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The celebration is over: Blackhawks cut salary, move Byfuglien, Sopel to Atlanta

These pictures will never get old.
These pictures will never get old.
AP PHOTO

The celebrations continue for the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, but for Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel and Ben Eager, the party has come to a earlier-than-expected-end.

The Blackhawks needed to make a trade, or two, to create salary cap room. That trade came Wednesday when the Blackhawks shipped Byfuglien, Sopel, Eager and Akim Aliu to Atlanta in return for Marty Reasoner, prospect Jeremy Morin, and picks No. 24 and 54 in Friday's NHL Draft.

The draft picks coming back to Chicago were previously held by the New Jersey Devils, and were traded to the Thrashers as part of the Ilya Kovalchuk trade. It's ironic in a sense, as I proposed that Byfuglien be part of Kovalchuk to Chicago trade in January.

The Blackhawks now hold five picks in the first and second round of the 2010 draft: No. 24 (via Atlanta), No.30, No.43 (via Calgary in return for Rene Bourque), No. 54 (via Atlanta) and No. 60. Those five picks in the first two rounds, should the Blackhawks hold onto them, are tied for the most in the draft. Florida also has five top-60 selections after trading Nathan Horton to Boston.

Byfuglien going to the Thrashers might be a bitter pill to swallow for Blackhawks fans, especially after his postseason heroics. But looking at the big picture—that being the Blackhawks' salary situation—someone had to go, and Big Buff is, to this point, a career underperformer. Now, if Byfuglien plays every game like a playoff game, the Blackhawks will regret having to make this trade.

Moving Sopel was a vital move for the Blackhawks this offseason. At no point in his current contract has Sopel's value been this high, and while he was a warrior during the postseason, he is a 33-year-old veteran with a lot of miles on the odometer and a lot of dings on the hood. Sopel more than earned his $2.3 million salary in 2009-2010, but with Jordan Hendry and Shawn Lalonde ready to make the jump to the NHL and the Blackhawks needing to cut payroll, moving Sopel was an easy decision. After all, he was nearly untradeable before he became "shot block jesus" during the playoffs. Sopel will be a veteran leader in Atlanta and join a surprisingly strong blue line unit with Zach Bogosian, Tobias Endstrom, Ron Hainsey and Johnny Oduya. Adding Sopel as a penalty killing specialist will only bolster the team further.

Eager's versatility as a goon and a grinding scorer will help the Thrashers immensely. With young top-line talent, Eager will round out the bottom of the Thrashers' lineup and bring some much needed fourth-line scoring.

Aliu was a second round draft pick by the Blackhawks in 2007. Widely considered to be one of the best talents in that draft, the Blackhawks took on Aliu understanding that he had attitude issues on and off the ice. 2009-2010 was supposed to be the year Aliu forced the Blackhawks to call him up; instead Aliu wallowed in Rockford and Toledo, never forcing the issue. If Aliu ever kicks it into gear, he could become a dynamic player in the NHL, but motivating Aliu is now Atlanta's problem.

Reasoner is a poor-man's John Madden. With the Blackhawks having little-to-no cap room, Reasoner could fill the role of fourth-line center easily. The Blackhawks might also move Reasoner for more draft picks or a lower-level prospect in the near future, depending on if the team decides to keep Patrick Sharp, and if he will play center next year. Also complicating matters is Colin Fraser, who came on strong late last season, but was a scratch during the playoffs. If the Blackhawks decide to go with Toews, Sharp, Bolland as the top three, Fraser has earned the right to round the group out. If not, Reasoner brings a reasonable contract and veteran experience (not that experience matters after a Stanley Cup win).

Morin is a sniper in the truest sense. He put up great numbers in the Ontario Hockey League last season, scoring 47 goals in 58 games for the Kitchener Rangers. Only 19 years old, Morin might require more seasoning, but after signing an entry-level contract with the Thrashers, that seasoning will not be in the OHL. Morin is likely to play next season with the Rockford IceHogs, preparing to crack into the NHL in 2011. 

For the now former Blackhawks Sopel and Byfuglien, Atlanta is a good destination. As aforementioned, Sopel will remain in his penalty killing role with Atlanta and will have the chance to teach young defenseman Zach Bogosian the finer points of the NHL game. I have do doubt that a class act by Sopel will make the most of his opportunity to impart wisdom on the next generation.

As for Byfuglien Atlanta will offer him the opportunity to be a star. As I said in January in my "Kovalchuk to Blackhawks is a perfect scenario" article:

"Byfuglien, being black, would also help the Thrashers make inroads to the majority of Atlantans. Atlanta is 55.8% black. If you haven’t noticed lately, there are a lot of white guys playing hockey. It’s hard to be a successful franchise when only a minority of your city is being represented, almost uniformly, on the ice. Along with Evander Kane, who is going to be a great star in the league one day, the Thrashers can use a young, extremely likable player like Byfuglien to appeal to all Atlantans. The notion might sound petty, but the Thrashers will certainly take such matters into account."

Aliu is a Nigerian-Canadian, so the same deal would go for him, if he makes the NHL squad.

In the meantime, the Blackhawks have shaved $5 million from their salary. More moves will have to be made soon, possibly before the draft. Kris Versteeg might be next on the chopping block, but Andrew Ladd's name has been circulated as trade bait. Regardless of who is moved, the next domino to fall will be Cristobal Huet, who, after Antti Niemi is signed, will be waived or sent down to Rockford, knocking his $5 million-plus salary off the books as well.

The Blackhawks' lineup will not stand pat, but as of now, Troy Brouwer, Bryan Bickell, Kyle Beach, Lalonde and Hendry will all be getting promotions in 2010-2011. Brouwer will take over Byfuglien's old role, Bickell will take Brouwer's and Beach will occupy Eager's. Lalonde will likely make the team as a fifth defenseman, with Jordan Hendry playing full time as well.

Keith takes the Norris:
Duncan Keith became the fourth Blackhawk to win the Norris Trophy when he won the award Wednesday night at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas. Keith scored 69 points this season, leading all defensemen in even-strength points. Keith had 17 points in the Blackhawks' 22 postseason games, and was a force defensively all season long. Keith joins Blackhawks legends Pierre Pilote, Chris Chelios and Doug Wilson as the only defensemen to win the Norris Trophy while with the Blachawks. 

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