The Blackhawks face significant salary-cap-triggered this summer, but it’s far too soon to start mourning for the competitive fortunes of what has become the model franchise in the NHL’s modern era. Chicago won’t be as deep next season, but its best days aren’t necessarily in the past.
The deeper the Chicago Blackhawks move into the NHL playoffs, the more I see people preparing requiems for their glory days. At the same time respect is paid to the franchise’s numerous achievements in the now decade-long salary cap era, the notion is floated that, once the cap’s constrictions begin suffocating the Hawks this summer, they’ll rapidly be downgraded from a majestic, soaring beast to a Tweety Bird in a cage, swinging around in mediocrity like so many of the league’s teams.
And maybe that’s what will happen in the coming years. Maybe. But perhaps there’s a chance the Blackhawks do what they did the last time the cap forced them into making major changes to the roster. You know – continue being a Stanley Cup frontrunner for the foreseeable future.
This is not to minimize the challenge that lies ahead for GM Stan Bowman. As THN colleague Matt Larkin noted, Chicago’s cap issues are real, and they are spectacular: the cap hits for superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews balloon to $10.5 million apiece next year; the Hawks have approximately $64 million already committed to their 2015-16 campaign; and the foursome of Toews, Kane, defenseman Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford count for $32.538 million alone. Essentially, the organization will have some $7 million (if that) to bring a dozen players under contract.
Almost certainly, pending unrestricted free agents Brad Richards, Johnny Oduya, Antoine Vermette and Michal Rozsival will be moving on in the off-season. Almost certainly, Bowman will have to unload a veteran, marquee contributor (Patrick Sharp’s name is mentioned most often as the likely candidate to go). Chicago’s depth will take a staggering blow.
However, the feeling I’m getting seems to be one where the Hawks suddenly become just another ho-hum, run-of-the-mill operation. And that’s not going to happen. Let’s remind ourselves which of Chicago’s players aren’t going anywhere, shall we?
Start with Kane and Toews, two players who, once again this spring, are showing why they make opponents’ knees knock in the most important games on the calendar. Continue with Keith, someone who can play the minutes of two NHL blueliners and excel at both ends of the rink. Move on to youngsters Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw; the former is a restricted free agent this summer and the latter will be an RFA in the 2016 off-season, but both are valuable and under management’s control. Then there’s D-man Niklas Hjalmarsson (signed through 2019 at a very reasonable $4.1 million a year) and rock-solid winger Marian Hossa (signed through 2021 at a $5.75 million cap hit).
As you can see, this group isn’t going to be the Florida Panthers or the Vancouver Canucks next year, fighting just to lock up a playoff spot. In Kane, Toews and Keith, they have stars in all the important areas. In Saad and rookie Teuvo Teravainen, they have young players on the rise. If they choose to move Crawford and his $6 million annual salary, they’ve got a buyer’s goaltending market from which to pick a cheaper (and perhaps, younger) replacement who will give them more cap flexibility for players such as defenseman Brent Seabrook (a UFA at the end of the 2015-16 campaign). And they have an ownership willing to invest in drafting and development to the level required to stay competitive.
Let’s also not forget the angst that accompanied the Hawks’ last serious cap crunch, and what took place subsequent to it. Following their 2010 Stanley Cup win, hands across Illinois were wrung day and night when key components Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg were sent packing. Center David Bolland departed eventually as well.
And what happened? Bowman found adequate replacements for them, and they won another championship three seasons later, and they’re back in the conference final yet again.
There are lots of potential pitfalls ahead for the Hawks as they re-jig the lineup at the end of this season. But what seems dire today may turn out to be not so problematic tomorrow. It wasn’t at all long ago the contracts of David Clarkson and Roberto Luongo were stamped “unmovable millstones”; lo and behold, they both got moved.
I’m not saying the Hawks will run roughshod through the league once the salary cap is through with them this summer. I am saying that, if any management team deserves the benefit of the doubt in navigating through the trouble spots ahead, it’s the Hawks’ management team.
Most importantly, Kane and Toews will be 27 years old on New Year’s Eve of this year. Let’s not be buying flowers and pouring one out for Chicago just yet.