The Chicago Blackhawks are the champions of the NHL. But will money force them to be a one-and-done team?
The short answer: No.
But there will be some casualties.
Lots of national analysts, like Spector, and some local analysts in Chicago have all taken their shots at how screwed the Blackhawks are financially heading into this summer. There are a lot of free agents on the roster, both restricted and unrestricted, and the financial realities will become real quicker than fans want to believe. With the Draft in just two weeks, and a lot of trade potential is centered around that event.
So let's look at how the Blackhawks can be financially saved, and still competitive, in 2010-11. Got your calculator ready?
The Blackhawks have roughly $57.6 million tied up in 14 players for next year. Here are the contracts the Blackhawks have in play for 2010-11, with the cap numbers and expiration year:
- Jonathan Toews: $6.300M - 2015
- Patrick Kane: $6.300M - 2015
- Marian Hossa: $5.233 - 2021
- Dave Bolland: $3.375 - 2014
- Patrick Sharp: $3.900M - 2012
- Kris Versteeg: $3.083M - 2012
- Dustin Byfuglien: $3.000M - 2011 (RFA)
- Troy Brouwer: $1.025M - 2011 (RFA)
- Tomas Kopecky: $1.200M - 2011 (UFA)
- Duncan Keith: $5.551M - 2022
- Brent Seabrook: $3.500 - 2011 (RFA)
- Brian Campbell: $7.140M - 2016
- Brent Sopel: $2.333M - 2011
- Cristobal Huet: $5.625M - 2012
I added the free agency distinctions for the four contracts that expire after next season because those will become key elements to our discussion later. RFA stands for Restricted Free Agent and, you guessed it, UFA stands for Unrestricted Free Agent.
Here's another piece of bad news, though. It appears that Toews' contract had a clause in it that awards him a $1.3M bonus for winning the Conn Smythe as a Stanley Cup Champion this year. Because the Blackhawks are already over the 2009-10 cap, it will hit next year. Ouch.
Here are the free agents the Blackhawks need to make a decision on this summer with their 2009-10 salaries:
- Andrew Ladd - $1.550
- Niklas Hjalmarsson - $0.643M
- Antti Niemi - $0.827M
- Ben Eager - $0.965M
- Colin Fraser - $0.700M
- Bryan Bickell - $0.500M
- Jordan Hendry - $0.625M
- Adam Burish - $0.713M
- John Madden - $2.750M
- Kim Johnsson - $1.483M* (represents Blackhawks' cap number after being acquired mid-season)
- Nick Boynton - $0.210M* (represents Blackhawks' cap number after being acquired mid-season)
Now for the tough part. The 2009-10 salary cap was approximately $56.8M. As we talked about just before the Stanley Cup Finals, Commissioner Gary Bettman indicated in his State of the League address that, contrary to popular belief at this time last year, the cap could go up as much as $2M next year. The irony is that the NHL's salary cap cold go up because the US economy is so bad; the cap is based on the relative strength of the Canadian dollar versus the US dollar. Over the last 12 months, the US economy has done poorly enough that it stands to benefit the Blackhawks.
For the sake of discussion, we'll use a salary cap figure for next year of $58.8M. Based on the salaries of the 14 players the Blackhawks have under contract, that would mean the Hawks would have to sign at least two more defensemen, two or three forwards and a goalie for less than $1.3 million total.
This is usually when soiling yourself becomes acceptable.
It is this financial rope around the Blackhawks' neck that has led many uneducated analysts to bash the contributions of Dale Tallon over the last decade while working in the front office for the Hawks. However, the naivete of those statements fails to respect the dire situation this organization was in three and four years ago, when Tallon had to overpay talent to even consider Chicago. While the contracts of Campbell and Huet are certainly not easy to stomach right now, at the time they were necessary evils to propel Chicago back into relevance in the NHL.
In 2005, the "one goal" was respect, not a championship.
So here we sit with a bunch of problems, a laundry list of potentially leaving players and not enough Advil to make sense of the whole thing. Take a deep breath. It's going to be OK.
The poor economy's impact on the salary cap won't be the only way it helps out the Blackhawks this summer. While the Blackhawks are driving record-setting revenues and television ratings this spring, not every team is feeling the same amount of love from their communities; the Phoenix Coyotes are still owned by the league and a handful of other teams have reportedly been dealing with serious financial issues.
So while the NHL has a salary cap, not every team can run up to the max the way affluent teams like Toronto, Montreal, Detroit and (cough, cough) Chicago can.
In another year, when teams might have more money laying around or when there was a soft free agent class, the Blackhawks might have to worry about someone making an outrageous offer to a restricted free agent like Niemi. Free agency in professional sports is truly the definition of the supply-demand model; ask Huet what it means to be the only decent goalie on the market in a summer.
However, this summer there is a bounty of solid netminders available for nothing. The headliners on the list are Evgeni Nabokov, Marty Turco and Jose Theodore, but none of these three figures to see anywhere near the cap numbers each had last year that exceeded $4.5M. With other goalies becoming available, including names like Michael Leighton, Dan Ellis, Johan Hedberg and Antero Nittymaki, there are a total of 12 goalies available that started at least 20 games in 2009-10. This is just unrestricted free agents; we haven't started talking about teams like Montreal, that have two restricted free agents in Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak to consider.
Because there is a saturated free agent market and not as many teams looking for a goalie, the laws of capitalism should benefit the Blackhawks in their attempts to keep Niemi on the roster for a moderate annual salary. The other piece the Blackhawks have to work with his Niemi's limited resume. The last rookie goaltender to win the Cup, Cam Ward, got a blockbuster extension and the Canes are probably regretting it now. So while Niemi had a good postseason (16-6, 2.63, .910, 2 SO), his limited regular season experience (39 G, 26-7, 2.25, .912, 7 SO) should give the Blackhawks plenty of negotiating room this summer.
There is also a nice crop of defensemen hitting the market this summer, which could limit the number of potential suitors for Hjalmarsson. The Blackhawks have a lot of good depth coming up through their organization, and Brent Seabrook due a raise in one more season, so the length of Hjalmarsson's deal could become an intriguing play this summer. We'll talk more about defense later.
The biggest intrigue comes with Ladd. The Blackhawks top forward prospect, Kyle Beach, is similar in size to Ladd but has been more of a scorer in juniors. He also has a physical side to his game that is more similar to Eager than Ladd. He'll come with a $1.2M cap hit in 2010-11, but could become an effective piece of the offense with both skill and a mean streak.
There are a number of teams, most notably Boston and Toronto, that are looking to add forwards that are either NHL-ready or are already experienced NHL players. Boston presents an intriguing scenario for Ladd because they have a bounty of early draft picks they could use to make an offer for someone with multiple rings like Ladd. Look for Ladd to be a popular name around the draft, as teams might choose to make a deal for him while they would still hold exclusive negotiating rights under his restricted free agent status. Because he'll likely command more than $2M per season with a new deal, Ladd isn't likely to be back next year.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Hawks have a number of young forwards that could re-sign with the team for lower dollar amounts. Eager, Burish and Jack Skille are all looking for new deals and might take similar or lower dollar amounts to stay in Chicago. Skille is an especially intriguing situation because it was his salary cap number, over $1M because of where he was drafted, that kept him in Rockford for most of this year. Because he hasn't done anything at the NHL level, Skille could become key youngster playing a significant role for the Hawks next year.
Similarly, Burish won't likely command a larger salary because he missed most of this year with his knee injury. His leadership and passion for the game is contagious, and he could be a solid fourth line center or wing next year. Another player that could be key to next season's roster for under $1M is Bryan Bickell, who showed good hands and has good enough size to step in for Ladd for a quarter the cost.
On defense, the Blackhawks could consider keeping Hendry around for less than $1M. He didn't show enough on the ice to merit a substantial raise. He has added Stanley Cup Champion to his resume, and played well enough in the Finals and throughout the playoffs that he could be a sound sixth-seventh defenseman.
As I mentioned earlier, the Blackhawks have a lot of quality depth coming up through their system on defense. Names like Shawn LaLonde, Dylan Olsen, Nick Leddy, Brian Connelly and Simon Danis-Pepin could all play a major role on the blue line for the Hawks in the coming seasons. With Hjalmarsson and Seabrook both looking for new deals in the next 13 months, the depth of quality defensemen in the organization provides Stan Bowman more leverage when negotiating with their veterans.
Which is what brings us to the next player that could/should be gone next year. I have bashed Brent Sopel all year for being slow on his skates and slower to pull the trigger with the puck. He did almost nothing but block shots all year, which is frustrating to watch when he's surrounded by exceptional talent like Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Campbell.
I have also admitted previously, and will do so again here, that Sopel played exceptional hockey in the playoffs and, at times, carried the blue line. His Chicago career will be defined by his victory lap with the puck around the Nashville zone in overtime while the final seconds ticked off major penalty to Hossa, followed by his shot that deflected perfectly to Hossa's stick for the dramatic game-winner.
His postseason performance is precisely why Sopel will be gone in 2010-11.
Sopel has a cap number that's entirely too high for what he brings to the table on a financially strapped team that happens to have a lot of internal options. However, for a team that could use a smart, shot-blocking defenseman, his salary is far from unreasonable. For a team like Washington that might be looking for a finishing piece, or a building team that lacks blue line depth like Carolina, Sopel could be a solid add.
If the Blackhawks put Sopel on waivers, a team might pick him up and eat his entire salary. It could also open the door for a trade, like the Hawks made with Aaron Johnson last year early in the season. Reality for Sopel is that his skill set doesn't match his salary, and a team with limited cap space isn't likely to keep someone like him around despite his exceptional postseason. Sopel's solid playoffs may have helped the Hawks enough to find a suitor this summer.
Another piece of defensive reality is that Huet won't be in Chicago next year. We already talked about the free agent goaltender depth, so forget trading him. Rocky Wirtz will have to make an expensive decision this summer that could define his ownership as much as the Stanley Cup he just held high above his head: does he buy out Huet, or continue to pay him to sit in Rockford. I don't see the KHL as an option for Huet; they're in the business of approaching star players right now, not expensive backups.
Here's the Cliff Notes of the Huet situation:
- Current Contract: two more years - $5.625M cap number
- Buyout: four more years - $1.8M cap number
- Rockford: two more years - $0 cap number (but $5.625M salary for two more years)
So if Wirtz is truly a departure from his father, and his decisions are made in the best interests of the NHL hockey club, Huet will be in Rockford. If there's any Wirtz in his blood, he could buyout Huet; that would cost the team one of their $3M veterans. But the current contract, and its cap number, will not be in Chicago next year.
Let's pause for a moment and do some quick math. At this point, I'm projecting the following roster for the Blackhawks:
- Forwards: Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Brouwer, Kopecky, Byfuglien, Bolland, Versteeg, Bickell, Burish, Eager, Beach
- Defensemen: Keith, Seabrook, Campbell, Hjalmarsson, LaLonde, Hendry
- Goalies: Niemi
Based on free agency, restricted status, and negotiating leverage, I believe the Blackhawks can keep Hjalmarsson and Niemi for under $5.5M total. I also believe they can keep Bickell, Burish and Skille for around $2M total. LaLonde and Beach would carry roughly $2M against the cap total. We still need a seventh defenseman, and a backup goalie.
Right now we've cut Sopel and Huet off the roster ($7.985M total), allowed Ladd and Eager to walk as free agents, while replacing it with $9.5M. If we assume the Hawks have an open tryout between Corey Crawford and Hannu Toivonen for the backup goalie position, that would add roughly $0.700M to the cap.
Lost yet? Here's the math. This roster, with the top three lines intact from the playoffs and a rookie, LaLonde, being the only change on the blue line, is at roughly $60.0M in total payroll. So we've successfully filled the roster, but we still need to cut a little over $1M off the payroll.
Now for the tough decision: where does that extra million come from?
An easy solution would be to look at Kopecky. His $1.2M cap number would perfectly get this roster under the cap, and he could be replaced by someone else from Rockford like Jake Dowell on a game-by-game basis; Bickell's size would provide ample replacement for Kopecky's career high 11 goals this year.
But Kopecky was great after the Olympics when he started playing with Hossa. And his impact in the playoffs cannot be denied. It would be hard to give him up at this point.
Another solution in the right dollar range would be Brouwer at $1M. But when you look at the production he brought to the table (22 goals), more than Versteeg (20) and Byfuglien (17), at less than one-third the cost, it's hard to imagine the Hawks moving him. Brouwer might be the best value contract on the Hawks' roster coming back for next year.
The other reason Kopecky and Brouwer wouldn't be ideal options is because moving one of them would only bring the Hawks down to right around the cap ceiling, limiting any flexibility Bowman would have to improve the team if needed during the season.
So we move to the group that's been most popular in trade scenarios: Sharp, Versteeg and Byfuglien.
Sharp isn't going anywhere. A good center is the hardest player to find/replace in the NHL today, and Sharp's versatility makes him overwhelmingly valuable to the Hawks. The best center prospect in the Hawks organization, Marcus Kruger, is probably two years away from the NHL; Sharp happens to have two years left on his contract. Because of the organization's limited depth at center, Sharp becomes too valuable to move.
In many ways, Versteeg has looked like "Kane Light" this year. His highlight-reel moves in traffic (triple-toe drag anyone?) and missile shot (ask Leighton about it) make him a popular name. And, at $3M for the 20 regular season goals he provided this year, it's understandable that some may view Versteeg as overpaid. However, down the stretch this year Versteeg played more time on the penalty kill and, if Colin Fraser is gone next year, could see more time as a second or third-line forward on the PK. Because of his increased defensive work, Versteeg is a hard guy to move.
Which brings us to the flavor of the spring, Byfuglien.
"Big Buff" has been described as an "elite power forward" during these playoffs after rolling off an NHL-best five game-winning goals in the postseason. Considering his solid contributions as a defenseman in the last six weeks of the season and his incredible game-changing play throughout the playoffs, Byfuglien might be the most trendy player in the NHL. Heck, if Vince Vaughn's paying for his dinners at random Chicago restaurants, the guy's money baby!
But let's put Byfuglien's performance into context. For $3M, Byfuglien contributed only 17 goals and 17 assists, and had the worst plus-minus (minus-seven) on the entire roster during the regular season. Indeed, while his 11 goals in the postseason are sexy, his minus-four rating was again the worst on the team (tied with Hendry).
And Byfuglien has just one year left on his contract.
So here's the multi-million Catch-22 for Bowman this summer: do you move one of the most popular players on the team?
I don't think the public relations department will have any trouble this summer, and marketing shouldn't have any sleepless nights, either. So I'm not sweating the social impact of moving Byfuglien. But the two sides of this sword are so sharp, making this call is incredibly hard.
What if the Byfuglien we saw in the regular season is the best 82-game Byfuglien there is going to be? Can you justify paying $3M for 34 points and the worst plus-minus on the team?
But what if the playoff Byfuglien we saw this spring is the real deal, and that's what comes to the ice every night in the regular season? What if Byfuglien does become an elite power forward?
And, perhaps the hardest question to answer at this point: if Byfuglien does become an elite power forward, how can the organization afford to re-sign him after next season? After all, if Byfuglien's 2010-11 season follows the form we saw in the playoffs, he'll certainly be ready for a substantial raise next summer at the same time that the Hawks would want to re-sign Seabrook.
Similar to the NFL, the way team sustain quality play in the NHL is by drafting well and keeping their minor leagues filled with developing talent that can, at times like this, fill the gaps when tough financial decisions have to be made. Right now, the Blackhawks have three of the top 60 picks in this summer's draft. Moving Byfuglien, and replacing him with a big body like Bickell up front, could add another first or second round pick this year from a team like Boston that's looking to add size up front.
After watching how effective Brouwer was while playing next to Kane and Toews this year, a strong case can be made that anyone weighing 230 points with good hands can effectively score 15-20 goals; in fact, Bickell started the playoffs with Kane and Toews while Brouwer was on personal leave and registered an assist and was plus-three in just three postseason contests.
If the Blackhawks move Byfuglien, and replace him internally with someone like Bickell or Beach, the Hawks could find themselves with almost $2M in wiggle room under the cap without having a dramatic change to their lineup from the team that just won the Stanley Cup.
Consider this proposed roster:
- Beach-Burish-Skille (Fraser/Dowell)
- Niemi (Crawford)
This roster works for roughly $57M, which would be well under next year's salary cap. The only major change to the top three lines from the Stanley Cup Finals would be Bickell for Byfuglien, and Burish saw action in the Finals and would be on the fourth line. The possibility of adding as many as three picks in the first three rounds by moving Ladd and Byfuglien could be a huge bounce for the organization's improving depth, and could open doors for the team to lock up other stars long-term as they did with Toews, Kane and Keith during this season.
If this Blackhawks team wants to become a dynasty, they need to build around their key assets and stockpile elite young talent throughout the organization so that, when decisions like these come up, they aren't hard to make.