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Why this will be Bowman’s most difficult summer with Blackhawks

Stan Bowman said changes were coming in Chicago, but the Blackhawks GM might need to make some bold moves in order to free up the cap space to tweak his roster.

After the Blackhawks’ season ended in a sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators, Chicago GM Stan Bowman called the campaign a “complete failure.” The defeat, he said, erased everything the team had accomplished. He promised change would be coming, that he and coach Joel Quenneville would be better going forward and that a failure the likes of which occurred in the first round would never happen again.

But if Bowman was trying to make his life easier this off-season, he certainly hasn’t done so thus far.

His first move was a no-brainer. Shortly after the campaign closed, Bowman flipped goaltender Scott Darling, set to become an unrestricted free agent, to the Carolina Hurricanes for a third-round pick. The trade was seen coming miles away. If Darling remained in Chicago through the expansion draft, he was perfect selection fodder and would be lost for nothing. If he hit the open market, he was set to go elsewhere on a bigger deal with more promise of playing time. With that in mind, Bowman shipped Darling out and got what he could.

The move that was a head-scratcher, though, was made one week ago when Richard Panik inked a new two-year, $5.6-million deal.

Looking at the player and contract alone, the deal isn’t awful. Panik is coming off of the best season of his career — a 22-goal, 44-point campaign in which he went from bottom-six disturber to top-six contributor while playing alongside Jonathan Toews. Not only that, but Panik brought a physical edge, not afraid to mix it up. For him to be earning $2.8 million in each of the next two seasons seems about right for a player coming off of his breakout year. But this is also the Blackhawks we’re talking about and the cap situation in Chicago isn’t pretty.

According to CapFriendly, Panik’s signing has Chicago set to enter the summer more than $3.6 million over the salary cap, and it’s awfully difficult to see where the Bowman and the Blackhawks are going to find cap relief. Some would suggest the obvious answer is to move center Marcus Kruger, and, of course, that does make the most sense. Kruger was rewarded for taking a measly one-year, $1.5 million deal in the 2015-16 season by being handed a three-year, $9.25 million contract in March 2016, but his deal has been eyed up ever since as the one that was bound to go. The question, however, is who would be willing to take it on?

It’s a given that Kruger will be exposed in expansion, but it’s hard to fathom why Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee would want to take on the contract. For all of Kruger’s strengths, he earned nearly $3.1 million this past season for five goals and 17 points, and he’s only managed 21 points in his past 111 games. McPhee’s money over the next two years might be better spent elsewhere, and there’s also plenty of speculation that McPhee would pluck away defender Trevor van Riemsdyk before anyone else.

So, just trade Kruger then, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Kruger has a modified no-trade clause that allows him to block a deal to seven teams, and those may very well be the ones most willing to accept Kruger and his full cap hit. We’re talking the Carolinas, Arizonas or New Jerseys of the NHL, teams who have shown in the past they can be enticed into taking on hefty salaries. And even if Bowman was able to work out a deal to send Kruger packing, that doesn’t alleviate Chicago’s salary situation, at least not without an increase in the cap. Kruger earns $3.083 million. The Blackhawks are above the cap by $3.62 million. That leaves roughly half a million in overages. Even if the cap were to rise by, say, $1.6 million, mirroring last summer’s rise, Bowman still has only $1.1 million to improve a roster in need of a tuneup.

Where does Bowman find more money then? For starters, assume Kruger does — somehow, someway — get moved along. That takes care of that. However, let’s not even entertain the idea of trading Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith or Corey Crawford. The first three are locks to stay in town, and there’s no chance Darling would have been dealt away if Bowman was really going to consider moving Crawford. You can likely scrap Marian Hossa, too. He’s got a no-movement clause and who will want to take on the final four years of the 38-year-old’s contract? After inking a two-year, $12-million extension, one would also assume Artemi Panarin is safe, though he doesn’t have no-move or no-trade protection.

That leaves Bowman with three prime trade candidates whose departure would free up significant space: Artem Anisimov, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Anisimov can almost be skipped over, not only because he has a NMC, but because center depth is important and something Chicago will be in dire need of if Kruger is out of town. That leaves Seabrook and Hjalmarsson. But there’s a rub. Seabrook, like several other Blackhawks, holds an NMC, while Hjalmarsson will submit a 10-team list of trade destinations. For that reason, Hjalmarsson is the most obvious trade candidate. However, trading Hjalmarsson is arguably the worst decision Bowman could make.

Chicago’s biggest weakness has become their blueline. To trade Hjalmarsson would be to ship out the most talented pure shutdown defenseman on the squad. No one is going to argue Keith is the best all-around defender, but when it comes to strictly own-zone play, it doesn’t get much better than Hjalmarsson. Better yet, his $4.1 million contract fits the Blackhawks’ cap situation. Even if he is moved on, the $4.1 million in cap space — which we’ll maybe generously call $5 million with potential cap inflation — won’t be enough to bring in another rearguard or two who can fill his shoes and beef up the blueline. It’s clear Seabrook isn’t the answer on the top pairing, either. He spent less than 300 minutes at 5-on-5 skating alongside Keith this past season.

That’s why the best move of all might be for Bowman to approach Seabrook and ask about the potential of him waiving the NMC. At $6.875 million, Seabrook earns more than any other Blackhawks defenseman while fitting into the No. 3 role on the club. He’s a tremendous offensive contributor and, by all accounts, an excellent on- and off-ice leader. Seabrook has been an important part of all three Stanley Cups in Chicago and an overtime hero three times in the playoffs. But saying goodbye to Seabrook is the move that makes the most short- and long-term sense for the Blackhawks. Trouble is it’s hard to fathom and incredibly difficult to pull off given Seabrook is about to enter the second season of an eight-year, $55-million deal.

But be it Kruger, Hjalmarsson, Seabrook or otherwise, what’s clear both from Bowman’s comments and a strictly financial perspective is that changes are coming in Chicago. What exactly that means is to be seen. No matter how tough the cap situation has been to handle in past seasons, though, there’s no comparing it to this summer, one that stands to be the most arduous of Bowman’s tenure and rife with potentially franchise-changing decisions.

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