Friday, June 25, 2010

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes - time to shake things up

video source: CSN

It was inevitable: change was coming; and now it's here.

The players knew it; team management knew it; the fans knew it. In a club that desperately needed to carve several million off their salary in order to have enough room to fit a minimum roster once the key, multi-year, core players were tallied, there was no doubt that fan favorites would be traded away to other teams or allowed to walk as their contracts expired. Knowledge and reality finally came together in the past two days as the Blackhawks began work to shed salary, and the first trade was announced.

And that first cut hurt, because it meant the party was over, and it was time to get down to business and make the tough decisions that the post-salary-cap NHL dictates. 

Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel were traded to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for a pair of draft picks, as well as forwards Jeremy Morin, Marty Reasoner, and Joey Crabb. People across social networks ran the whole gamut of emotions about the trade, especially Byfuglien, who became a fan favorite for his work in the playoffs.

Byfuglien is a big guy - with his height and weight, he looks more like somebody you'd expect to see on the gridiron, not on skates. His regular season play left something to be desired - namely, consistency - which a lot of fans forgot about once he rolled into the playoffs and became a powerhouse, especially once he got shifted up to the first line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Oddly enough, despite all that was "on" for Byfuglien in the playoffs, he finished out the playoffs at -4 - not that much of a contrast to his -7 for the regular season. He racked up 11 goals including a hat trick during the playoffs; during the regular season, he had 17.

I certainly can't speak for him during the regular season, but I think once Byfuglien got a taste of playing on the top line and what he could do there, he really liked it - and his improved play backs that idea up. Sure, it doesn't hurt to be flanked by Toews and Kane; but most of the time, he was where he needed to be and got the job done - and done well.

After a powerful start to the playoffs, the surprise came in the Final series, when he all but disappeared against Chris Pronger for the first four games. Maybe it was playoff nerves. Who knows? In game 5, he clearly had given the first games a lot of thought, and decided he'd had enough. Less than seven minutes into the second period, Byfuglien flattened Chris Pronger to the boards, and everybody knew: Buff was back.

There is no doubt that Byfuglien was a huge presence in the playoffs, and I hope the past two months have firmly embedded in his head what kind of player he can be when he is consistent. He surely knows how important his play was to the Blackhawks and what a difference he made. So if he continues to play powerfully like that, and to step up to a consistent delivery game in, game out, then I expect him to become a very bright star for the Thrashers, and with his personality, I think he can help charm over a lot more people in Atlanta to the sport of hockey.

While Roberto Luongo is doubtless sighing with relief that his playoff nemesis is now in the Eastern Conference, Byfuglien will get a lot more chances to renew his rivalry with Pronger, as Atlanta plays the Flyers four times per season (vs. Chicago's once). The more physical Eastern Conference style should also challenge him to find yet another level of his play.

His salary was unfortunately something that had to come off the Chicago books; and that, ultimately, is why he was the centerpiece of this trade.

Defenseman Brent Sopel was also part of the trade package - again, because moving these three players and only getting one player expected to be on the roster immediately in return clears around $5M off the Blackhawks' salary cap. Sopel will be another player whose loss will be felt on the team next year, because he has selflessly, time after time, willingly thrown himself in front of the puck, doing what good D-men do best. While his play has not been perfect, he has certainly worked his butt off on the blue line.

His grit, hard work, and steady presence earned him a lot of fans this year. After one particularly spectacular stretch of saves during the playoffs, Chicago fans decided that Brent Sopel could stop anything, in a Chuck Norris sort of way.

At 33, he won't be the oldest guy on the team, but Sopel will bring a good share of experience to the Thrashers.

Despite being traded from the Blackhawks, Sopel will still be in this weekend's Pride Parade in Chicago, representing the team and riding with the Stanley Cup. Previously he was expected to ride with his wife and family, but now he will just be accompanied by his wife. This is a historic moment for hockey, as it is the first time that the Stanley Cup will be appearing at a gay-themed event. Sopel is doing the parade to honor his friend, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, and in memory and honor of Burke's late son, Brendan. Brendan Burke had raised awareness by coming out as a gay, young athlete; tragically, his life was cut short just a few months later in a car accident.

Brent Sopel and his family are also well known for their generous charitable work, including hosting "Operaton Homefront" at their home for the past two seasons.

Ben Eager was the third of the trade package. Eager's role on the Blackhawks has been one of physicality: fighting for the puck, making plays happen. He averaged a penalty per game during the regular season. He is a strong physical player, and in Atlanta, could easily move to the third or even second line. Like Byfuglien, and like Colin Fraser - also moved this week, to Edmonton - this move is likely to be of a great deal of benefit to him as a player, and probably allow him to see more ice time throughout the season. 

News of the second trade broke far more quietly in the wee hours of the morning, a Canadian sports reporter Tweeting that Colin Fraser was being traded to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a draft pick. Fraser had an interview with 630 CHED this afternoon and sounded highly optimistic about the trade, stating that it was an opportunity to be with a team that is in the starting process of rebuilding, much like the Chicago Blackhawks just a few years ago. He also hoped to step up and take a larger role with the Oilers than he has with the Blackhawks. Fraser has been with the Blackhawks for four years, but only played most of 2006-07 with the Norfolk Admirals and 2007-08 with the Rockford Icehogs. He stepped up to a full-time position with the start of the 2008-09 season, playing 81 regular season games last year, and 70 this year, as the center for the fourth line.

Personally, I have enjoyed Fraser as a player, but the sheer depth of the team kept him on the fourth line. Although we didn't see much of him in the playoffs, he was present on the ice for the majority of the past two years. I am hoping that with his move to Edmonton, it will help his play, much like Patrick Sharp's trade from the Flyers to the Blackhawks allowed Sharp to step up and prove himself, and take on a bigger role.

After having watched this team develop over the last few years since the lockout, it's hard to watch a lot of players that you really enjoy get traded away - especially after winning the Stanley Cup together. Inevitably, however, it comes down to business decisions - and in Chicago's case, there's a lot of difficult ones to be made.

Thank you to Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, and Colin Fraser. It has been a pleasure to watch you all the past few years, and I certainly will be watching your careers around the league with interest. Wishing you the very best of luck with your new teams.

* * *

I don't know anything about the incoming players, so I'm not commenting on them myself. So - here's a video about Morin!

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