The Blackhawks checked two huge boxes off their "commit to the core" list earlier this summer by extending Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, but next summer will bring up an entirely new series of questions for the team. Figuring out how to surround two Hall of Fame-level talents is a good problem to have, but it's one that will likely define the team's success in upcoming seasons.
That's why the performance of Brandon Saad during the 2014-15 season will be so fascinating, as it sets the stage for negotiations between the team and his representation next summer. With his entry-level contract set to expire, Saad will finally be eligible for a nice raise from his current six-figure salary, and the Blackhawks are surely planning on doing what it takes to keep him around.
In general, guys like Saad tend to be in similar situations after their entry-level contracts expire. The NHL has established a practice of following up those initial deals with "bridge contracts," or short-term deals that offer significant raises but lack lengthy commitments for big money. This is the kind of deal that P.K. Subban just finished before signing his monster extension. Chris Kreider and Tyson Barrie were among those to get "bridged" this summer.
Not everyone signs bridge contracts, but it's become a way for teams to mitigate the risk of committing to young players while still providing them significant raises from their entry-level deals.
So where exactly will Saad's salary fit into this situation? Let's take a brief look at the options for both sides as next summer looms.
A brief comparison
Remember when the Blackhawks agreed to a two-year, $4 million extension with Andrew Shaw last November? That's the kind of deal Saad could get, but with a larger annual payout. Shaw agreed to his contract before his third year in Chicago, and likely cost himself a little money by taking the early deal given what guys like Kreider and Barrie got.
Saad would definitely come close to, if not surpass, the $2.6 million price tag given to Barrie, and he should easily top Shaw's payout. Here's a comparison of Saad and Shaw's first two years in the league:
Even going by scoring rates, Saad's superior skills as a playmaker quickly make him stand out compared to Shaw. You might be able to complicate this discussion a bit by pointing out the kind of lines both players were on and the way Coach Q used them both, but generally speaking, the statistics still speak volumes. Guys who rack up more points tend to get paid more money.
Just look at the numbers for Barrie and Kreider. Saad matches or tops them in nearly every category, and he's also the proud owner of a Stanley Cup ring and a third-place finish in Calder Trophy voting. If we assume Saad gets a similar term to those guys -- he's not exactly a Crosby-like talent who demands a 10-year commitment RIGHT NOW, as good as he is -- we should probably assume he gets a higher AAV, too.
A bridge contract isn't the only option for Chicago and Saad, but it seems the most likely scenario.
So what would the bridge contract look like?
All of this assumes that next season, Saad maintains the general trajectory his career is currently on. If he breaks out with an insane 40-goal season and leaves Chicago melting from the energy of its own excitement, this conversation changes. If he blows out a knee and misses two-thirds of the season, this conversation changes.
But assuming nothing crazy happens in the next nine months, Saad probably gets a two-year bridge contract like the ones we've been discussing. The bigger question is, given the increasing salary cap and his favorable comparisons to other players who received similar deals, how much more will he receive?
This is important for a Blackhawks team that desperately needs every dollar it can find. The new deals for Kane and Toews will eat up a large portion of the payroll, and Saad's agent pushing for another few hundred thousand could be significant as the team tries to maintain its championship-quality depth.
We've seen some bridge contracts for higher level players, like the two-year, $7 million that Matt Duchene went through with Colorado before getting his big five-year deal this year. Frankly, that's probably a better comparison for Saad than many of the deals for young wingers we saw this summer. Saad isn't quite on Duchene's level, but one might argue he's closer in value to the Avalanche star than a player like Kreider.
That could potentially mean a two-year deal worth around $6 million, giving Saad an annual cap hit of $3 million. Such a deal would be a risk for Saad, but it would give him some financial security while opening the door for a potentially massive raise come the summer of 2017. On the other hand, the Blackhawks may be ready to offer up even more soon.
What if it's not a bridge contract?
Bridge contracts might be a trend in hockey, but teams certainly aren't forced to hand them out. If the Blackhawks are convinced that Saad is near a major breakout next summer, maybe they try to lock up him on a bigger deal that establishes his cap hit at a more reasonable level.
We saw how the bridge contract hurt the Canadiens in hindsight with Subban, who ended up becoming one of the league's highest-paid players this summer after his two-year bridge contract in Montreal expired. Back in 2012, Subban was willing to sign a five-year deal worth $25 million. The team is probably wishing it still had one of the game's best players on a bargain salary of $5 million.
Saad probably doesn't have that kind of Subban-level breakout in him, but his performance could potentially price him out of the Blackhawks' range in a couple years. If he agrees to a bridge contract and racks up a 30-goal season or two, it'll be hard for Stan Bowman to find the room for a salary that would likely settle around $6 million, depending on where the cap is in a couple years.
So the Blackhawks may pursue some longer possibilities with Saad in the next year, with the idea of lowering his AAV in exchange for a greater term. A four- or five-year deal with a cap hit around $4.5 million or $5 million would probably be what it takes, though, assuming another solid performance from Saad in 2014-15. There's certainly risk in committing so much money to so few guys, when the Blackhawks already have much of their cap tied up in guys like Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook, Hossa and Sharp.
So what should the Hawks do?
This all really comes down to how you perceive Saad's star potential. If you think he's a legitimate up-and-coming All-Star and a cornerstone of the Hawks' top-six forwards, then it makes a good deal of sense to lock him up on a long-term deal that limits his cap hit and ensures he'll stay in Chicago for several years.
However, if you're skeptical that Saad has another gear, and he'll simply settle into a career as a solid-but-unspectacular role player, then the bridge contract makes an awful lot of sense. The Hawks would still have Saad under contract through the 2016-17 season, but wouldn't be stuck paying a premium for years beyond when cap space might be tight.
So what kind of contract do you think Saad deserves in the next year? Should the Hawks commit long-term and treat him like a legitimate cornerstone, or go with a bridge contract and hold off on determining whether he's worthy of the truly big bucks? Let us know in the comments, but we don't expect this debate to end any time soon.