The Chicago Blackhawks will look different next season. That is undeniable as the team enters an offseason full of big questions and salary cap constraints, largely produced by the massive raises coming to franchise cornerstones Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Both players have matching $10.5 million cap hits going forward, the highest in the NHL.
Change is inevitable when you're restructuring finances to such a large degree, and already we're seeing the rumors that key contributors like Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell and Johnny Oduya will be shown the door. To a degree, those are less rumors and more absolute facts regarding how general manager Stan Bowman needs to maneuver through this summer.
Now we're hearing about how this offseason will be absolutely brutal for the franchise, how it's going to be a "Summer of Hell." The roster overhaul is coming, they say, and with it the Blackhawks will enter a new era of, I don't know, mediocrity? A lot of people, both inside and outside Chicago, have been prepping for doomsday. It's always felt a tad excessive.
Bowman and the Hawks indeed have a challenging offseason ahead of them, especially given that the salary cap is expected to fall around $71 million instead of the roughly $73 million projections we were seeing a year ago. There's not a ton of flexibility, nor room for error. What exists, however, is the opportunity for this franchise to rebuild on the fly and stay a contender. A chance to lean on a new group of players and see them grow the way Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger, Niklas Hjalmarsson and others did over the past few years.
The Blackhawks knew this day was coming, and they've been planning. They've sought out affordable entry-level contracts, built up an organizational reputation that appeals to veterans and kept together the primary pieces of the best core in recent memory. Even if Chicago isn't quite as good next season, anyone dismissing this franchise because of what's going to happen this summer has already forgotten 2010.
Here are five reasons why the Blackhawks should be just fine going forward:
Saad won't walk
You've probably heard it a million times already: Brandon Saad is a restricted free agent and other teams have the right to extend offer sheets his way. Teams have to fork up sizable compensation in draft picks to acquire RFAs, but there's the possibility some team deems that worthwhile to try to poach Saad from Chicago.
All of that ignores the realities of restricted free agency in the NHL, however, and how rare it is that massive offer sheets actually get used. As much as teams want available RFAs, they're usually scared away by the idea of raising the market value of a given player too much. If someone tries to poach Saad by giving him a cap hit around $6 million, it would not only cost them their first-, second- and third-round picks in 2016, but also reset the market at a level significantly higher than before.
And even if some team tries to break away from the pack and sign Saad to a massive deal like that, Chicago has given every indication it will match any offer, just like it did when the Sharks tried to sign Hjalmarsson in 2010. If it means letting go either players, even Kruger, the Hawks sound like they're okay with that.
And most likely, it won't come to that. Saad and the Blackhawks have a strong working relationship and it's not like the team would try to aggressively lowball him. The ideal scenario would be a bridge contract with terms around two years and $7-8 million, but even if Saad pushes to get that long-term deal with a cap hit closer to $5 million or more, the Hawks will do it. Saad's too good to leave and nothing around the team has signaled otherwise.
Kruger, on the other hand, is a bit less certain. Some team could offer him bigger money and a larger role than Chicago can offer for its fourth-line center. Hopefully he's willing to return on something like the two-year, $4 million deal Andrew Shaw took last year, because otherwise it's possible he's priced out of the team's range with Saad returning.
Chicago won't go through a serious youth overhaul next season because Joel Quenneville is Joel Quenneville, but they'll need affordable players to fill roster spots and that means young players. Stephen Johns, Phillip Danault, Ryan Hartman and Mark McNeill could all play significant roles for the Blackhawks next season, and none of those players will be making over $1 million.
The Blackhawks have put a lot of effort into maintaining a steady pipeline of talent from Rockford to Chicago over the past few years, and now we're going to see some of the fruits of that labor. With guys like Teuvo Teravainen, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Scott Darling already in place, expect more IceHogs to be helping next season.
The new ELCs
Artemi Panarin, Kyle Baun, Tanner Kero, Erik Gustafsson, maybe even Mike Reilly ... since the beginning of this spring, Bowman has been all over the entry-level market like a GM with a limited budget (oh hey!). The first four guys listed there have already signed on with the Blackhawks, and the addition of Reilly would make the haul even more impressive.
Guys like Baun, Kero and Gustafsson are largely for depth, but it can't be stressed enough how huge a wild card Panarin is this offseason. Signed to a two-year entry-level deal that allows him to opt out and return to Russia if he fails to make the NHL roster this fall, the 23-year-old winger is considered one of the best young Russian players in the game and figures to slot in as a scorer immediately.
Obviously there's a good deal of risk with Panarin, who needs to show he can play the North American game after thriving in the KHL and World Championships, but it would be impossible to land a player with this much upside so cheap anywhere else. Panarin is set to make roughly $812,500 in 2015-16, which could be a monster bargain for a team that needs those value buys.
Trade returns and new cap space
Guys like Sharp and Bickell are surefire goners, but the Hawks won't give them away for nothing. Sharp should be able to return some value, even if it doesn't come close to the ridiculous asking price we've seen rumored about in recent days, and there's always the chance Bickell yields something. At the very least, we can expect the team to get back some depth pieces and/or draft picks for the trouble.
More importantly, trading Sharp and Bickell alone would free up nearly $10 million in cap space. That money would already make up for the raises going to Toews and Kane, and while the team needs to replace the two wingers, it's possible we already got one cheap alternative in Panarin. This isn't to downplay how useful Sharp and Bickell have been for the Hawks over the past few years, but if these are the team's greatest losses, they should be able to figure it out.
A core veterans want to play with
Sharp is no longer part of the core. That's okay, because the Blackhawks still have Toews, Kane, Saad, Teravainen, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford. That top-nine is still better than pretty much anyone else in the league, and as we saw with Brad Richards a year ago, veterans like the idea of playing with that kind of talent.
It's not a lock that the team can land another bargain like Richards at $2 million, but there will likely be veterans willing to take less money for the chance to compete for Cups. After watching guys like Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen lift the Cup this year, other players might be willing to make compromises to do the same.
A potential roster
Here's what the team and its cap distribution might look like after a so-called "Summer of Hell":
That comes out to a depth chart looking something like this:
There are also a number of different ways this situation could change, both good and bad. Maybe Johnny Oduya is willing to return with a pay cut. Maybe the team figures out how to re-sign Andrew Desjardins cheaply to take one of those bottom-six forward spots. Someone useful might come back in exchange for Sharp, and this set up doesn't even involve Stephen Johns, the team's best defenseman prospect.
On the flip side, Bickell's contract might not be easy to shed, and one massive offer sheet to Saad or Kruger could potentially complicate things. As we said, there's not a ton of room for error, even if the opportunities to build a very good team exist.
So yeah, the Blackhawks probably won't be as good next season, not without the luxuries of the Sharp-Vermette-Teuvo third line, Shaw as a fourth-liner, etc. But even so, barring some disastrous developments, this is one of the better rosters in the Western Conference, and it should be enough to get the team into the postseason. Once there, I don't think anyone will want to play the Hawks.
This most definitely doesn't qualify as a "summer of hell," it's more like a hot, humid Chicago day. Unpleasant, but hey, let's go swimming -- we'll get over it.
(All salary cap information via General Fanager)