Is Now the Time for the Blackhawks To Trade Cristobal Huet?

Tab BamfordSenior Writer IDecember 17, 2009

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Things are going pretty well for the Chicago Blackhawks right now. They’re in first place in the Central Division and are in strong position to go after the top seed in the Western Conference.

After consecutive shutouts, their defense is at the top of the NHL and their goalies look pretty good. Meanwhile, adding Marian Hossa to the offense looks to be coming together.

So is now the right time to make a dramatic change?

Cristobal Huet currently ranks fourth in the NHL, allowing only 2.09 goals per game. Since his rocky start, Huet has settled down to be one of the better goaltenders in the league. The Blackhawks coaching staff has been working with him, specifically to keep Huet up longer and encourage him to get out of the net and attack the puck better. The hard work has paid off, and is paying dividends in the standings.

But if you look deeper into the numbers, there are reasons to move Huet now.

Huet might be fourth in goals against, but his .913 save percentage is good for only 20th in the NHL. Doing math backwards from the contrasting ranks he has in goals against and save percentage, obviously there’s something helping Huet rank highly in one while being middle-of-the-pack in the other.

It’s called elite defense in front of him.

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The men on the Hawks' blueline continue to block a ton of shots as well. On Wednesday night against St. Louis, the Hawks were credited with 13 blocked shots, while only 27 pucks made their way to Huet. Though Huet certainly earned the shutout, when almost one-third of the shots being put on the net never make it to the goaltender, it makes the man in the mask’s job significantly easier.

Wednesday night’s numbers were consistent with the Blackhawks’ defense all season. They are blocking an average of 13.5 shots per night, while only allowing 24.3 shots on goal per game—the best in the NHL by 2.5 shots over New Jersey. They aren’t the top shot blocking team in the league (ranked 14th), but their backcheck has been one of the best in the league all season on top of their willingness to block shots.

Another way the Hawks are making their goalies look good is by controlling the puck. The Blackhawks rank third in the NHL in faceoff winning, earning possession 53.6 percent of the time despite their second line center, Dave Bolland, having been out for over a month. The Hawks are also third in the NHL on the penalty kill—85.2 percent of opponents’ power plays.

What do all of these numbers mean? The Blackhawks are playing defense in front of the net better than any team in the league, and are making Huet look like a goalie worthy of his $5.6 million salary. But the reality is that many goalies, most of which cost far less than Huet, could look good behind this Blackhawks team.

Let’s add to this discussion the reality that the Blackhawks need to make some payroll disappear before the 2010-11 season begins.

The Hawks will likely have to cut around $9 million off their existing payroll to afford a complete roster next year. If deals have to happen, why not sell a player when his value is at an all-time high? That’s the case with Huet.

But to simply argue that the Blackhawks could move Huet to save money by selling high is an empty argument if there isn’t a team that would have interest in acquiring his services and can handle his salary, while probably sending a veteran goalie back to keep the Blackhawks from being forced to rely on Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford during a run to the Stanley Cup.

There might be a match out there for the Hawks, and it’s with a team with whom the Hawks have been linked in trade rumors before.

The Ottawa Senators are struggling, to put it mildly, and a big part of their issues is in net. The Sens are scoring almost as many goals per game (2.85) as the Blackhawks (2.97), but are allowing almost a full goal per game (2.91) more than the Hawks (2.09). Not all of the goals against can be pinned on their pair of netminders, though. Both Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliot are stopping over 90 per cent of the shots they’re facing, but the tandem is facing 3.8 shots per game more than the Hawks are allowing.

Elliot has started more games this year for the Sens, which puts the significantly more expensive Leclaire on the bench. Considering Leclaire makes almost $3 million more than Elliot, the Sens would likely prefer to have their most expensive goaltender be worthy of the most starts.

Enter Huet. When you look at the differences between Leclaire and Huet, they aren’t as dramatic as you would think based on their records. Huet is stopping .913 of the shots he faces, while Leclaire is killing .901 of his opportunities. If you swap Leclaire, already a backup, for Huet, the difference in net could be marginal.

But the difference long-term could be enormous. Leclaire has a cap number of just $3.6 million, with a deal that expires after next year. Huet, on the other hand, will make $5.625 million through the 2011-12 season.

Saving that $2 million, and the extra season, could mean the difference between the Blackhawks keeping a player like Patrick Sharp or Kris Versteeg around this coming summer, and considering that Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson are due new contracts after next season. Getting Huet’s money off the books in a deal like this would be perfect if the Hawks wanted to sign these two key blue liners long term in the summer of 2011.

Also consider that, until this year, Leclaire played all five of his NHL seasons in the Central as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Sens have less money locked up after this year, so they could more easily afford Huet’s salary than the Hawks, and Elliot is only signed through next season as well. The Hawks might have to send some cash to Ottawa if this was a deal the teams actually considered because the Sens are just as close to the current cap as the Blackhawks are, but the benefit would be after the 2009-10 season for Chicago if a deal like this went down.

Whether or not it’s to Ottawa or anywhere else, a deeper look at the numbers might make Huet expendable before the end of this season, and selling when his value is at its highest could be a wise move for the Hawks.

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