The Chicago Blackhawks appear to be winding down and will lose many key pieces in the off-season. Are they about to become a top-heavy also ran like Pittsburgh?
The Chicago Blackhawks face elimination on home ice Wednesday night against the Anaheim Ducks. And, if the Hawks hold their ground at the United Center, they’ll play another do-or-die affair Saturday night in Orange County.
Whatever happens to Chicago over the next game or two games, good or bad, there’s a creeping sense we’re witnessing the end of something. I can’t help but wonder if this team’s immediate future will increasingly mirror that of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have advanced to round 3, then round 2 and finally round 1 over the past three post-seasons.
It’s fairly easy to understand what went wrong for Pittsburgh Penguins this season. Firstly, they couldn’t overcome the injuries to their blueline. Olli Maatta, Kris Letang and Christian Ehrhoff, their two most important defensemen, didn’t play one playoff game. Cancer, the mumps and shoulder surgery derailed Maatta’s cursed season. Letang, enjoying the best all-around campaign of his career after returning from last season’s stroke, suffered a late-season concussion and, sadly, it was far from his first head injury. Ehrhoff couldn’t recover from his upper-body injury in time to battle the New York Rangers in round 1.
Pittsburgh’s problems extended beyond defenseman injuries, though. The Pens scored exactly one goal in all four losses of a five-game series, and the production was worse than that considering the final two defeats came in overtime. What was to blame for the stunted scoring? I’ll go out on a limb and call it the product of giving Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin some combination of Patric Hornqvist, an aging Chris Kunitz, Blake Comeau, David Perron, Beau Bennett, Steve Downie and Daniel Winnik as wingers throughout the season. Kunitz’s sudden decline and Pascal Dupuis’ scary, unlucky blood clot problem obviously rendered the Pens’ winger corps worse than expected, but it was a fixer-upper group nonetheless.
And maybe that’s because Pittsburgh has $18.2 million tied up in just Crosby and Malkin. Add in Letang and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s cap hits and you get $30.2 million committed to just four players. It doesn’t leave a ton of room to pursue high-end free agents and retain rentals. And it doesn’t look like things will get better this summer. Pittsburgh already has $57.7 million on the books, leaving just less than $14 million inside the projected $71-million cap. And that’s with Letang’s career in jeopardy and Ehrhoff, not to mention Paul Martin, hitting unrestricted free agency, where the pair should combine to earn at least $9 million annually. Winnik and Downie, among other forwards, are UFAs as well. So GM Jim Rutherford must spend to the cap if he simply wants to bring back last year’s mediocre group. How on Earth can he go a step further and improve it?
This isn’t to say the Penguins organization dating back to Ray Shero’s GM tenure should be scolded for paying the star core of Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Fleury. Pittsburgh is one of the poster children for winning a Stanley Cup via amassing high draft picks. It worked, and retaining the key pieces was the right thing to do. The process has a shelf life is all.
Which brings us to the Blackhawks. When Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane’s cap hits spike to $10.5 million apiece next season, they’ll combine with those of Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford to eat up $32.538 million. And GM Stan Bowman’s upcoming cap crunch makes Rutherford’s look like a coloring book.
The 2015-16 Hawks have a whopping $64.05 million in cap spending already, despite the fact:
(a) Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger, David Rundblad and Joakim Nordstrom are restricted free agents
(b) Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Kimmo Timonen, Andrew Desjardins, Daniel Carcillo and Michael Rozsival are UFAs
Hm. So Bowman has $7 million or less to ink a dozen players? He worked some cap magic before, dealing Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd after the 2010 Stanley Cup win and shaping Chicago back into a championship team, but the 2015 pickle is something else.
Bowman will really have to take apart this team. The rentals will walk. There may not be money for Oduya, long-time ‘D’ partner of Niklas Hjalmarsson, unless Oduya takes a discount. Brent Seabrook has just a year left on his contract, but Bowman can’t trade him, can he? Someone has to stay in Chicago and play defense for this team. Left winger Patrick Sharp, who carries a $5.9-million cap hit, figures to be the odd man out. But even dumping his contract won’t free up enough money. Saad in particular is a priority to re-sign. Given how vulnerable Chicago is financially right now, there’s no player in the NHL riper for an offer sheet.
Bowman is staring down a mini-scorched Earth off-season, whether he wants to or not. Many important bodies will have to go just to get this team under the cap. And, suddenly, the Hawks may slide into Pittsburgh territory. It helps to have Saad and a rapidly improving Teuvo Teravainen, no doubt, but what happens to the Hawks’ offense when you remove Sharp and Richards from the equation? Heck, can the Hawks still afford Marian Hossa? How well can the team defend without Oduya and, perhaps next summer if he stays for 2015-16, without Seabrook?
It sure looks like the Hawks’ expensive core will water down the rest of their roster in the years to come, rendering them mere mortals. And hey, that’s OK. These talented players have yielded multiple Stanley Cups. It’s just that every empire must fall eventually. No shame in that.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin