Chicago Blackhawks: Cristobal Huet
A: No, I don’t. I think the roster turnover last year was secondary to the Cup hangover. The combination of the two did the Hawks in, there is no doubt about that, but I think a rejuvenated core and a better schedule will help the Hawks. The biggest issue, chemistry-wise, will be with the new defensemen gelling with the forwards. But the top four D-men are returning so it’s really only the fourth line and the back end of the blue line that needs to fit in. That’s a little different than last year.
Q: Do you think the Hawks can finish in the top 3 in the Western Conference? And which do you think will rank higher, the Hawks' penalty kill or their power play? -- Pete (Europe)
A: Of course they can finish in the top 3, but I’d probably say that every year this core is together. They need some help from their role players, but when you consider they went 44-29 in an off year, there is always a chance for them to have that monster regular season, especially after a long summer. I think the power play will rank higher. That first unit they had last year carried them, and I don’t see why it won’t again. The jury is still out on the penalty kill. As I’ve mentioned at other times, the most perplexing thing was how the stars on that team struggled when down a man. Let’s see how they respond this season.
A: I’m not sure what category you would put Andrew Brunette in but a decade-long 20-goal scorer who doesn’t skate well probably has good hands, especially when you consider his work in front of the net. Without him I might agree with you and with him I wonder if the Hawks have slowed down too much. However, they seem to have enough skill, and if Ben Smith and/or Marcus Kruger continue on a positive trajectory then there are two more guys that can do something with the puck. I think the combination is right. My only question is did they get the right gritty guys? We’ll find out soon.
Q: Great job on the coverage, Jesse! Growing up a Hawks fan and having to move out east, I appreciate the time and effort you put into your work. Thank you. Which new player on the roster will have the biggest impact on the season and why? -- Meredith (Ithaca, N.Y.)
A: I’m obviously getting this question a lot at this time of year, and it really is a tough one. I can’t even remember how I’ve answered it in the recent past because I’m sure my mind has changed a few times but of all the newcomers/prospect types I’d say Brunette. Simply because he’s done it on mediocre teams in the past and now he’s playing on a highly skilled one. I mean if he’s 20 goals, for sure, with the possibility for 30, then I would have to go with him.
Q: Based on the offseason moves for the key teams in the Western Conference, which teams do you see as having gotten better and which teams might have taken a step back? -- Skip (Aurora, Ill.)
A: An obvious answer -- although they haven’t been a key team in the past -- is Columbus. Considering they are in the Hawks' division, if they jell, they could throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing. I’m not sure if people realize how productive James Wisniewski can be. He had 51 points last season. The reigning Norris Trophy winner at the time had 45. I’m not saying I would take Wisniewski over Duncan Keith but he can play. So can Jeff Carter. The question for them is in net but it’s now or never for the Jackets with Rick Nash in his prime. Though Phoenix under Dave Tippett has been amazing the last two years, I’d say they took the biggest step back by losing Ilya Bryzgalov and replacing him with little. That team, more than any in the conference, relied on goaltending, especially under Tippett’s conservative style. They may take a step back.
Q: What are the Blackhawks' plans for Ben Smith? -- Ed (Trumbull, Conn.)
A: It’s a good question. Assuming he makes the team (the only reason he wouldn’t would be a really bad camp or he’s caught in a numbers crunch since he can be sent down with no issues) I think they have big plans for him. I actually think he’ll start out on the third line as a winger but that could easily change. He could be their second-line center if it came down to it, but I don’t think that will happen. The point is he could be just about anywhere, including the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane if need be. I’m wondering how he’ll be used on the power play. I’m guessing as the guy in the middle on the second unit but look for him to line up next to Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik to start the year. That’s an educated guess.
Q: With the new additions to the Hawks to bring more strength, physicality, and presence, how will previous bangers and role players such as Bryan Bickell, John Scott, and Dave Bolland have an impact on this year's team? -- Rob (Chicago)
A: I think it simply takes the pressure off them. Bolland is going to be Bolland. It doesn’t really matter who he plays with or what line he’s on, but the other guys might feel like they can just play hockey instead of filling a role. Scott intimated as much at the fan convention in July. I think he felt he was on an island when it came to the rough stuff. He even said he’ll let Dan Carcillo take care of the middle weights, and he’ll handle the heavyweights. He wants the help. And all eyes won’t be on Bickell to deliver some big blows. Carcillo and Jamal Mayers can help out, so like I said, less pressure.
Q: Would Ray Emery or Alexander Salak get a chance to play for the Rockford Ice Hogs if they don’t work out for the Blackhawks? -- Brian (Rockton, Ill.)
A: I think the Hawks would love to have it work out that way. Salak will definitely go down and play there if Emery beats him out, but it’s hard to know what will happen to Emery if Salak is the back-up to Corey Crawford. There is little doubt if another team wants to sign him to a one-way contract to be their back-up after watching him in preseason they will do it. The Hawks would undoubtedly offer a two-way deal and hope he would go down to the minors and be ready in case he’s needed. This will be an interesting story in camp, but certainly the Hawks would like to have the loser of the back-up battle playing for them. That’s assuming they both are decent enough in the preseason.
Q: After the 2011-12 season will the Hawks have an extra &5.6 million to spend since Cristobal Huet will be off the books? Or is that money already off since he is playing overseas? Thanks Jesse, you do Hawk-Nation proud. -- Slarm (Wauconda, Ill.)
A: In terms of the salary cap he’s already off the books but the Hawks are still paying him out of their “pocket.” What’s newsworthy is when his contract is finally up after this year they might be more likely to “bury” other contracts since they’ll be done shelling out his money. It’s why it’s hard to imagine the Hawks shipping Rostislav Olesz out this year since he’s owed $3.1 million which would have the Hawks paying almost $10 million to two players not on the team. That’s a lot of money. We’ll see.
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Last January it was an enthusiastic uncertainty that hovered over the Hawks as winter turned to spring. This time it’s fraught with a little more anxiety.
The injuries are one thing -- though the most important player on the team (Jonathan Toews) is now out -- it’s the crunch-time inefficiency that has plagued the Hawks all season. After Thursday’s 5-3 loss to San Jose, the Hawks are a paltry 2-7-1 when tied after two periods and have even given away four games when leading after two.
"I think it's mostly conditioning. To me, the proof of that, is a team that is good in the third period is a team that is in shape. A team that wins in the third, that keeps playing, skating and working, that is a team that is in shape.”
Before you start tweeting and posting on Facebook that Quenneville thinks his team is out of shape, you should know those comments were made by New Jersey head coach Jacques Lemaire about his woeful Devils.
If he feels that way about his team, which has only given up 29 third-period goals -- that’s 26th in the league -- then what must Quenneville think of the Hawks, who have given up the most -- 47?
No one is claiming they are out of shape -- though they could be. It's hard to tell from the pressbox.
Mentally, they might be fatigued. Who can blame them? That’s what short summers do. It’s also why there needs to be more reliance on goaltending, the great equalizer.
And this past week proved once again, the Hawks’ hopes are down to one man: Corey Crawford. We could analyze and break down what is, and is not working for Marty Turco, but the bottom line is, it’s just not working for the team when he is in net. Even with him playing decent over the past three games, the Hawks went 1-2. Using the defensive play in front of him as any kind of argument, or excuse, is a mistake.
It’s simple. However great you thought last year’s defense was, Cristobal Huet still could not keep his job and not many thought the Hawks would win much of anything if he was the guy in the playoffs. This season, no matter how bad the defense has been, Crawford is 10-1-1 over his past 12 starts, before getting ill. End of story. Look at the goals given up, not the defenders in front.
The only problem is a ton of pressure now falls on Crawford’s shoulders. Don’t get sick again, kid. By most calculations, unless the Hawks really struggle without Toews, (a possibility) there are 10 teams in the West for eight playoff spots. The Hawks shouldn’t care about seeding, just about getting in -- and keeping Crawford healthy.
Best of 2010: On the ice, there may never be a more unlikely moment than the short-handed goal by Patrick Kane in the waning seconds of Game 5 against the Nashville Predators in the opening round of the playoffs at the United Center. The only more incredible scenario would have been if the Hawks were facing elimination. We’ll never know what would have happened if they lost that game, but to win it --even after Kane scored, Marian Hossa was still in the penalty box -- is about as amazing as they come. Off the ice, the Stanley Cup parade was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. An incredible, unforgettable day.
Good move: Congratulations to Pat Foley and Eddie Olczyk for being extended by the Hawks for three more years. Olczyk is a gold mine of information. He’s a Chicagoan, who played for the Hawks, won a Stanley Cup in New York, was Sidney Crosby’s first coach, and has more than enough information to bring to the television audience. And it doesn’t hurt that Versus and NBC love the guy, too.
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And if fielding a team under the salary cap was his major goal, then mission accomplished. Whether they can repeat as champions is a debate that will go on long into the cold Chicago winter.
With seven defensemen, ten forwards and two goalies signed to one-way contracts, the Hawks are ready for training camp. One-way deals mean those players will be paid an NHL salary whether they play for the Hawks or in the minors. It gives those 19 players a leg up on the competition once training camp starts, but it doesn’t guarantee them anything, especially the ones making near minimum level salaries. It also allows for a couple of prospects or “come out of nowhere,” guys to make the team if they impress during preseason.
Expect the Hawks to play cap roulette throughout the season as they did at times with Jack Skille last year. Skille was up and down throughout the early portion of the season. When in the minors, his salary did not count against the cap for that day, when called up, it did. Rockford is so close the Hawks can recall a player on game day after their morning skate if need be. There’s a chance they will play with the minimum 20 on the roster in some home games, and then recall one or two for extended road trips. Both Jordan Hendry and John Scott can play forward or defense, which allows for that type of maneuvering.
So while the Hawks are under the cap, they still don’t have that much flexibility. A high draft pick, still under his entry level contract, may have trouble making the team. Those players have bonuses that increase their cap hit. Kyle Beach is a good example of a player on the salary cap bubble for that reason, even if he shows he’s good enough to make the team. At least there is some wiggle room now. A month ago there was none.
Some might find it surprising that the Hawks locked up seven veteran defensemen already, leaving little room for a young prospect. The fact of the matter is it takes blue-liners longer to learn the game and be comfortable than at any other position. Having said that, the bottom three defensemen are making $600,000 or less, so if a prospect beats one of them out, the Hawks could always send the veteran down or trade him. But there’s less than a 50 percent chance of that happening.
Looking back at the bloodletting that went on this offseason, most of it was necessary for well documented reasons. Yes, if there is a villain in this whole thing it’s probably Dale Tallon, but then again it’s hard to call him a villain when he put together a championship team. His problem was simply this: Tallon bypassed a second contract for many of his young players and went right to their third. And he did it without any outside influence -- as in offers from other teams. It started with Dustin Byfuglien and ended with overpaying players after messing up the paperwork for several restricted free agents. Cam Barker should not have made $3 million last season, but he did. In between there was the extension of Brent Sopel and the free-agent signings of Brian Campbell and Huet -- all for too much money.
Bowman cleaned up the mess as best he could, though things unraveled a bit for him when Doug Wilson and the San Jose Sharks made a huge free-agent offer to Niklas Hjarmalsson. It remains the only offer to a restricted free-agent in the NHL this offseason. It led to the loss of Antti Niemi as Hjarmalsson’s $3.5 million salary most assuredly ate into Niemi’s payday.
There have been only a handful of restricted free-agent offers in NHL history. There seems to be a gentleman’s agreement that general managers won’t hurt each other by forcing each other to pay increased salaries to their own players. Wilson has kept his reasons close to the vest, saying only that Hjarmalsson is a young, talented defenseman, but there is always more to these things than meets the eye. Some have speculated he wanted the Hawks to have to choose between Hjarmalsson and Niemi, and if the Sharks scoop up the former Hawks netminder, then that theory has more credence. Maybe Wilson did it as a shout-out to his old pal Tallon, who the Hawks sent packing last offseason, much to the dismay of many around the league.
The loss of Niemi, while getting nothing in return, remains arguably the only glaring misstep for the Hawks this offseason. As much as he “saved” the Hawks’ season, he was never part of the core that Bowman talked about as the offseason began. Time will tell if the money saved on signing Marty Turco was worth it.
Interestingly, since the lockout, the Hawks have signed three free-agent goaltenders, each older than the last at the time of their signing. Nikolai Khabibulin was 32 when he started his four-year run with the Hawks, Huet was 33 and Turco just turned 35. If Turco falters, the Hawks will be accused of not learning from their mistakes. Both Khabibulin and Huet underachieved, especially for the salaries they were commanding. Turco’s saving grace is he comes relatively cheap, which did help allow the Hawks to keep their major core intact. Depending on who Niemi signs with, it will be interesting to watch his career from afar. Of all the players who left, he’s the one with the biggest question mark. Star in the making or one-year wonder? Time will tell.
Forget about all the roster turnover, Joel Quenneville’s biggest challenge might be weathering the storm that was this past offseason. By many accounts, there have been few teams to party as hard as the Hawks did after winning the Cup. In a few weeks, he’ll get a good idea of who, if any, took the short offseason seriously.
The good news is the Hawks don’t need to win the West, they just need to get in. Talent and experience can take over from there. Until then, let the debate begin: Did they make the right decisions, and can they repeat? As the leaves begin to fall, those questions start to get answered.
Stephen Bartlett is too busy trying to find a new team for Huet.
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Q: What do you think the roster will look like come opening night? -- The Other JJ, Elgin, Ill.
A: Let’s give it a try:
First line: Troy Brouwer / Jonathan Toews / Patrick Kane
Second line: Tomas Kopecky / Patrick Sharp / Marian Hossa
Third line: Bryan Bickell / Dave Bolland/ ???
Fourth line: Jake Dowell / Marty Reasoner / ???
Defensemen: Duncan Keith / Brent Seabrook
Niklas Hjalmarsson / Brian Campbell
Jordan Hendry / John Scott
Brouwer and Bickell could alternate and that fifth or sixth defenseman could be different. Seems like there would be two openings up front, and if they can afford him, Viktor Stalberg -- who they picked up for Kris Versteeg -- has an inside track. As for goalies, I have a feeling it’s going to be Corey Crawford and Hannu Toivonen. This is all if they don’t trade Sharp or Campbell or someone else. Off the top of my head!
Q: What are they going to do with Cristobal Huet? – Steve, Glen Ellyn, Ill.
A: Pretty simple. He plays in the minors or Europe. I’m guessing Europe and his salary would come off the books either way, although he would still get paid.
A: It’s hard to be exact about how much they overpaid to make up for the qualifying mistake. We don’t know what kind of deals they would have signed without the snafu but it’s safe to say several million dollars. Best I can do. Not sure what you mean about the bonuses. I’m guessing Sidney Crosby had similar incentives/bonuses in his entry-level deal as do many others. Hey, who would think in his first three years in the league Toews would actually win the Conn Smythe trophy? As for Kane being in the top 10 in scoring in his first three years, that is one I don’t like. Make it top five or top three. He finished ninth and it hurt them. Since we don’t know an exact figure from the RFA mess, I’ll say those bonuses are costing the Hawks a good player.
Q: I know the Maple Leafs are interested in trading Tomas Kaberle and the Hawks need to get rid of some more salary. What about a swap of Campbell for Kaberle? The Hawks would save money for the cap and still have a very good d-man? Also add in a prospect or pick if needed. Do you think this is something the Hawks would be interested in? -- Steve Bermes, Oswego, Ill.
A: I do, but not sure about the Leafs. It would be a gift to the Hawks. Kaberle is an unrestricted free agent next year, so his $4.25 million would come off the books, meaning Campbell’s entire $7.1 million would be gone by the end of the season. Would be a great move, but the Leafs would be stuck with a huge contract. If Brian Burke loves Campbell, then maybe, but he’s overpaid by at least $2 million. For $7 million, my d-man has to do it all and Campbell simply does not, though he can move that puck!
Q: Are the Hawks planning on moving Huet down to Rockford? In doing so, I’m sure the Hawks would have enough to sign Antti Niemi plus a couple more minimum-salary guys to fill out the roster. Am I way off, or is this in Stan The Man’s plan? Thanks. – Rich, Chicago, Ill.
A: Unfortunately, even with Huet in the minors or Europe, the Hawks still have cap problems. Unless Niemi signs a real team-friendly deal, they can’t afford him and everyone else. He’d have to sign for under $2 million, and then they would need to fill in with minimum-type guys. Probably won’t happen but you never know what creative math can do!
I think it’s over. You can come out from behind your desk.
The Blackhawks are done ripping apart their championship team. Though it had to be done, I’m not sure anyone thought it would go this far.
“It became apparent it wasn’t the right mix as far as salary and our situation here,” General manager Stan Bowman said about Ladd.
While it may come as a shock to the system for most fans, Bowman said this was all foreseeable -- at least on his part.
“We planned for this,” he said. “We accomplished exactly what we’ve had to do from the very beginning.”
I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or not.
The Hawks sit at about $51 million in salary committed to next year and that includes Cristobal Huet but doesn’t include the bonuses both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane received after the season, which counts against next year’s salary cap.
Between Toews winning the Conn Smythe and Kane finishing in top 10 in scoring, the total is near $4 million dollars. Bowman confirmed as much on Thursday. That’s what Versteeg and Burish will make next year. Those bonuses were worth two pretty decent pieces to the Hawks puzzle. Ouch.
So who will replace all the grit and size the Hawks lost over the last 10 days? Bowman pointed to one player in particular.
“Jake Dowell has a really good chance to be on our team next year,” Bowman said of the Rockford captain. “Have to look at filling some other spots as well. [Free agent] players we’ve been calling on and having discussions with. We’re not going to stand on the sidelines.”
Dowell was hanging out with Burish when the latter agreed to his deal with Dallas. His leaving helps open the door for the gritty center/wing. Bowman isn’t only going to look in-house for replacements, though.
“We’re going to see what we can add to the mix now,” he stated. “I think we have alleviated the situation we were in.”
I sure hope so. There’s not much left of the third and fourth lines as well as the bottom pair of defense, though Jordan Hendry is expected back.
But that’s what Bowman has been preaching all along. The Hawks have plenty of stars locked up for quite some time, now it’s his job to find the right complements to go with them from year to year. The team also locked up former Minnesota Wild enforcer John Scott on Wednesday.
And of course there is that little matter of signing his goaltender and solid number four defenseman.
“I’ve had discussions with all their agents,” Bowman said of Antti Niemi and Niklas Hjarmalsson in particular. “It’s a back and forth. No real updates per se. Things are going along as you’d expect.”
If he can get those done, it would be the first piece of good news since they hoisted the Cup. Seems like ages ago already.
But some fans are likely to call for Cristobal Huet's return after Niemi, who was sharp for the first two periods, allowed a soft goal to J.P. Dumont that turned the tide in Game 1 against the Nashville Predators on Friday.
Dumont, a former Blackhawk, put a wobbly puck on net from the right faceoff circle, and Niemi couldn't handle it as Nashville tied the game 1-1 in the third period.
"It was a lucky bounce, but we'll take it," Dumont told reporters. "It's always something special when you play against your old team, especially in the playoffs."
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said the Hawks should have been able to bounce back.
“It was one of those that took a funny hop and funny bounce, and sometimes they go in,” Quenneville in. “But there’s still a lot of hockey after that, and we were in a pretty good spot, and that’s why I wasn’t too happy about that second one.”
Troy Brouwer's turnover in the third period led to Dumont's second goal, and Nashville scored two empty-netters to grab a 1-0 series lead. Brouwer had missed the last four games of the regular season taking care of his ill father, so he may have been rusty.
Nashville had the fifth-best road record in the NHL this season with 23 wins, just one behind the league leader.
One thing he is sure of is his lineup, especially his bangers and crashers.
"Our rotation [of] the four lines has been better than we've seen for a long stretch of games here this year," Quenneville said. "That group [fourth line] has been sparking us right now."
Colin Fraser, Tomas Kopecky, Ben Eager, and Adam Burish have all had multiple-point games over the past 10 days, and that has solidified a group that had been struggling for parts of the season.
Quenneville also said he likes how his defensive pairs are coming around despite not having Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson. Campbell is on target for a return later in the playoffs while Johnsson remains out after being involved in a collision on March 13 in Phildelphia. Quenneville indicated there is no timetable for his return.
"Not right now," Quenneville said. "We haven't seen him on the ice. Once we see him on the ice it will give us a better indication, but he’s still a little ways away here."
The Hawks have been calling him day to day for over three weeks. Quenneville admitted, obviously, it’s a more serious injury than that.
"Yes, it is," Quenneville said. "It is a long time, and I can’t give you a good answer on when we'll see him back."
Quenneville also admitted to some scoreboard watching as the Hawks try to figure out who they might play in round one of the postseason.
"You're always looking at potential candidates," Quenneville said. "Right now, it looks like four teams are in that mix. The picture changes every day. Who knows what it will look like come Sunday?"
And while achieving some franchise records such as most victories and points, now is not the time to celebrate.
"Maybe at some point you can look back and say we had a fun year this year, but we still have a lot of work to do," Quenneville said.
Last week the mailbag was full of anger. Not so much this time around. I guess those questions about Q losing the team, got lost! Let’s get to it:
Q: What's up with Adam Burish being out of the lineup? Is it just his turn, like everyone on the 4th line has taken a turn? Or did he try to come back too soon? Thanks, Jesse! -- Wendy (Naperville)
A: He’s not hurting. I think it started as his turn after a dip in his play and now that the fourth line is producing, he’s the odd man out. Coaches are loathe to switch the lineup when the team is winning and that’s even true if a certain line isn’t producing. In this case, they are, so I don’t see a change coming. He might get back in there in this back-to-back set coming up, though.
Q: Now that the Hawks are facing their last week of the regular season, do you think Quenneville will look to solidify his top three lines to build some chemistry before the playoffs, or do you think he will continue to juggle line combinations? -- David B (Chicago, IL)
A: I’m sure he would like to have those lines set but I don’t think he’s hell-bent on it. The key seems to be Dave Bolland. Can he return to the form he showed last season? If that’s the case, he might get put back with Marian Hossa. If not, Hossa and Johnathan Toews will stick together. It will change even in the playoffs but I’m sure he’ll want to start with something set and go from there.
Q: Do you see the Hawks keeping Antti Niemi as the starting goalie next season and picking up a backup, assuming they are going to dump Huet, which they should. Niemi keeps improving and he is young. I feel like he is going to have an excellent playoff push, and hope he is back for the start of next season in goal. -- Dan (Maplewood, MO)
A: I don’t think there is a guarantee either goaltender is back. Niemi’s situation is very interesting. He’s a restricted free-agent but only one year away from un-restricted status. Now, if he wins the Cup or comes close, of course, that would put him on track to return, most likely. If he plays okay and they come up short, the math will determine a lot, as well as if he gets any offers and what they look like. Teams might wait a year and see how he plays as a true No. 1 and then go after him as an un-restricted free agent. Or, the Hawks might try to lock him up for a bunch of years and spread out the money. At this moment, I would say it’s 50/50 if he’s with the team next season.
Q: What is going on with Kim Johnsson? Will he be able to go for the playoffs? We never hear anything about his status. -- Bill (Joliet)
A: First of all, I have written about his status several times but there’s been no change. From what I can gather, he is still suffering from concussion-like symptoms after a bad collision in the game against Philadelphia. I’m told they are playing it safe with him and if the playoffs started today, he might be able to play. Whether he’s going to return before the postseason is anyone’s guess. Obviously, we know once you have a bad concussion you’re more susceptible to another one. I’m told he’s had several in his career, but the last one was in 2007. The Hawks don’t make players who don’t practice available to the media. I have not seen him around the dressing room or on the road, but that doesn’t mean he’s not around. I do wonder, if they are just playing it safe, why he isn’t practicing or, as of this writing, even skating. So it is a little strange. I’m sure Joel Quenneville will address it as the week moves along.
Q: Let's look ahead to the regular season finale against Detroit. If the Hawks are locked into the No. 2, and a Detroit win would get them into 6th place, would the Hawks actually tank the game? It's one thing to start Huet and maybe get the 3rd/4th lines more minutes, but would the Q-stache actually scratch some healthy star players? I think that might be bad karma! -- Aaron (Aurora, IL)
A: It’s a good question. I truly believe if the Hawks have the No. 2 seed and no chance at No.1 then Quenneville will rest a couple players, starting with Duncan Keith. I believe he would do that no matter who they were playing or what it means to the other team. I think Niemi starts the finale, but I could be wrong. He’s played great against Detroit this year. You would see some adjustments in minutes, etc. but as far as literally tanking it, no one will know for sure unless he sits like 5 or 6 guys, which he won’t do. It might be a half-tank job.