Bryan Bickell is no longer the player who earned a $16 million contract in June 2013. That much is clear after the past season, during which Bickell found himself playing in Rockford for extended periods of time and named in trade rumors pretty much all of the time. Next season is Bickell's last on Chicago's books with a $4 million cap hit.
Anyone who's followed the Blackhawks recently knows what's up with Bickell at this point. The team has tried unsuccessfully to trade his oversized contract, failed to figure out a use for him on its own roster and generally seems to have its hands tied by the situation. If there was some obvious way for Chicago to shed itself of its commitment to Bickell, it would've done so already. It's only reasonable to assume at this point that Bickell isn't a wanted commodity after clearing waivers multiple times.
That leaves GM Stan Bowman with another precarious situation this summer, just the latest in a string of challenges born out of the salary cap (although this one is also a reminder that even a three-time Cup-winning GM can make mistakes). The big question now is just what Bowman can do to salvage a situation that's clearly gone bad. While nobody could've pictured the deal going down like this, with Bickell's curious ocular issues seemingly hastening his downfall on the ice, there's little doubt that millions in cap space is being wasted.
So what are Bowman's options this summer? Let's break them down, as well as what I think he should do.
Yes, if it were so easy, it would've happened already. If some team was willing to take on most of Bickell's contract, even if Chicago got nothing in return, one imagines the team would've pulled the trigger. So it's fair to assume that with Bickell considered a negative asset at this point, the Hawks' only chance of trading him would mean attaching valuable assets in a larger deal. There are several permutations that could make this happen -- especially if the Hawks are additionally willing to retain some portion of salary -- although the team will surely have to ask itself how much it's willing to give up to clear up a few million in extra cap space for one year. So far, it appears those requests have been more than Chicago could stomach.
If the cost to a trade is prohibitive because teams insist on elite prospects or, Hossa forbid, Teuvo Teravainen in order to take on Bickell's salary, then the team will have to consider keeping Bickell. Like last season, the team could bury him in Rockford and be stuck with a $3.05 million cap hit. Depending on how much money teams want the Hawks to eat in a trade, it might make more sense to simply work around that $3.05 million cap hit in 2016-17 and then enter the summer of 2017 in a position of strength with all of your prospects and cap space readily available at your disposal.
The only option that pushes money beyond the 2016-17 season. A buyout for Bickell this summer would lower his cap hit for next season to $1 million, but it would also add a $1.5 million cap hit onto the books for 2017-18. That means overall, compared to retaining a $3.05 million cap hit if he's buried, the total accumulated savings really only add up to $550,000. In exchange for having an extra $2.05 million in cap space in 2016-17, you'd lose $1.5 million in cap space in 2017-18.
What should they do?
It all depends on what it would take to trade him. Part of the trouble here is that Bickell's salary for next season is $4.5 million, which makes him less appealing to low-budget teams looking to inflate their cap totals. Luckily, it appears Bowman learned his lesson here by significantly front-loading the big extension he gave to Brent Seabrook, if you're looking for silver lining there.
However, with a trade seemingly unlikely, I think the Hawks would be best off burying Bickell in Rockford for a year -- and maybe seeing if he can help on the bottom six -- than a buyout. The problem with a buyout is the list of players set to hit restricted free agency in 2017: Teravainen, Artemi Panarin, Erik Gustafsson and Ville Pokka. It'll be important for the Hawks to retain players like this, and losing $1.5 million in cap space for that season would be a blow to the team's chances of keeping all four players.
Unless Bowman doesn't believe he can ice a quality team next season without that extra $2 million, the team needs to take a forward-thinking approach here. Panarin and Teravainen are going to get large raises and are too important to the future to be let go. And because so much of the roster for 2016-17 is already cost controlled, I believe there's a good chance they can figure this out while Bickell is on the books. Maybe it means being forced to let Shaw go this summer, but if we're getting into the discussion of "Who should you keep: Panarin, Teuvo or Shaw? Choose two," then I think it's fairly clear who should be the goner there. Shaw, as good as he is, won't be more valuable than a cost-controlled Teuvo still in his early 20s. Panarin, meanwhile, is already one of the most important players on the roster. After going all-in this season and falling short, it's important for the team to stay committed to a strategy that doesn't compromise the future too much.
I think ideally, you'd be able to trade Bickell, retain part of his salary and give up a prospect that's not among the team's very best, which would give the team some extra money to negotiate with Shaw without compromising its position in the summer of 2017. Alternatively, though, they should hold onto him, get creative now and make sure their ducks are in a row for that offseason. The Bickell contract has been a mistake, and I don't think the team should try to live with it any longer than it needs to.