Evaluating the Blackhawks / Panthers trade - 48 hours & 2 games later
Dale Tallon helped create the mix of players that went on to win the Stanley Cup in Chicago last spring. This season, he became GM of the Florida Panthers, and they're hoping he can work his magic once again.
It shouldn't have surprised anyone familiar with the Blackhawks that they finally traded Jack Skille. Skille was drafted 7th overall in 2005 by Chicago. That's the same draft that was led by Sidney Crosby. Notable players drafted after Skille include: Devin Setoguchi (8th), Anze Kopitar (11th), Marc Staal (12th), Tuukka Rask (21st), Ondrej Pavelec (41st), Kris Letang (62th), Jonathan Quick (72nd), Niklas Hjalmarsson (108th), and Patric Hornqvist (230th). To say that Chicago had high hopes for Skille is an understatement; but Skille has not delivered as expected. He spent the last couple seasons in Rockford - skating alongside players such as Troy Brouwer (drafted 214th in 2004), Antti Niemi (undrafted), and Hjalmarsson - only to see them all make the leap to the big club before he did. After the Blackhawks were gutted by the post-Stanley Cup fire sale, Skille finally got his opportunity.
Florida head coach Pete DeBoer was quoted by the Sun Sentinel as stating "What I like about [Skille] is you look at the stat sheet and see his shots on goal and hits compared to minutes played, and he translates to a guy who jumps on the ice who makes things happen both physically and getting the puck to the net."
Skille was a fixture on the fourth line for Chicago, and made the occasional appearance on the top lines for the Blackhawks this season, but it was primarily due to injuries to the team's two right wingers - Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. Skille posted 7G (including 1 GWG), 10A, 25 PIM in 49 games played. Skille's positives: a desire to be a team player, lots of heart, lots of energy, and a willingness to throw the puck at the net. (Unfortunately, "throw" is the right description, as he sports just a 5.7% success rate.)
While Skille has been having trouble finding the score sheet - his 123 recorded SOGs don't reflect the numerous pucks he's tried to get on net, either - he's had no problem finding that stats sheet, putting together 95 hits and 25 PIM over 49 games with the Hawks, with an average 10:37 TOI per game. It would be a bit of a misnomer to call Skille a "gritty" or "sandpaper" player - labels better applied to players like Adam Burish, Sean Avery, or Bryan Bickell - but he brings energy and a willingness to go to the net.
In his post-trade interviews, Skille said he was "really excited" about the news of the trade, and expressed that he felt he was more than a fourth-liner. Despite being recruited and cultivated by the Blackhawks for the past few years, he only broke into the NHL this year, and he's been entrenched on the 4th line ever since. His biggest supporter, Dale Tallon, heads up the Panthers; and Skille was inserted right into the top line, where he will get far more ice time than he did in Chicago.
(video courtesy of NHL.com)
Thursday night, Skille made his debut in southeast Florida, coming off a grueling 19-hour day of travel from Edmonton to Sunrise, getting to the arena just a couple hours before game time. Despite that, he registered 10 hits (Florida's team high for a single player in one game this season has been 7), two shots on goal (as well as several blocked/missed ones), 23 shifts, and 17:45 of ice time playing on the top line alongside Stephen Weiss and Chris Higgins. The 10 hits was a particularly notable stat, as the Panthers as they registered 51 hits for the night - nearly twice their season average of just over 20 hits/game.
While both fan and sportswriter reactions on the Panthers side of the trade have initially been lackluster, who knows how Skille may end up influencing the team? Skille was decent in Rockford (AHL), and he has worked hard this season - not only on the ice in games, but during practices. In Chicago, he was buried in team depth, but he was liked in the locker room and helped bring energy to the games every night. In Florida, he's going to have much more ice time and may begin producing better than he has for the Blackhawks.
What mostly kept Skille off the Blackhawks between 2007-10 was depth; he was the most frequent call-up from Rockford for those three seasons. His output, on Rockford's top lines, consistently increased each of those three seasons as well. This year, on the Hawks, he had so far only put together half his usual production, but he was also fourth line and seeing far less ice time (and in a more difficult league).
My prediction is that with increased ice team and skating on the top lines, Skille is going to find his niche on the Panthers, and the fans there will come to embrace him the same way that he's found popularity among the Rockford and Chicago faithful. He's fan-friendly, willing to talk to the media, and brings all he can to the ice every night. May he have the best of luck in advancing his career in southeast Florida.
In exchange for Skille going to the Panthers - along with Hugh Jessiman of the IceHogs, and right winger David Pacan, a 2009 draft pick - the Blackhawks got back two players, forward Michael Frolik and goalie Alexander Salak.
Most people analyzing the trade have said that Chicago may have made the steal of this deal in getting their hands on Alexander Salak. The 24-year-old Czech netminder currently plays with Farjestad BK of the Swedish Elite League (the highest professional hockey league in Sweden), boasting an outstanding .925 sv%, six shutouts, and has a 2.04 GAA over 41 games. Who has similar figures to that? Pekka Rinne (.930, 4 SO, 2.08 in 38 gms) and Jonathan Quick (.921, 5 SO, 2.13 in 41 gms) both leap to mind. And, like Rinne and Quick, Salak is a big, athletic goalie who fills the net and is capable of spectacular saves.
While Chicago has considerable goalie depth, they really haven't had anybody on the cusp of being ready to make the transition to NHL behind Corey Crawford. The two highest in the depth charts are Hannu Toivonen - who once battled it out with Tim Thomas during the beginning of the 2006-07 season for the Bruins starting goalie position - who currently has a .899 sv% with 2.85 GAA over a 10-10-0-3 record, including 2 shutouts. His teammate, Alec Richards, sports the better statistics - .907, 2.61 - but the worse record, 10-13-0-1. After being snakebit by overpaid goalies, Chicago has become a bit infamous for not putting a lot of money towards goalies, and last year, that was rewarded with rookie Antti Niemi usurping the #1 goalie position, and riding him to a Stanley Cup. As a direct result, most teams around the league have now decided they're going to stop overpaying goalies and look for the bargain ones - many of whom are currently leading their teams high into the standings.
There is no doubt that we'll see Salak during prospect camp, but it's pretty likely we'll see him return later in the summer for training camp. Corey Crawford has proven this year that the Blackhawks long investment in him has been worth it, as he has outplayed Marty Turco for the starting goalie position, so the team will look to re-sign him at a comfortable price (probably in the $1.25-$1.5M range) and then bring Salak in as backup.
The final piece of the puzzle is Michael Frolik, a Czech forward who was drafted as a center but who prefers to play wing. Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman also spoke about bringing him aboard as a center. Frolik was drafted in the first round of 2006 (the same draft that produced Jonathan Toews as 3rd overall pick), and Bowman stated that the Blackhawks have had their eye on him ever since that draft. In two seasons with Florida, Frolik has had two 20+ point seasons and has been a top-3 scorer and top-5 point producer for the Panthers in both of those seasons. He's had 50 G, 67 A, and 81 PIM during three years in the NHL.
Coach Quenneville generally likes to give players the opportunity to play the position they prefer when they can, so Blackhawks fans saw Frolik debut as a right winger for Friday's game versus Dallas. More importantly, Frolik has the flexibility to play center or wing - and Chicago loves that kind of flexibility.
There was a lot to like about Frolik. Like Skille, he isn't shy about going to the net. In a game that Chicago ended up playing with a shortened bench (three players were out with injuries by halfway through the second), he tallied 17:20 TOI, putting up 5 SOG (the only other player to match that was Brent Seabrook), 4 missed or blocked shots, 1 hit and 1 takeaway. He looked good and he skated with intensity. Dallas went after him a few times, apparently in retaliation for a unpenalized spearing that happened in a Dallas/Florida game earlier in the season.
For Chicago, Frolik is an upgrade to Skille. He's got the numbers from his past two seasons - on a struggling Panthers team - to show that he's got the skill to make things happen; his debut tonight with the Blackhawks was solid. He seems excited to be with Chicago, and hopefully that means he's going to play his best to end out the season. The player nicknamed "Baby Jágr" (after Jaromír Jágr) is in the last year of his entry level contract and is a restricted free agent.
Right now, it looks like both teams got something they wanted and needed out of the trade. We'll see how it unfolds over the rest of the season.
Three unfortunate injuries happened Friday night for chicago: Fernando Pisani, Viktor Stalberg and Ryan Johnson all left the game with bodies that were called "upper body" and are listed as "day to day". The team needs these guys back as soon as reasonably possible; to have a reasonable chance of even making the playoffs, the Blackhawks need to win at least 17 of their remaining games.