Dale Tallon conspiracy theory and other hot mailbag topics

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It didn't take long for the letters to start rolling in about the dismissal of Chicago Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon. Let's take a look at that hot topic, and a few more that showed up repeatedly in the mailbag.

Do you think that Dale Tallon was set up so that Scotty Bowman's son could take over as GM in Chicago? It seems to me that Tallon is being made a scapegoat for someone else's mistake with those RFA offers. -- Michael Koltuniak, Plymouth, MI

I remember wondering what led Rick Dudley to leave a position as Chicago's assistant GM for an associate GM job in Atlanta late last month. Men with his experience rarely make lateral moves. I guess all those beer-league concussions finally caught up to me. Seems pretty obvious now in hindsight, doesn't it? Dudley could hear the whispers, and he was gettin' while the gettin' was good.

Dudley's departure was just one bit of evidence pointing to a classic internal power struggle in a crowded front office. And barring a surprise Stanley Cup, it was a struggle that Tallon was destined to lose. It was reported on Monday night that he'd been dismissed and replaced by long-time assistant GM Stan Bowman.

A lot of the speculation about this firing will center on the improperly-filed qualifying offers that failed to reach eight of the team's restricted free agents in time. Tallon fell on his sword for that screw-up, and rightfully so. He's always been a buck-stops-here kind of guy, even if he wasn't personally responsible for that particularly embarrassing, and ultimately costly, episode.

But no one should think that a GM is actually licking stamps and dropping off contracts in the mail . . . and that's why this imbroglio has led to speculation that maybe whoever was responsible for moving those offers along might have applied the brakes on purpose. Not usually a fan of conspiracy theories myself, but this incident was so inexcusable that it is hard to imagine an experienced executive making that mistake.

But even the botching of a simple exercise isn't as telling as is the fact that aspects of the story were leaked to the press on at least two occasions from what had to be internal sources. Sure seems as though someone in the Hawks organization had an ax to grind. Whether that was for personal gain, the perceived betterment of the franchise or managerial homogeneity is wide open for speculation, but I think it might have been the latter.

Tallon, like Stan Bowman, was a rare holdover from the Bill Wirtz era. But Bowman the younger had his connections to the new group thanks to the hiring of his father, Scotty, as a senior adviser last summer. Tallon? He had no ties to the new regime. And you know how those scenes usually play out.

It could certainly be argued that there was basis for staging a coup. Tallon made his share of questionable decisions, including a pair of failed coaches (Trent Yawney and Denis Savard) and some brutal free agent signings, from Theo Fleury and Adrian Aucoin to the recent extravagances of Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet, and the crippling Marian Hossa deal at the opening of this year's free agency bonanza.

Sure, Tallon had his share of wins along the way (hiring Joel Quenneville, trading rolls of hockey tape for Kris Versteeg and Patrick Sharp), but it's impossible to overlook the potential impact of those last three free agent deals.

Although there's been speculation that the Campbell and Huet signings were the brainchild of club president John McDonough, they still came on Tallon's watch and contributed to an onerous financial load on the books that may prevent the team from re-signing young cornerstones Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith after this season. And if you make those decisions, or don't have the power to fend them off, you're wide open to internal attack.

So the RFA scandal may have led to Tallon being pushed out the window, but he clearly put himself on the sill. It'll be interesting to see how Bowman goes about addressing the team's issues. He's generally well thought-of, but hasn't been in this position before. Having dad Scotty's experience to call on will help, but the Hawks' precarious financial position calls for some particularly bold strokes.

Hopefully, Stan already has a few ideas in place. No doubt the thousands gathering for the annual Blackhawks fan convention this weekend will be all ears.

You were a big supporter of the Chris Pronger trade at the draft. Do you still feel the same after he signed that seven-year extension? Seems like a lot of money to tie up in a player who could still be counting against the cap after he retires, right? Hasn't Paul Holmgren outdone Dale Tallon in screwing up a team's finances by tying up so much money for the duration of the deal?-- S. Scudwell, New Jersey

I wasn't sure about this myself, but after a call to one of the league's more effective capologists, your assumption is confirmed. Even though Pronger signed the deal at age 34, he turns 35 this season, and that means the Flyers are on the hook for the cap hit for the duration of the deal even if the surly defender retires at the end of next season. And if not, he's still on the books for $4.921 million until he's 42. The history books aren't exactly filled with tales of useful forty-somethings on the blueline. Chris Chelios is still working on his chapter, of course, but give Pronger a chance. He struggled during the early going last fall, but was a monster down the stretch and in the postseason.

Although the Flyers are taking a lot of heat for assuming this risk, I'm not one of those who think they were caught off-guard by this loophole closure. Because here's another angle to ponder: The current CBA expires at the end of the 2011-12 season -- that's coming up fast, isn't it? -- and the truth of it is, we have no idea what the bargaining landscape will look like when the next deal is negotiated.

Given the impact that the economic slowdown is expected to have on the league's finances for the 2010-11 season, it wouldn't be surprising to see another round of rollbacks (remember that 24 percent haircut the players took after the last lockout?), buyout and renegotiation windows, and other cap-softening concessions as part of a new agreement. That whole 35-and-over clause might not be around when the next deal is ratified. So, in essence, worry about that bridge when it's time to drive off it.

Now, if the Flyers signed off on this deal assuming that the new CBA would include a Get Out of Salary Jail Free card just for them, well, that's about as risky as going into the season with a goaltending tandem of Ray Emery and Brian Boucher. Shame on them if that's the case. Still, there's a chance this contract won't impact them as negatively as some fear, which is entirely different from the Marian Hossa deal that is set to impact the Hawks' lineup next summer.

At least Holmgren has a chance to see this deal to its conclusion. That won't be the case with Tallon.

What's up with these rumors of Dallas trading Brad Richards to the New York Rangers? There's no way that happens, right? He's way too valuable to the Stars. -- Chris Maxwell, Plano, TX

You can see how this sort of thing gets started -- and it's not simply because the Rangers seem intent on collecting every overpaid player in the league. Richards would fill an obvious need. The Rangers have added a few guys who are willing to pull the trigger: Marian Gaborik and Chris Higgins. But unless rookie Artem Anisimov slides seamlessly into the lineup, they have a paucity of players capable of loading the gun.

Even with his game in decline, Richards remains a gifted passer whose vision earns him recognition as one of the game's better power play quarterbacks. Of course, those are the same qualities that make him so valuable to the Stars. Would they be happier if he was less of a drain on the cap? Sure. Even at his best, back in his Lightning days, he was never the kind of producer who could justify a $7.8 million hit.

Still, Richards is important to the Stars. The chemistry he shares with Loui Eriksson played a sizable role in the winger's breakthrough 36-goal season, and Richards' presence allows the pasture-ready Mike Modano to ease into a less demanding depth role. And with two years left on his deal, Richards buys time for youngsters like Ondrej Roman and Perttu Lindgren to ready themselves for their eventual transition to the NHL.

Of course, you can never say never about a player with a contract like that. With owner Tom Hicks facing a cash crunch -- financial concerns even led the team to cancel its summer prospects camp -- the Stars have to be willing to listen. But at this point, it's a good bet that Richards will remain in Dallas.

So . . . Jonas Gustavsson. I've heard lots of talk, but what exactly are the Leafs getting here? There's been lots of talk, but it seems to me he's more likely to be the next Johan Holmqvist than Henrik Lundqvist. Is he worth the hype? -- Sam Parker, CT

Tough to say at this point, Sam. No arguing that Gustavsson was lights-out last season in the Swedish Elite League, but that's a different type of game played on a different ice surface, which is why so many promising Euro-goalies struggle with the transition.

Still, Brian Burke's relentless pursuit of The Monster paid off with the ultimate low-risk, high-reward scenario.

Because of his age and European status, Gustavsson's contract was limited to just $810,000 by the CBA. That's a fair investment for a useful back-up and a steal for a starter, which is exactly what Gustavsson could become if the groin problems that sabotaged Vesa Toskala last season resurface. Plus, the Leafs are only on the hook for one year. If things work out well, he's a restricted free agent, which gives Toronto first shot at retaining his services. If not, they can simply shake hands and part company.

But remember, that's low risk, not no risk.

If Toskala goes down and Gustavsson isn't Lundqvist 2.0, then Toronto's options are limited. They may be forced to call on Justin Pogge, a player they weren't overly anxious to re-sign this summer despite his being anointed the franchise's future just 12 months ago. Or worse, they may need to dredge the free agent market for a veteran option. Hey, Eddie Belfour's been working out in Dallas. Probably still a few of his sweaters floating around the souvenir shop.

Burke has made some compelling moves to transform the Leafs into a more competitive squad next season. None will be watched more closely than this one.

Jacques Lemaire returns as coach of the Devils? Just when the team finally was steering away from the old stereotypes, Lou Lamoriello goes back to the same old well with a hiring that all but guarantees a season of safe, boring hockey. Johnny Mac wasn't good enough? Give me a break.-- Alex, NJ

I know a lot of Devils fans would have liked to see good guy John MacLean get the gig, but Lamoriello played his cards smartly. MacLean, who also was passed over when previous coach Brent Sutter was hired, has been assigned to Lowell of the AHL to get some head coaching experience on his resume. When its time for Lemaire to be replaced -- and at 64, that might be just a couple years down the road -- MacLean should be as able as he is willing to tackle the responsibility.

As for Lemaire, well, I'm not sure why you'd be so down on him. After all, this is a man who was recently hired to be part of the Canadian coaching staff at the Olympics. That should say it all about the level of intelligence and ability he brings to the table.

Still not convinced? Alright, so maybe an old familiar face doesn't make for the sexiest hiring, but it's certainly a level-headed one. Lemaire's act may have grown tired in St. Paul, but it wasn't the same routine.

Despite Lemaire's reputation, these won't be the mid-90s Devils all over again. He's smart enough to coach to his talent. With more offensive weapons at his disposal than he had in the Minnesota, he won't force them to dump the puck and retreat at the enemy blueline. Lemaire is savvy enough to know where this group had success last season. That means he'll recognize the need to pressure the puck down low and have defensemen who can jump into the play when prudent (remember, he gave Brent Burns that freedom in Minnesota). In other words, expect a continuation of the better elements of Sutter's approach -- diligent puck pursuit -- combined with a greater emphasis on controlling the defensive angles.

Lamoriello certainly took his time with the hiring, but it says here he made the right one.