The Chicago Blackhawks signed center Marcus Kruger to a three-year contract extension on Tuesday, giving the checking line pivot an AAV of $3.083 million. That is a significant raise from Kruger's $1.5 million salary this season, though not a raise that is undeserved.
Kruger's impact on this team is hard to state succinctly. As one of the premier checking centers in the NHL, Kruger has become more of a core piece of this team than a depth forward. While casting him as a role player is not inaccurate, he still fills a role that in many ways is difficult to replace. With Kruger out due to injury this season, the Blackhawks have had to do just that, and have struggled to do so.
Phillip Danault was used as the defensive center in Kruger's stead, and many assumed he was the heir apparent to 25-year-old Swede. However, the Blackhawks apparently were not entirely satisfied with what they saw from Danault in that role, and he was packaged with a draft pick and sent to Montreal at the trade deadline for Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise.
It became evident at that time that the Blackhawks chose Kruger over Danault. The next question was what Kruger's next contract would look like, and we now have our answer.
The case can be made that this may be a bit of an overpayment, especially for a player who offers very little offense and is simply a checking line center. But Kruger has consistently performed extremely well even with seemingly difficult deployment. He starts a significant amount of shifts in the defensive zone, and yet consistently controls possession. He has never finished a regular season with a CF lower than 51.38 percent.
So while upwards of $3 million per season seems a lot for a player like Kruger, there is little reason to doubt that he will prove himself to be worth every penny. The question now is what this means for the Blackhawks in the coming offseason.
As Satchel explained yesterday, the Blackhawks had just shy of $64 million committed to 15 players for next season, with some assumptions being made about overages and players that would be added to the roster. According to Cap Friendly, Kruger's extension puts the Blackhawks at a cap hit of $65,283,462 with eight forwards, five defenseman and two goalies signed. If the salary cap stays stagnant at $71.4 million, that's approximately $6 million in cap space for at least five more forwards and two more defensemen.
That's not a lot of room for flexibility, and even less room for error.
Chicago also has some key contributors slated for free agency, most notably Andrew Shaw, who will be a restricted free agent. Given the strong season Shaw is having, he's in line for a nice raise himself, so it's entirely possible that he will be traded at some point during the summer.
It's possible that Shaw's rights could be packaged with Bryan Bickell's contract in order to gain a bit more cap space if a suitor is amenable. Even so, the return on a deal like that would probably be largely disappointing, maybe a third-round pick at most. The Blackhawks would then have around $63 million committed to 15 players.
There are still some players on the team who could be re-signed relatively cheap this summer. Richard Panik, Dennis Rasmussen, Fleischmann and Brandon Mashinter are all players who have spent time with the Hawks this year and had varying degrees of success, and all should remain relatively inexpensive to re-sign. Christian Ehrhoff could very well re-sign for a similar cap hit to the $1.5 million he took from the Kings last summer.
Regardless, it's obvious that there will be some major changes to this roster next year. Young players like Ryan Hartman, Ville Pokka, Tanner Kero, Kyle Baun and Nick Schmaltz will all likely get a chance to make the NHL roster for next season. The Blackhawks are also sure to be in on some of the top college free agents in the coming weeks, and perhaps if they signed a player like North Dakota's Drake Caggiula, he would get a crack at the lineup for next year as well.
Re-signing Kruger, your No. 4 center, to a significant cap hit is obviously not ideal from a cap standpoint, but sometimes you have to pay a premium to keep some of your most important players. That is what GM Stan Bowman has done here, and while it may put him a tight situation this summer, the Blackhawks are still in position to put a strong roster together for the 2016-17 season.