Despite heading into the All-Star Break with losses in three of their past four games, after winning 12 in a row, the Chicago Blackhawks look to be a strong contender for the Stanley Cup. The trade deadline is coming up in late February and GM Stan Bowman might indeed try to land some depth to help the team in the playoffs this year. But the move he really would like to make will be for next season.
The biggest impediment the Hawks have in terms of making a trade is the salary cap. While they have room to take on a player with a decent salary, they really can't take on a player with any term because of their dire 2016-17 cap situation. The Hawks already have roughly $63 million committed to 15 players for next season, and at best the cap next season might be around $75 million.
Further complicating the cap situation is that the Hawks could have to pay performance bonuses (Artemi Panarin could earn more than $1.5 million in performance bonuses this season) to several players which could both limit Bowman’s flexibility to take on a player now, and if those bonuses push the Hawks over the cap, the team will be penalized with a lower cap next season. While Blackhawks' fans have seen cap-related roster moves before, the situation for next season is once again going to require some heavy lifting.
If they re-sign restricted free agent Andrew Shaw for $3 million, that would leave about $1 million per player to fill out the roster. That's not impossible with many young guys (i.e. salaries under $1 million) already on the roster, but it's still tight. While Bowman doesn't fully have to worry about the cap until after this season, he might be able to do something about it before the trade deadline.
Of course, the biggest albatross for Bowman is Bryan Bickell's contract. Even with the cap relief that comes from having him playing in Rockford, Bickell still will eat up more than $3 million in cap space for the Hawks next year. Bowman would love to move the pricey player that head coach Joel Quenneville no longer has any confidence in. Which brings us back to the upcoming trade deadline.
No team wants Bickell at his current salary -- if they did they could have taken him off of waivers when they had the chance. So how do you move a $4 million contract and get anything of value in return? By sweetening the pot with prospects and draft picks. The Blackhawks have several players in the minors who are seen as having high ceilings -- including Nick Schmaltz, Ville Pokka, Marko Dano, and Viktor Svedberg.
The Blackhawks are not in the market for any players who are under contract beyond this season -- even those with moderate price tags would put a strain on the salary cap situation. All they can likely take on is a rental player.
It is hard to imagine the Hawks trading away any current NHL-level players, and it is doubtful they have enough prospects to make Winnipeg agree to a deal for Dustin Byfuglien, but acquring Byfuglien as a rental while also off-loading Bickell, would make the team much stronger for both this season, and next.
More likely, however, is that Bowman won't move any players on the current roster, and that might mean that he has to wait to try to move Bickell until the summer when he can include a talented pro-level player, such as Teuvo Teravainen or Scott Darling, to entice a trade partner to do the deal.
The trade deadline is still a while off, and injuries can always change the dynamic of things -- just look at Kane's injury last year which allowed the Hawks to swing deals for Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen. Barring injury, I don't expect the Hawks to enter March with a much different lineup than they have right now. But part of the fun is wondering what Bowman can and will do. When the trade deadline finally passes, I’ll be as interested in what Bowman does to make the team stronger for both this season, and next.