Chicago Blackhawks Trade Bait: Dustin Byfuglien

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IDecember 7, 2009

Chicago Blackhawks' Featured Columnists Tab Bamford and Michael Wagner will, over the coming week, evaluate and discuss potential trade candidates on the Blackhawks roster. With the Hawks needing to move money off their 2010-11 payroll, players that are currently Blackhawks won't be next year. This is the second installment of the series. In the first, Wagner discussed Tomas Kopecky's issues .

I think I've heard this one before: "the Chicago Blackhawks need to unload salary because they're going to be over the cap next year."

It's true. But now that the Have have cleared whatever tagging hurdles there were in the way of signing Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane, the immediate need to move a player has disappeared.

Just because it isn't present doesn't mean it's dead. The Hawks still need to move a player (or two, or three).

Tomas Kopecky isn't playing well so far this year, and he was a healthy scratch from the lineup on Saturday night in Pittsburgh. With his minimal exposure, Kopecky might be a veteran another team might bite on.

Personally, I doubt it. He's played so poorly, my opinion is that Kopecky's more likely to be bought out next summer. By buying Kopecky out, his cap number would drop from $1.2 million to $360,000, a nearly $900,000 savings that could be the difference between keeping and trading someone like Patrick Sharp.

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One player that has a higher value in the trade market right now, because he's statistically performing is Dustin Byfuglien.

Byfuglien is a big body (6'3", 245 lbs.), brought through the Hawks' system as a defenseman. But because of the emergence of players like Cam Barker and Niklas Hjalmarsson, and the Hawks' desperate need for a big body to consistently post up in front of opposing goalies, Byfuglien was moved to forward.

This move came while the former Hawks' GM was making the first of a number of mistakes with veteran contracts. Before the 2008-09 season, based completely on the perception of a huge ceiling, Tallon gave Byfuglien a three-year, $9 million contract.

When the ink dried, only five Hawks had a bigger cap number than Byfuglien's $3 million.

Byfuglien bounced around a little last year before landing on a line with Dave Bolland and Patrick Kane that proved to be special in last year's playoffs. Though his production went down (from 36 points in 67 games during 2007-08 to 31 points in 77 games in 2008-09), Byfuglien was a much more balanced performer on the ice. He went from a minus-seven to plus-seven in the same one-year stretch.

One of the big factors in Byfuglien's statistical drop-off was his playing time, and when he was playing. In 2007-08, Byfuglien had 17 points on the power play (seven goals, 10 assists) and was playing over 17 minutes per night. In 2008-09, he had only seven power play points (three goals, four assists), and his numbers dropped under 15 minutes per game.

Because Byfuglien was playing the blue line primarily, he was at the point on the power play more often in 2007-08 than the following year. This season, Joel Quenneville has experimented with Byfuglien back at the point on the power play with some success.

Something else developed in 2008-09: The Blackhawks were a good, deep roster with a fairly well stocked farm system.

In 2007-08, the Hawks spent the year fighting to come up with enough points to sneak into the playoffs; their "one goal" back then was to be relevant. In 2008-09, they sprinted to the Conference Finals. Byfuglien played a big role in the Hawks' postseason success, too.

But the value Byfuglien brings to the team, and how his salary affects the payroll in relation to that production, are why Byfuglien might be the most attractive, yet most easily replaced, piece on the current roster.

Through Saturday night's win in Pittsburgh, Byfuglien has 10 points (eight goals, two assists). His eight goals are tied for second on the team, just one behind Kane's team leading nine. So, on paper, he's a productive big man.

But, as is true with all sports, staring a numbers don't always translate to reality in games. Byfuglien is far from the top of the Hawks' roster when it comes to quality on the ice.

Despite his 10 points, and the amount of time he's on a line with players like Kris Versteeg and Sharp, or Kane and Bolland, Byfuglien hasn't been a consistent performer. He's minus-five on the season, making him one of only three Hawks that average over 10 minutes on the ice per night that are negative (John Madden is minus-two, Kopecky is minus-seven).

Byfuglien has also shown a tendency to take less-than ideal penalties this year. It really began for Byfuglien on Oct. 21, after Toews went down against Vancouver. Byfuglien decided to come to his captain's defense minutes after the hit, and took a dumb penalty that resulted in a critical goal for the Canucks.

Again, on Friday night, Byfuglien took a questionable boarding penalty that cost the team. After that penalty, his role appeared to change in the eyes of Quenneville.

Byfuglien slid from the second line, where he had been skating with Kane and Versteeg, to the third line with Madden and Ladd; Troy Brouwer was elevated to the top line with Marian Hossa and Toews, while Patrick Sharp played with Kane and Versteeg.

As the lines were set for Saturday, Byfuglien was with Madden and Brouwer, while Andrew Ladd skated with the first line. Byfuglien's role was sliding down the depth chart.

It hasn't been only the penalties he's been taking that have hurt Byfuglien's playing time, either. With Hossa having joined the team, and Brouwer playing exceptionally well (13 points), there are other players on the roster that are posting up in front of the net just as well.

Indeed, Brouwer's solid season, and price tag that comes at one-third that of Byfuglien, might be one of the most critical factors in his importance on the team disappearing. Brouwer handles the puck better than Byfuglien, most noticeable in his six assists to Byfuglien's two, and has also taken only 16 penalty minutes to Byfuglien's 40, all while being credited with nearly as many hits (69) as Byfuglien (83).

Add to Brouwer's smarter, less expensive play the reality that the Hawks have good players with similar size to Byfuglien coming along through their system, and Byfuglien's time in Chicago could be over sooner rather than later.

We've already seen Bryan Bickell and Jake Dowell play effective hockey with the Hawks this year, and they could be with the big team in Chicago for less than $1 million next year. Also available will be better offensive players in Akim Aliu and Kyle Beach, both of whom are having good seasons and are years younger than Byfuglien.

In fact, as Mr. Wagner will be the first to testify, I might be the cheerleading President of the Beach Fan Club on Bleacher Report; I've been writing about his potential since early this past summer.

Beach is 6'3" and over 210 pounds, both comparable to Byfuglien's size, but Beach won't turn 20 until the middle of January. In 25 games in Spokane this year, Beach has 21 goals and nine assists (30 points) to go with 78 penalty minutes.

Beach could easily replace Byfuglien, Ben Eager and/or Andrew Ladd next year; in my opinion, Beach will be on the 2010-11 Blackhawks, the only question is who he'll replace. It could, and should, be Byfuglien.

There are General Managers like Toronto's Brian Burke that love big, banging forwards like Byfuglien. Unfortunately for teams looking to dump salary on the Leafs, they don't have draft picks to move in return; they traded most of their high picks for Phil Kessel and are trying to stockpile picks via trade now.

The Blackhawks would want to move Byfuglien in a deal that would unload most, if not all, of his $3 million cap number. That means either a prospect or draft picks coming back. However, if the Hawks could pick up a contributing player for a relatively low cap number, perhaps a young defenseman for under $1 million with an expiring contract, that might get the deal done.

Another possibility is that Hawks GM Stan Bowman packages a couple of younger players in a deal to bring in a contributing player that's less expensive. In the coming days, Wagner and I will look at a few more players that could be on their way out of Chicago. Packaging Byfuglien with someone like Cam Barker, who also has a cap number of $3 million, could be tempting for lots of rival GMs.