After going largely unscathed on the injury front for the first half of the season, the Chicago Blackhawks have been getting bitten by the bug in a big way in recent weeks. You have Marcus Kruger out with a concussion (although he is skating now and should be back soon), Daniel Carcillo down with a knee injury that he sustained on his incredibly stupid hit on Tom Gilbert against Edmonton, and Steve Montador just came back from the injured reserve list. Although those guys are all supporting characters in the narrative the Hawks have written so far, one of the prime time players is going to have to be replaced with an understudy for a while.
After leaving Sunday night’s game against the Red Wings with an undisclosed injury, forward Patrick Sharp will miss the next 3-4 weeks with an upper body injury, with most reports indicating that it involves his left hand. That is a relief to fans who saw him seemingly hit his head on the ice when he went down, but it still means that the Hawks will be without a guy who is on pace to score 40 goals this season for almost a month. With that startling realization in mind, and with the knowledge that the team has lost its last four games, is it time for Stan Bowman to pull the trigger on a deal?
Before getting into what Bowman should be willing to give up, it would be helpful to know exactly what kind of wiggle room he has to work with under the NHL’s salary cap. Because of his off-season shedding of the contract of Brian Campbell, as well as his decision to sign cheap free agents rather than give raises to guys like Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky, Bowman has the Hawks poised in good shape to add a contract, with $5.2 million in cap space available. He deliberately left this flexibility on the books this year so that the team could address any needs, but it might finally be time that some of those needs are becoming too big to ignore.
To most observers, the Hawks’ biggest needs at the moment are a second line center and a second-pair defenseman, both of which aren’t exactly cheap but can be found for a decent price. Bowman has shown a propensity for pulling off clever trades before, sending Cam Barker to the Minnesota Wild for Nick Leddy and Kim Johnsson. Johnsson provided some great help for the Hawks down the stretch as they won the 2010 Stanley Cup, and Leddy has been a great asset on the team’s power play.
Even with that ability to be a trade savant, Bowman still can’t afford to take too much of a risk here. This team, gutted by trades and free agents fleeing after that Cup victory, suffered last season because of a lack of depth and a lack of grit, but this year’s team has really shown to have both of those qualities. Trading a youngster or two wouldn’t be the end of the world, but if Bowman starts toying with the idea of moving NHL ready talent and draft picks, then he’s going a step too far in terms of what is actually needed.
With Sharp’s injury, the need for a second line center may seem like the logical place to start, but there is a strong argument to be made to start on the defensive side of the puck. Leddy has been solid this year, and Niklas Hjalmarsson has had a better season than he did a year ago, but truthfully, Leddy should probably be moved to the third defensive pairing to lessen some of the pressure that he is experiencing. He has been missing a lot of assignments on defense, and he seems a little too overeager to jump into a play offensively, and he has gotten burned because of both of those tendencies. Bringing in a steadier hand on defense would help the Hawks enormously on defense, and it would give Leddy more space and less pressure to develop.
In addition to the need for defense being a fairly pressing concern, there are also possibilities of filling the hole left by Sharp with talent that is already on hand. Brandon Pirri is still available down in Rockford, and Andrew Shaw has been given some time at center by Joel Quenneville during his call-up. In addition, Ben Smith has been recalled from Rockford, so he could shift to the wing and Patrick Kane could go back to center, despite calls from Hawks fans to avoid that.
All in all, an injury that is going to cost a player a month of action is not a reason to demolish all of the cap room that you have built up for emergency purposes. The fact of the matter, however, is that the Hawks do need some type of a spark, but they would be better off getting it on the defensive side of the puck. Look for Bowman to work his magic on the phones with other GM’s, but if he overreacts and does something unexpected, it could have dire consequences for a team looking to be a serious contender this season.