The Chicago Blackhawks knew trades were inevitable after their Stanley Cup triumph, but in putting together a blockbuster deal with Atlanta, they’re certainly not playing salary-cap victims.
Playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien and his $3 million per season contract is heading to the Thrashers along with veteran defenseman Brent Sopel, prospect power forward Akim Aliu and enforcer Ben Eager in exchange for the two draft picks Atlanta acquired from New Jersey in the Ilya Kovalchuk deal, veteran center Marty Reasoner and prospect sniper Jeremy Morin.
At first blush, this is a master stroke for Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, who found himself right up against next season’s salary cap already, despite having many roster spots to fill. In acquiring first- and second-round draft picks and Morin from Atlanta, Chicago takes on no salary-cap space for next year. Morin just completed his first season in the Ontario Hockey League with the Kitchener Rangers and wouldn’t suffer by returning for another successful campaign. Reasoner, who makes $1.15 million next year before becoming a UFA, is a fourth-line option for the Hawks.
If there is one concern for Atlanta fans in this deal, it’s that Byfuglien has never scored more than 36 points in the regular season. The big-bodied winger was a force in Chicago’s run to the Cup, parking himself in front of enraged goalkeepers and throwing his weight around the rink to tremendous effect. Getting him to play like that for 82 games is the challenge for Atlanta’s next coach.
In Sopel, Atlanta gets a sturdy blueliner who is great at killing penalties. His $3.5 million salary was also a big motivator for Chicago moving him. Aliu, most famous for fighting then-teammate Steve Downie at a Windsor Spitfires practice after a hazing incident in junior hockey, has struggled as a pro. He even spent time in the ECHL this year after failing to produce with Rockford of the American League. But his size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) still makes him a tantalizing asset. Eager gives the Thrashers some much-needed toughness.
Morin’s inclusion should make Atlanta fans uneasy. The youngster tallied 47 goals and 83 points in 58 games for Kitchener after cutting his teeth with the U.S. national team development program. Given the strength of the Rangers going forward, 50 goals would not be a stretch next year and his release is lethal.
This deal sets the Hawks up well for the future, but also helps Atlanta right away. As for Chicago’s cap woes, the Hawks now have $6.5 million more to play with, assuming Eager, an RFA who made just less than $1 million last season, balances out Reasoner.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column — The Straight Edge — every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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