The Chicago Blackhawks had a disappointing end to their season in 2011. They were exposed by a bigger, faster and more complete team in the Vancouver Canucks in the first round. The Canucks, who now have a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Finals, are on the brink of winning their first-ever title.
Enough about the Canucks! Trade and free-agency speculation is starting to heat up for the still defending champion Blackhawks. Let's take a look at some possible transactions that could occur during the Hawks offseason.
Tim Connolly of the Buffalo Sabres is a unrestricted free agent this year. He made $4.5 million last year, and with his history of injuries and age (30), he could fit into the Hawks' plans if he is willing to take less money and play with a contender.
Connolly is just what the Hawks are looking for, but his price may take him out of the mix. He has only played in 61 percent of the Sabres' games over the past six seasons, but his grit and talent could be a deciding factor if the Hawks are serious about upgrading at the second-line center position.
Losing Ben Eager, Adam Burish, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien were huge reasons why the Hawks ran out of gas this year. The depth of the Cup team was tremendous, and those four had plenty to do with it.
Ben Eager will be an unrestricted free agent this year, and after a few bad penalties these playoffs, San Jose might not want his services any longer. Eager would give the Hawks some of their toughness back, which they lacked throughout the entire season.
They should be able to offer him around the $1 million mark, but he has had a history of concussions and may not be what the Hawks are leaning toward. Look for them to get a good skater with a physical presence to beef up the fourth line.
Brooks Laich has been a staple on the Washington Capitals for some time now, but he is now an unrestricted free agent. He could be what the Hawks are looking for in a second-line center. He will be a cheaper option than Tim Connolly and might be the right move as his team has been in the playoffs and contending for the past few years where Connolly's has not.
He is only 28 years old and would bring a veteran presence to this team. Look for the Hawks to try and make a splash at that need position of second-line center.
James Wisniewski is a familiar face for the Blackhawks organization. He played with the Hawks from 2005-2009. He has the tough pedigree that the Hawks need to get back from their blue line. They were too soft at that position last year, and too many times, other teams walked right into the crease with no repercussions.
Wisniewski was loved in the locker room and would be a good addition to the 2011-2012 roster, if GM Stan Bowman can trade one of the other blue liners making too much money (Campbell/Hjalmarsson). Look for the Hawks to move one of those two defensemen and be able to scoop up a solid contributor like Wisniewski in the process.
Kyle Beach might just be what the Hawks have been missing. The left-winger will certainly have a great shot to make the team when training camp ends in the fall. His size (6'2", 215 pounds) and willingness to mix it up will be much-needed attributes that he has to offer this team. The 2008 first-round pick should be primed to play his first NHL game next season.
On the flip side of this argument will be his lack of playing defense, committing dumb penalties, and overall attitude on/off the ice. His biggest critics have always talked about his inability to play smart. As we know from Coach Q, that will only get you one place: on the bench. His $1.2 million salary will be a huge pill to swallow if he is still playing in Rockford next year. Look for him to get his "shot" at the next level this year.
I think the maturing process that Beach needs to go through should be dealt with at the highest level. If he makes this team, hopefully the veterans can straighten him out and be able to put him on a good path to be a solid contributor. He will learn to work hard as the money will stop coming in at some point if he doesn't. The 21-year-old is still very young and hopefully will blossom into the type of forward the Hawks desperately need next year.
Michael Frolik and Chris Campoli were key contributors down the stretch. They both will be re-signed, as they have friendly cap figures for what the Hawks will get back in return. Frolik may be ready to make the leap, as his talent has always been superior to the number of points he has scored. He will add depth to this team going forward and should be able to easily put up a 20-goal season next year. There is no reason he cannot be a top-six forward in this league, and I hope the Hawks give him a shot to do so next year.
Campoli was a solid addition to the team at the deadline last year. Look for the Hawks to re-sign him as well at around the same number as he made last year ($1.4 million). Campoli is relatively young, and I think he would be happy to stick around for another three years at the minimum. He has a good puck-moving game and is a solid defender who can play both special teams if need be. Look for both to be back next year.
The Chicago Blackhawks are still in a salary cap bind in terms of being able to pay top free agents to come play here. They will have about $8 million to spend this summer, and most will go to re-signing players on their roster from last year.
Look for the Hawks to take the same route they took in building their Stanley Cup-winning team. Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger were both bright spots in the playoffs this year, with little to zero NHL experience.
Marcus Kruger was pulled from up from the Swedish League this year and played well in limited time on the ice. He also suited up for five of the seven playoff games which tells you what the Hawks think they might have with the youngster. Look for Kruger to make this team next year and be able to contribute on the offensive and defensive ends of the ice.
Ben Smith was fantastic and consistently one of the top three forwards on the ice for the Hawks in the playoffs. He played on multiple lines and even saw time on the first line next to Kane and Toews. He played outstanding in the playoffs, and I only see big things from him to come in the next few years.
The Hawks will have to take this route of young players, as their salaries are low and the contributions they get in return are well worth the money not spent on another free agent.