This summer's crop of free agents in Chicago is loaded with veterans, most of whom aren't expected back next year. But looking at the summer of 2013, the Blackhawks are looking at a number of intriguing decisions that could impact the roster in the coming season.
Since taking over at the general manager of the Blackhawks, Stan Bowman has granted extensions to most of the "core players." Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith were the first major investment by the organization in home-grown heroes, and contracts have been given to Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp as well.
With the heart of the team locked-up, the job of Bowman now is to surround this elite core group with players that are good enough to win a championship.
Bowman was charged with nearly starting over after the parade was cleaned up in 2010. The exodus of champions was painful, but it was done in a way that has taken the prospect pool in the Chicago organization from near the bottom of the NHL into the league's ten best in the eyes of most analysts and scouts.
One of the major contributors to the demise of the 2010 roster was how Dale Tallon handled players coming off their entry-level contracts. In 2008, Dustin Byfuglien received a raise to over $3M per season on a multi-year deal. The following summer, after the now-infamous fax machine mix-up, Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker both received raises to over $3M per season as well.
In 2013, Bowman will be on the clock to deal with a number of players leaving entry-level contracts, as well as some interesting veterans.
Nick Leddy's entry-level deal expires next summer. The somewhat-comfortable $1.166M cap number he has now will undoubtedly disappear for something closer to the number Barker received from Tallon. Leddy was one of 25 defensemen in the NHL to reach 37 points in 2011-12, and he won't turn 22 until the end of the coming regular season.
Marcus Kruger is another baby-faced player that evolved into a key contributor this season. But his situation carries more weight than Leddy's for a couple reasons. Kruger, who will turn 22 at the end of May, did not show enough to lead most to believe he can be a number two center in the NHL (yet). But he showed the ability to be a capable third line center.
Which is what makes the relationship between the organization and Kruger, during the final year of his contract, something to watch. There are two years remaining on Dave Bolland's contract, and he (like Kruger) has shown an inability to move up beyond a third line role. Kruger's cap hit this season is $900k, while Bolland's is $3.375M for the next two seasons.
If the organization decides that Kruger is the future center on the checking line, the next 12 months might become a countdown on Bolland's tenure in Chicago.
Those are the two players that spent the 2011-12 season on the NHL roster in Chicago who will see their entry-level deals expire next summer.
But there are a couple more entry-level deals that will end in 2013 that carry fascinating potential for both future Blackhawks rosters as well as this summer's trade market.
Kyle Beach and Shawn Lalonde, the organization's top two picks in the 2008 Draft, will both need a new contract next summer. It's safe to say that neither has lived up to the hype that arrived with them in Rockford; Beach struggled in his first pro season last year, and Lalonde took a major step back in his development this year.
Lalonde would figure to be the top prospect in the organization being used as trade bait this summer. Since Bowman took over as general manager, the Hawks have committed a number of high draft picks to defensemen and indications are that a few of them - Justin Holl, Stephen Johns and Adam Clendening - could be solid NHL players at some point.
The Hawks once lacked any serious organizational depth on the blue line, but Lalonde hasn't taken advantage of the opportunity in Rockford and now the organization is teeming with talented defensemen. Indeed, Ryan Stanton had a strong season for the IceHogs and he needs a new contract next summer as well; there might be better chances of Stanton being part of the organization in 2013-14 than Lalonde at this point.
After 13 points and 100 penalty minutes in 64 games with the IceHogs, Lalonde now has just one more season to show his value. Whether or not he gets that opportunity with the Blackhawks organization is yet to be seen.
Beach, on the other hand, showed some signs of taking the next step in his development before a shoulder injury effectively ended his 2011-12 season before November began. He finished the season with five goals and five assists in 19 games. But more important perhaps than his offensive numbers, Beach was only called for 30 penalty minutes in those 19 contests; he was hit for 163 PIM in 71 games the prior season with Rockford.
Beach, 22, was drafted to bring a physical game to the ice similar to what Daniel Carcillo and Brandon Bollig were last season, but with the offensive potential to crack the top six in the NHL. Putting it all together was the problem, and Beach's development was stuck in neutral this season while Andrew Shaw made himself a household name.
When training camp opens, and Beach is presumably healthy, it will be interesting to see how close the power forward (listed at 6'3" and 210 pounds) does - or doesn't - get to winning a roster spot in Chicago. Because with only one year left on his entry-level deal, his clock is ticking just as much as Lalonde's is this season.
Two NHL veterans with one season remaining on their current contracts, Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell, have shown varying levels of success at the NHL level.
A year ago, Bickell was coming off a 17-goal season that led many in (and out) of the organization to believe Troy Brouwer was expendable. But Bickell took the middle four months of the 2011-12 season off and was one of the more underwhelming players this year.
But, when the playoffs started, Bickell was back in beast mode and suddenly looked like a legitimate power forward again.
The bi-polar Bickell will need to disappear if he's going to be in Chicago longer than one more season. Otherwise, he could find himself on the block.
The season was the opposite for Stalberg, who blew past all of his career highs this year. Coming off a 22-goal season, and with a cap number under $900k, he presents one of the better value contracts in the league.
Despite having a much more consistent regular season than Bickell, the playoffs presented a frustrating series of problems for Stalberg. He took dumb penalties and disappeared offensively, becoming a ghost in the box scores.
Bickell and Stalberg, both with enormous potential and tiny cap numbers, could present Bowman with some interesting options this summer and during the coming regular season. And both of their futures with the organization could be significantly impacted if a younger player, like Beach or Brandon Saad, shows up in September and wins a spot in the dressing room at the United Center.
Two other members of the Blackhawks free agent class of 2013 are interesting for a different reason all together. Ray Emery and Alex Salak don't figure to be battling for the back-up spot in Chicago this fall like they did in 2011; Emery signed a one-year extension, and Salak disappointed in Rockford. But if Chicago decides to act on their disappointment between the pipes and upgrade the top of the organization's depth chart at the position, one (or both) of these guys could find their way out of town.
There are a few other players with deals expiring next summer. Defenseman Joe Lavin, forward Peter LeBlanc and goalie Alec Richards will all see their entry-level deals expire next summer.
With cap space created and a growing pool of talented prospects to choose from, how Bowman handles these players will be something to watch during the coming season. Which guys are part of the team's future? And who becomes trade bait? Many of these questions could be answered this summer.