Don't worry, be happy about the Blackhawks' salary cap hell

When it comes to talking about the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation for next season, there are two types of people: those smart and normal people who say “who cares, let’s focus on this season” and those CapGeek loving weirdos who say “yes, let’s speculate about the salary cap and future rosters now, before we know anything about what the cap will be or what players will be re-signed.” I am in the weirdo category.

Following the news that Marcus Kruger has signed a three-year contract with a cap hit of just over $3 million, there’s been a lot of talk the past couple days about the Blackhawks’ salary cap crunch for the 2016-17 season. With Kruger in the fold, that leaves the Hawks with 15 signed players already taking up more than 90% of their projected cap space. They’ll still need to fill at least 7 roster spots by paying an average of less than $1 million per player. In other words, next season’s roster is very likely going to be very young and many players on the roster today will be gone for next season.

Further complicating matters for the Hawks is that the salary cap is not expected to go up much beyond the current $71.4 million level, and several experts believe it will stay at the current level or could even actually go down, though I think that is highly unlikely. And if Artemi Panarin finishes the season in the top 10 in the league in just one of these categories -- goals, assists, points, or points per game – he will earn a $1.725 million performance bonus that will count against the Hawks’ cap next season.

Here is where things stand as of today in the Panarin bonus watch. The first number is his season total, the second is the current 10th place figure that he needs to catch or maintain in order to screw the Hawks earn his bonus.

Goals: 24/28 (Panarin is tied for 22nd)
Assists: 37/41 (tied for 19th)
Points: 61/61 (tied for 10th)
Points per game: .94/1.00 (tied for 15th)

If he does reach one of those bonus targets, he will certainly have earned it. While playing with Patrick Kane is healthy for anyone’s stats, few rookies could do what Panarin has accomplished. And if the Panarin-Kane combo is going to last beyond next season, it will mean re-signing Panarin to a contract for 2017 and beyond. Which brings us back to the salary cap.

When you take a look at salary cap jigsaw puzzle of the Hawks roster, it looks like General Manager Stan Bowman has an impossible task in terms of fielding a Stanley Cup contender in 2016-17. And that’s because it probably is, and that’s probably by design.

The Hawks have gone “all in” by acquiring Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, and Tomas Fleischmann, and are certainly one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup again this year. But obviously they might not, because that’s the nature of sports and playoffs. It is beyond obvious but only one team can win each year. This year, Stan Bowman certainly believes the Hawks can win. And if it weren’t for the salary cap, the Hawks would have a great chance next year, too.

But my guess is that Bowman knows that while the Hawks will almost certainly be a playoff team next year, they probably won’t be contenders for the Cup after re-working the roster to get cap compliant. Even if Bowman can shed Bryan Bickell’s $3 million cap hit, even if Panarin doesn’t reach his bonus, and even if Andrew Shaw somehow agreed to another $2 million contract, the Hawks will still have cap trouble, which means they’ll have a very young roster next year and may even need to trade away someone like Niklas Hjalmarsson or Artem Anisimov to make room under the salary cap for the number of players needed to just fill out the roster.

The smartest GMs in sports play a long game. There are too many variables – including injuries and plain luck – that make it impossible to win a championship every year. Teams that can’t recognize when their championship windows are truly open are the ones that overpay and underperform, and find their windows closed before they ever win anything. St. Louis and Toronto are two teams that come to mind as having made some poor choices in recent years that set those teams further back instead of putting them on course to win.

The Blackhawks aren’t going to be a lottery team in 2016-17, but they’re unlikely to be the best team in the league or conference either. But by sacrificing a bit next season – as the salary cap forces them to do – they will put themselves in good position to be able to recalibrate and return to contender status for 2017-18 and beyond.

In short, enjoy the upcoming playoffs and leave next season and the salary cap to the weirdos to worry about.

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Filed under: Salary cap

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