Salary cap crunch hits 'Hawks hard

John Madden - now a former Chicago Blackhawk - hoists the Stanley Cup after the Blackhawks win over...

John Madden - now a former Chicago Blackhawk - hoists the Stanley Cup after the Blackhawks win over the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on June 9. (ALEX UROSEVIC/QMI Agency Files)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:17 PM ET

It seems like it was just yesterday the Chicago Blackhawks were hefting the Stanley Cup and handing out bonuses which amounted to a mountain of frequent flyer points for the half of the team they were forced to send packing.

A sizzling summer in most parts of Canada usually means the word cap is preceeded by the word "ice," but this was the summer of the salary cap.

The only thing that seemed to make the summer long was the Ilya Kovalchuk "NHL Fans Held Hostage, Day 46" saga.

Thanks mostly to the Hawks -- who had to say goodbye to Cup contributors Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, Jordan Hendry, Andrew Ladd and goaltender Antti Nieimi -- and the Kovalchuk to and fro between the league and the NHLPA, the news for the NHL was mostly not good over the summer.

While Kovalchuk knew he was going to get some major bank no matter what happened, it hasn't been a great summer for the 200 unrestricted free agents who are still out there waiting for the chance to sign on the dotted line and fight for a spot even on the fourth line, somewhere, anywhere.

"I think the players are paying for some bad decisions made by clubs since the lockout. There's a lot of money that's been taken out of the system and it's caught up to us," said one agent.

Said another: "Up until July 3, the clubs took who they wanted to have and went after who they wanted to go after. It's like they were still hungry and left a little room for dessert, but now they want to get a nice dessert for just the price of a cup of tea."

Mercifully, as the last of summer drains away, there will actually be some hockey to contemplate as there will be rookie camps springing up in the next few days as a prelude to opening of full training camps Sept. 17.

Here are five questions to ponder as we wait out the last few days before the breakdown of that crucial battle for the ninth forward's job on the Toronto Maple Leafs begins.

1. So, who's the goaltender on your team this year? Sure he can get the job done? You could ask that question of the final four teams from last year's playoffs: Can Michael Leighton do it again for the Philadelphia Flyers? Can veteran Marty Turco replace Stanley Cup-winner Antti Niemi in Chicago? Can Niemi transport his freshman performance to the San Jose Sharks, who said goodbye to Evgeni Nabokov? In Montreal, can Carey Price -- who was a non-factor for the Habs in their unexpected run last spring -- fulfill his potential and make fans forget Jaroslav Halak? Pick a team and goaltending is likely an issue. The good news is -- as we saw last spring -- not having a goaltender with a pedigree and nice resume is no barrier to contending for a Cup. (Senators fans disregard that last comment).

2. Will the Phoenix Coyotes ever be sold or will this story just float permanently on the horizon, supplying those in Southern Ontario on slow news days with a "second team in Toronto" angle. The Coyotes -- one of the great stories of last season -- might finally have a buyer (roll eyes). The latest development is a guy from Chicago -- not Jerry Reinsdorf -- is negotiating a lease with the city of Glendale with the intention of then buying the franchise from the NHL. The fellow's name is Matthew Hulsizer and he's the CEO of PEAK6 Investments. ICE/EDGE's bid has apparently stalled. It also appears you have to have a company which is spelled with all CAPITALS to bid to try and own the Coyotes.

3. What did the Washington Capitals learn from losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round last spring? We probably won't know that answer until next spring, but it will be interesting to see how much patience exists in the American capital for a team that monstrously underachieved after a magnificent regular season. Can coach Bruce Boudreau find a way to get some of his offensive stars to understand what it takes to win at the most important point in the season? His job will ride on the answer. Defenceman Mike Green is one of the most compelling stories in the league. Can he find a way to complement his monstrous offensive talents with improved defensive zone play? It looked like he was trying to do that against the Habs and wound up being less effective at both ends of the ice.

4. Which team has the potential to be this year's Phoenix Coyotes, you know, the team a lot of people pick to finish out of the playoffs and winds up fourth? I like the Tampa Bay Lightning and the changes from top to bottom starting with the new ownership of Jeff Vinik which replaces the gong show which had come to characterize the last two years. General manager Steve Yzerman has brought a quiet competence, resigning Martin St-Louis, silencing the Vincent Lecavalier trade talk and bringing Simon Gagne in via trade. Rookie coach Guy Boucher has the potential to be a revelation at the NHL level or a complete disaster depending on how he's received by NHL players ("He ran Hamilton like a junior club," said one NHL exec, "but it worked.") A lot, of course, will depend on the goaltending of Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. Hey, Leighton took the Flyers to the final.

5. Who is the most entertaining player on Twitter? My vote is going to Phoenix Coyotes enforcer Paul Bissonnette who has resurrected himself on the social network after his original account was deleted following a controversial tweet about Ilya Kovalchuk after Kovalchuk's contract was rejected by the NHL and an arbitrator. He is back @Biz-Nasty2point0. In his first go-round, he was handy with a camera (his specialty is pictures of homeless people) and comments like: "packing for Arizona. passport, check. money and credit cards, check. speeeeeeedo, never leave home without it. wish it had pockets." BizNasty tweets?

Priceless.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca


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