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Economic Downfall

A salary-cap jam cost the Blackhawks' successful G.M. his job

Confirming the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, Dale Tallon was fired as the Blackhawks' general manager last week. His dismissal was cushioned by the new title of senior adviser and a contract extension that takes him to 2012, but considering his role in getting Chicago to the Western Conference finals last spring, Tallon fell down a rabbit hole as much as he was booted upstairs.

In four years as G.M.—during which the Blackhawks cashed in with high-first-round draft choices Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, developed lower picks such as Duncan Keith and Dustin Byfuglien, made lopsided trades for Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg and topped off last season's success by leading the NHL in attendance—Tallon seemed more worthy of a statue than a demotion. But the popular Tallon, who first joined the team as a player in 1973, fell victim to what Blackhawks president John McDonough says was the need for "a better decision-making system." To translate from corporatese into English, Tallon was not a judicious salary-cap manager, which is equal in importance for 21st-century G.M.'s to talent evaluating. He wildly overpaid for goaltending, notably the four years and $22.5 million he lavished last summer on free agent Cristobal Huet, whose middling credentials are the only reason Chicago will not start 2009--10 as a favorite to reach the Stanley Cup finals.

Tallon was also the fall guy for a gaffe in which the Blackhawks failed to deliver qualifying offers to eight restricted free agents before the June 29 deadline. The club scurried to re-sign them before they could be declared unrestricted free agents, but emerging players Versteeg and Cam Barker, who agreed to three-year, $9.25 million extensions, theoretically could have been renewed for a year at no more than 10% more than their 2008--09 salaries ($490,000 and $984,200, respectively). The new shotgun deals were not out of line, but for a team nuzzled up to the $56.8 million salary cap and facing the expiring contracts of Kane, Toews and Keith next summer, they tightened a financial noose.

The new G.M. is Stan Bowman, who at his birth 36 years ago was named for the Stanley Cup by his father, Scotty, the Hall of Fame coach who is now a Blackhawks senior adviser, and his mother, Suella. Stan, formerly an assistant G.M., holds a degree in finance and computer applications from Notre Dame and worked for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in the real world before joining the NHL wonderland with Chicago in 2001. He has battled Hodgkin's lymphoma, but he had a bone-marrow transplant in April 2008 and says he feels better than he has in years. "There'll be challenges and tough decisions [next summer because of salary cap considerations]," he said. "There are players we like that we won't be able to keep. I wish it were different, but that's how the system works."



CAGEY Bowman (above) must avoid deals like the one Tallon gave Huet (left).



[See caption above]