.
Although they head into Game Five on the brink of elimination—the league's best story close to its final chapter—Game Four's beatdown provided the best sample case possible for the "what if we let them both go" scenario coming this offseason for general manager Dale Tallon.
With neither player practicing the day before the fifth game, it looks like Tallon may have another chance to see what it could look like next season. If Game Four is any indication, however, it won't be pretty.
Several key contributors other than Havlat and Khabibulin have their walking papers ready as well. Defensemen Matt Walker and Aaron Johnson are also set to be unrestricted free agents, and Kris Versteeg, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, Troy Brouwer, Dave Bolland, and Cam Barker are all set to be restricted free agents.
For a young team like the Blackhawks, playoff experience is important. However, one bad offseason can derail a franchise and keep it away from the playoffs for several years.
If Havlat and Khabibulin, the two best veteran players on the team, hit the streets, it could end up being a make-or-break offseason for Chicago, whether they pull a miracle and win a championship, or flame out as expected tonight.
Letting go of Havlat and Khabibulin would make the most sense economically. Havlat has the largest cap hit of the team's forwards ($6 million). With the team's future in the hands of fellow forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, perhaps an injury-riddled veteran is not needed in their future plans.
Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet cannot be on the same team, as they have a combined cap hit of $12 million. With Huet locked up for four years and Khabibulin barely making the team in the first place, perhaps the Bulin Wall is out and Hip, Hip, Huet is in.
If both players are let go, the Blackhawks lose a huge chunk of their success in 2008. Havlat led the team in the regular season with 77 points and a +/- rating of +29. He also currently leads the team in playoff points with 15.
Havlat's biggest hindrance in the past had been injuries, but he played 81 games in the regular season, and it took a shoulder from Niklas Kronwall to knock him out (pun intended) this season.
Khabibulin played only one more game than Huet in the regular season, and had better goals allowed average (2.33 : 2.53) and save percentage (.919 : .909), as well as a record of 25-8, compared to Huet's 20-15 mark.
Khabibulin missed only one playoff game going into Game Five, but it was a game in which his backup allowed four quick goals, prompting the team to use young Corey Crawford, previously a resident of the locker room.
What To Do
Heading into the Conference Finals, few picked the Blackhawks as a contender for a Stanley Cup, and injuries to two of their best players have nearly eliminated their chances.
Looking into the offseason, the Blackhawks are going to be forced to make a tough decision.
They thought Huet would be the goalie to push them into the playoffs, but after a sub-par regular season and a dismal postseason, his contract becomes a heavy burden on the team. Even if the Blackhawks don't want him, who would?
Khabibulin is 36-years-old, and not much is known about his lower-body injury. Huet is slightly younger at 33, but that also means his game will most likely only decline, if anything.
Havlat has taken a beating against Detroit, but when healthy, Havlat makes the Blackhawks a much more dangerous team. Being the most expensive free-agent-to-be at his position other than Minnesota's Marion Gaborik, Havlat will be looking to cash in on his recent success, something the Blackhawks won't be able to afford.
There should be no reason why he won't search for his biggest contract, and it probably won't be coming from Chicago. As painful as it will be, letting Havlat go is the only thing Chicago can do. Plus, with the signing of 2008 first-round draft pick and fellow winger Kyle Beach to a three-year deal, the message may have already been sent: Havlat is welcome back in Chicago, but only for a bargain price.
Khabibulin's age and recent injury is something to worry about, but Huet's play against Detroit in his first start of the postseason was much more worrisome. However, Tallon dug his own grave with this one, signing him to a fat, four-year contract. Moving Huet's contract should be top-priority with Havlat presumably gone, as Khabibulin will certainly still be Chicago's best chance at returning to the playoffs.
The Big Picture
With Havlat cashing in on a career year and a much too expensive two-goalie system, something has to give for the Blackhawks. Chicago should let Matt Walker and Aaron Johnson go, but keeping their laundry list of RFA's, namely Versteeg, Barker, and Bolland, could still hurt the Hawks' cap space.
With the NHL salary cap expected to decrease next year, it is inevitable that some corners will have to be cut. Cutting ties with some RFA's, while letting some UFA's walk away, would open up some much-needed cap space being filled by unmovable players such as Brian Campell ($7.14 million cap hit, largest on team) and Cristobal Huet ($5.63 million cap hit).
Here is how I see, for better of for worse, the Blackhawks' free agents panning out:
Cap space spent: $3.75 million
Cap space saved: $15.5 million
Obviously, this is only counting what the players are currently making, and pay raises or pay cuts would change the scenario. Khabibulin ($6.75 million) is the biggest wildcard, but letting him go clears enough space to make free-agent acquisitions and avoids trouble with a lowered salary cap.
Although the series will either be officially ended or prolonged for another day tonight, the Blackhawks will have to face a very challenging offseason—with or without a ring.
How they handle the situation could be the difference between a dynasty in the making and a one-year wonder.