Yes, being on top certainly does have its benefits.
Much of the talk heading into the off-season was about the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks’ upcoming cap crunch, but one surprising development has been just how much Chicago’s success may save the club from taking a big step back in 2015-16.
More specifically, it appears the Blackhawks’ Cup run has them in position to not only retain the services of key depth center Marcus Kruger, but also in a place where defenseman Johnny Oduya, long thought to have played his final game in a Chicago uniform, is said to be negotiating with the club and simply waiting for the Blackhawks to free up space to re-sign in the Windy City. And all this after bottom-six winger Andrew Desjardins admitted he took a pay cut to stay in Chicago.
According to The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc, Kruger, who did not opt to file for salary arbitration, is waiting for cap space to open up to sign a potential long-term deal. As for Oduya, he’s also waiting for room to open for his prospective return to Chicago, Kuc reported.
It would be a boon for the Blackhawks to be able to bring back both players, too. Kruger is about as effective a third-line center as there is in the NHL and one of the best possession players on an already talented Chicago roster. And bringing Oduya back into the fold would be a move made out of familiarity, trust and, truthfully, necessity.
Without Oduya, the Blackhawks’ defense corps would be a shell of what it was this past season when already it was thought to be their potential Achilles heel going into the Stanley Cup final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Running four defensemen – Oduya, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson – was Chicago’s strategy in the final. With Oduya thought to be a goner come free agency, some believed this upcoming season would have seen Trevor van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad leaned upon more heavily and Stephen Johns make the jump from the AHL to the big club. Bringing Oduya back, however, would help solidify a Chicago defense that looks as though they’ll need it.
The problem, then, is two-fold. While the Blackhawks have already jettisoned Brandon Saad because the club couldn’t afford to retain him, they still remain nearly $750,000 over the salary cap. The answer to the puzzle – how to get both Kruger and Oduya back in the lineup – isn’t an easy one, either. First, GM Stan Bowman will need to find takers for some of his club’s bigger name, bigger dollar talent. Then, he’ll need to find a way to make new deals for Kruger, whose cap hit was $1.325 million on his previous deal, and Oduya, $3.375 million on his prior contract, fit under the Blackhawks’ salary cap constraints.
The obvious moves for Chicago would include shedding the salaries of Bryan Bickell and Kris Versteeg, two 29-year-old wingers that hit Chicago’s cap for a combined $6.2 million and were benched at separate times throughout the post-season. If the Blackhawks didn’t take salary back in either trade, that would give them roughly $5.5 million to sign both Kruger and Oduya, but that’s still likely not enough without making another move. That’s why the oft-rumored trade of Patrick Sharp can’t yet be discounted, especially considering bringing back Kruger and Oduya would likely cost in the $6-6.5 million range, if not more.
Pairing Sharp’s $5.9 million cap hit paired with either Bickell or Versteeg’s contract likely frees up enough breathing room for the Blackhawks to get both Kruger and Oduya under contract and have Chicago cap compliant for the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign. That said, one concern still remains: how long does unrestricted free agent Oduya wait?
It’s not a concern with Kruger, as the Blackhawks own his rights as a restricted free agent, but free agency has been open for six days without Oduya signing a deal. There’s little doubt that there has, at the very least, been interest from other clubs and the Blackhawks and Bowman have likely been made aware of that. With the market for free agent defensemen dwindling and players such as Cody Franson, Christian Ehrhoff and Marek Zidlicky also seeking deals, can Oduya afford to wait much longer before signing? If he does, there’s potential for his free agent destinations to disappear and he could be taking a big pay cut to fit under another club’s cap.
Last off-season, the Blackhawks waited until the final days of the pre-season to become salary cap compliant in a deal that shipped Nick Leddy to the New York Islanders. If Bowman and Co. want Oduya to join Kruger back in the Windy City next season, they might not be able to be as patient this time around.