The Chicago Blackhawks look much different than they did a couple weeks ago, and this is only the beginning. The team's decision to lock up two of the game's best players, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, through the entirety of their primes has put in the team in a challenging, if anticipated, situation.
Increasing revenues for the NHL were supposed to solve a lot of these issues, with the league's salary cap increasing millions each year, but an unexpected dip in the Canadian dollar has soured those projections. A salary cap that was expected to be at least $73 million could now fall closer to $71.5-72 million, based on recent comments from commissioner Gary Bettman.
That means a cap crunch that was already going to take a toll on the Blackhawks could be even more devastating, breaking apart the core of a contending team much like we saw after the 2010 Stanley Cup victory. Trades are to be expected, because right now, there's simply too much money on the books.
Even after taking away the $1.5 million cap hit of Ben Smith, who was traded to San Jose, as well as some other upcoming free agents, like Brad Richards, Michal Rozsival, Johnny Oduya and the team's three recent additions, it'll be impossible to keep the team together.
For an idea of why, here's what Chicago currently has on the books for next season:
Keep in mind that's over $64 million in cap hits for just 15 players. It doesn't include Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger, David Rundblad and Joakim Nordstrom, the team's restricted free agents. Management presumably wants all of those players back given their youth and relative affordability. So let's say all four of those guys re-sign for a total cap hit of $8.5 million, with Saad's big raise taking up most of that. You're already over a $72 million cap even with four open spots on the roster. It's just a no go. There are simply too many big cap hits on this team to handle the league's two largest overall.
I think we all generally know what that means. Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell are easily the two most expendable players on the team, given its wealth of forwards and Marian Hossa's unique contract issues. So you pretty much have to write them off for next season, as much as that hurts. Hopefully GM Stan Bowman can at least get strong returns after one last Stanley Cup, right?
Anyway, it's also probably fair to assume that some rookies will be filling out spots on the roster as well. Here's what it'd look like with the estimated RFA salaries, a number of rookies filling out spots and the two big veteran forwards gone:
So now you're talking about $66 million for 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders. You're also talking about an incredibly young back end of the roster, and it's hard to imagine Joel Quenneville could survive an entire season that way without getting angry (or, well, angrier).
However, you're also talking about $5-7 million in available cap space that's still available to entice veteran free agents. Brad Richards taking a mild discount for a shot at a Stanley Cup wasn't necessarily a fluke. With a few million to play around with, you might be able to get some reasonably talented players to hop on board. Most teams can't offer the chance to play next to a guy like Kane.
Before the deadline, we heard rumors about upcoming free agent Curtis Glencross. Maybe he's willing to sign back on for the same $2.5 million cap hit he has right now. Maybe Oduya would come back on a discount, or the team could try to re-sign Timonen if he's willing to take one more whack at it (probably not likely). What if Antoine Vermette would take a slight pay cut? It's unlikely, but if he gets a taste of being a Blackhawk maybe he'll want to stick around.
Here's how things could ultimately stack up in terms of cap hits, with rough estimations as to what they'd spend on the final three pieces of the roster:
That puts you right around the "high 71s to 72" threshold that Bettman suggested if the Canadian dollar doesn't improve. It's also worth noting that a Sharp trade could bring back a talented young player if he rebounds during the remainder of the season, and if the cap ends up closer to $73 million, you can add some extra flexibility to the situation as well.
Still, while this isn't really an ideal situation, here's what your depth chart might look like:
Is that top-heavy? Sure, but it's also still a pretty good team. The first two lines would still be loaded with talent, and even if they can't re-sign Vermette for $3 million, something in that range should still land a respectable option. They could also bump Teuvo Teravainen up to the second line and try to create magic with Kane, though that could risk leaving the second two lines badly lacking in scoring skill.
There would also be questions on defense, where the team would hopefully be able to survive behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson with young guys and a veteran or two. It's basically been the same situation this season, though, since there's been so much money tied up in Oduya and Rozsival. The team could also decide to only carry 22 players to begin the season and free up space that way.
One thing I'm sure you'll hear some fans suggest is a Corey Crawford trade, but I just don't see it. The team needs a high-quality, everyday goaltender, and Crawford is that, even if he's not one of the game's very best. Scott Darling has shown signs and is a good option as a backup, but I would be wary to risk putting the team's goaltending at risk in order to free up space elsewhere. It's nice having that area of the team fairly secure.
So that's pretty much where the team is at. Quenneville is going to have to work several young players into his lineup next season, whether he likes it or not, but things aren't a complete disaster. Losing veterans off a talented roster always hurts -- it's also an opportunity for guys like Teravainen and Danault to establish themselves like we saw with Saad and Shaw in the past. None of these guys are lacking for talent.
It's going to be challenging, but that's largely because it's going to be so different. The Blackhawks are still going to be talented, the future is still bright. It's just that, when you're trying to build a dynasty in the salary cap era, there are going to be ebbs and flows, and certain years where you're not as deep or talented. Championships are won at the top, though, and there's little doubt about a core of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Saad, Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson. That's still what we would call stacked.
And if the cap does end up at $73 million, this won't be nearly as bad. Things might be changing a lot soon, but the Blackhawks' window to contend doesn't end this summer. Bowman just has a lot of work to do.