According to reports, there was trade talk between the LA Kings and Chicago Blackhawks just prior to the holidays as the Kings seek to solidify their goaltending situation for the remainder of the season. While the names involved weren’t being reported, it appears that Chicago may have been asking for too much. Depending on which angle one is looking from, both sides, it could be argued, have strengths and weaknesses.
Chicago, for instance, has a ton of money locked up in their two starting goaltenders. Khabibulin is in the final year of a contract that pays him 6.75 million. Wow. And Huet is in the first year of a 4 year 5.625 million dollar contract. Double wow. While the combo may be winning one for Chicago right now, it’s obviously a huge waste of money to have two goalies gobbling up nearly 1/5 of your Cap space. You can only play one goalie at a time and if Chicago does make the playoffs they could certainly use $5-6 million in good defending or goals. On the other hand, if a trade were accepted, there are no guarantees that Huet will remain a dependable starter with less than 200 games of NHL experience. Injury is another concern and would basically plunge the ‘Hawks into a situation much like the Kings are currently facing. For Chicago, unless there is significant return in a trade, moving one of these goaltenders could end in blushes. There’s just no arguing with Khabibulin’s record – (10-1-4). Chicago’s position of strength lies in the fact that they’ve been successful with their combination this season. Currently on 43 points in 34 games, Chicago could afford to play around .500 hockey for the rest of the season and still sneak into the playoffs. With two goalies capable of allowing less than 2.5 goals a game on average, the ‘Hawks chances of making the post-season are strong, and a young team with two in-form netminders can do amazing things and surprise many. Essentially, that’s what the Kings are seeking. In addition, with so many young players performing so well, Chicago is hardly under presssure to add new talent, yet no team is ever above strengthing their position for the playoffs. Chicago has the leverage to hold out for some significant return, and other than the owner’s bank accounts, retaining two quality netminders (one of whom is UFA July 1st) won’t piss off the fans.
Los Angeles’ situation is also one of strengths and weaknesses. It could be argued that the Kings themselves would be in a much stronger position in the standings with an established, quality goalie. With new coach Terry Murray backing Jason Labarbara for the starting role early in the season, the team looked strong and challenged every team they faced with a group of players most expected to struggle. Due to the strong play by the team the spotlight on goal has been a bit of a bugaboo. Jason Labarbara has had some decent outings, but also lacked some goal support with the team averaging under 3 goals per game on offense, even posting a 0-1 loss to the mighty Sharks. The Kings switched to Erik Ersberg for most of the 2nd fifteen games and were facing many of the same situations. Ersberg has looked strong when on his game, but with only a few dozen NHL starts, there have been some holes (a weakness on long-range shots) and issues with conditioning. Ersberg has already missed significant time to a groin-strain after playing with a bit of an injury in his first few starts.
What is comes down to with LA is that there is no true No. 1 guy and now the team is being pressed to bring on prospects from their minor league affiliates. Essentially, it is time for LA to fish, or cut bait on the season.
The first option (cut bait) is to admit that Jason Labarbara is never going to be The One. This would require a few more games with Labarbara as the backup while Ersberg recovers from a groin injury, and would end in a juggling act to get Ersberg, Jon Quick, top prospect Jon Bernier, and Jeff Zatkoff serious playing time. We’ve already had a glimpse at Jon Quick, but Labarbara’s ouster would open the door of opportunity to whomever took the ball, and ran. This is an acceptable option for the fans because there have been years of weakness in net, and fans are prepared to stick with the youth that Dean Lombardi and Dave Taylor have acquired, believing that one of these guys will have what it takes. In a sense, this “cut-bait” option is accepting a possible struggle through this season in hopes that the experiences and time in the NHL will result in our “own” elite goaltender. I believe this is a position of strength for LA, where the managing by Lombardi is suddenly looking quite positive.
On the other hand, with the team looking very strong and capable (taking leads into the 3rd period against San Jose, Colorado, Detroit, Calgary, Toronto, Phoenix, and Edmonton only to lose in regulation or overtime) would it be fair to allow them to fail to reach the post-season because one area is holding them back? Here is where the issue becomes much more muddled. While it’s easy to blame goaltending, timely goals by the offense and better play in crunch time on defense are undeniably areas in which the team could be much better. So if the Kings take the “let’s go fishing” option, the team would possibly find the dependability to not only reach the post-season, but to be confident that anything is possible once there. With so many young players currently skating with the big club, the “fishing” option is attractive because it would allow the team to play without fear. With a true No. 1, which every NHL team SHOULD have, LA fans would get a real peek at what is possible with these skaters; and, there’s no denying that some playoff experience would benefit a group that is going to be expected to challenge for a Stanley Cup within the next few seasons. Finally, having a true and undeniable No. 1 would allow these young goalie prospects the time and space to adapt at their own pace and challenge for the top spot when ready, instead of being called upon to carry a very, very young team into warmer waters.
It will be interesting to see what happens, regardless. For all anyone knows, a deal may already be done while there is a “freeze” period on its announcement. The most important aspect of the situation in LA is that the fans need to support the General Manager no matter what decision he makes in this situation, because it’s clear that both roads lead to a better future. If the deal is done, however, what the Kings give up CAN NEVER come back to haunt them – that’s happened too many times in the past.
Personally, I lean towards making a deal for Khabibulin, but I have no idea what is being asked for by Chicago from the Kings. If there is any quality leaving LA that may flower in the future, I’d prefer to stick with the young kids in net and keep grooming for the future. The onus would then be on the skaters to achieve what they can, and if they can figure out how to manage 60 minutes better (this will take some finely nuanced decisions from Terry Murray) they can make the post-season on their own – and maybe this is the much more valuable lesson. On the other hand, Khabibulin is NOT the only goaltender in the league that could come in and provide some stability as Felix Potvin proved a half-dozen or more years back. If the costs are too high in Chicago, there’s no reason to write-off a deal. Some of the teams near the bottom might be much more willing to deal a pretty decent goalie – for these I’d be looking to Florida, Ottawa, Edmonton, and bottom feeder B.