One of the biggest moments of the NHL offseason arrives Saturday at 11 a.m. CT when free agency opens. All 31 teams will be competing to sign the top players on the open market, a group that includes Joe Thornton, Alexander Radulov, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Karl Alzner.
The Chicago Blackhawks, lacking in cap space as usual, probably won’t be able to land any players like that (even though rumors have tied them to Alzner). They’re currently over the $75 million upper limit, per Cap Friendly, so they’ll need to make further moves just to be compliant by opening day.
But with the opening of free agency coming so soon, now is a good time to take tabs on the Blackhawks’ entire situation, and what they can do to tackle their issues over the next few weeks. Big changes already came to Chicago this summer. It doesn’t seem like the team is done yet.
So here’s our guide to the Blackhawks’ foray into 2017 free agency.
Current salary cap breakdown
|SALARY CAP OVERAGE||$3,558,000|
|TOTAL CAP HITS||$78,307,795|
So ... not great!
They’re over $3 million over the cap right now with a full roster. Maybe the team won’t carry 14 forwards for the start of the season, so you can chop off a little space there, but before any trades or long-term injured reserve savings, this team is not close to cap compliant.
They’ll need to clear cap space to make moves
One of them will likely involve Marian Hossa and long-term injured reserve, which would create an exception for the Hawks to go $5.275 million over the cap. It’s important to note what a complicated matter that is, however. Despite all the talk about the Hawks doing this to circumvent salary cap rules, it’s fair to say that they’d be a better team with Hossa in the mix than as an LTIR option, despite his age.
The problem with LTIR is timing. If Hossa goes on LTIR before the start of the season, the Hawks have an extra $5.275 million to use this summer, but their ability to accrue salary cap space in season that can be used before the trade deadline will be weakened. If he goes on LTIR following opening day, that’s not an issue, but the Hawks won’t be able to use that $5.275 million in space until mid-October, when there aren’t exactly a bunch of great players available.
So GM Stan Bowman has a tricky situation on his hands, and that’s assuming the NHL doesn’t do anything weird by trying to say Hossa can’t go on LTIR. They haven’t decided one way or another yet for some reason, but they need to soon because otherwise they’re putting the Blackhawks at a disadvantage in free agency without the knowledge of their complete cap situation. Luckily, all indications are that this is simply the NHL following its process before making the decision we all expect anyway.
The other way to clear cap space will obviously be trades.
More trades are possible, including Marcus Kruger
Despite all the rumors of a Kruger trade, he’s still here. This hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s fair to wonder whether this is because he has a $2 million bonus set to be paid on Saturday as part of his $3.475 million salary for the 2017-18 season.
If the Hawks wait until that signing bonus is paid, they could ship him and his $3.083 million cap hit to another team, which would be on the hook for the full cap hit, but only a salary of $1.475 million. His deal is also front-loaded, so it’d be a similar deal for 2018-19, when he makes $2 million on a $3.083 million cap hit.
Kruger isn’t a valuable asset given his contract, but he becomes immediately more valuable when his payments total $3.475 million on cap hits of $6.16 million over two years.
The other notable matter coming Saturday is that Kruger has a modified no-trade clause going into effect that allows him to submit a list of seven teams he can block trades to, per Cap Friendly.
But that still leaves 24 teams available, so while Kruger could conceivably build a blocked list that includes most teams that’d be desperate to reach the cap floor, he’ll be an immediately more appealing asset with such a large gap between his cap hits and actual money owed.
That would only shed $3.083 million, though, so it’s fair to wonder what else the Blackhawks might have up their sleeve. Most likely, the Artemi Panarin and Niklas Hjalmarsson trades were the biggest moves of the summer, but given how aggressive the Hawks have been, it seems like the door has been opened to other possibilities.
Projected cap space scenarios
So with all those moving pieces in mind, here’s how much cap space the Blackhawks could free up depending on what they do with Hossa and Kruger. We’re also going to assume the team only carries 13 forwards, so we’re removing Vinnie Hinostroza’s $717,500 cap hit for this exercise, as well. Keep in mind that other trades could shake up this situation even further.
Hossa on LTIR before opening day, Kruger traded: $69.23 million in total cap hits; $5.77 million in available space
Hossa on LTIR after opening day, Kruger traded: $74.51 million in total cap hits; $492,705 in available space
Hossa on LTIR before opening day, Kruger retained: $72.32 million in total cap hits; $2.68 million in available space
Hossa on LTIR after opening day, Kruger retained: Over the cap, not gonna work.
If the Hawks trade Kruger and give up in-season flexibility by placing Hossa on LTIR before the season starts, they could have almost $6 million to spend on Saturday. That could lead to one or two significant additions.
If they simply trade Kruger and don’t use LTIR on Hossa until the season starts, they’re basically cornered into standing pat right now.
There’s no scenario where the Hawks could avoid all of these moves entirely. Either Hossa goes on LTIR before the season, or guys are getting traded. Possibly both if the Hawks really want to make a free agent splash.
This is where the amount of cap space available matters a lot. If they have almost $6 million to work with, suddenly a ton of really intriguing options open. If they have less than $500,000, then they’re stuck going after super-cheap players that would replace other cheap players on the roster, essentially just shuffling minor pieces around.
Here are guys I’d go after in the scenario where Chicago does free up millions. Basically, I think their main targets should be good secondary forwards.
Sam Gagner: Coming off a 50-point season, he’d be a perfect fit as a third-line center and right-handed power play shot.
Nick Bonino: Not quite the scorer that Gagner is, and the Blackhawks shouldn’t go anywhere near his reported demand of four or five years, but if his price lowers, he’s a good penalty killer who would help a unit that struggled last season.
Mikhail Grigorenko: He got non-tendered by the Avalanche, which isn’t exactly a great sign, but Grigorenko would be an interesting buy-low candidate. He played last season at age 22, did well on faceoffs, and recorded 10 goals. It’s worth looking into.
Brian Boyle: He’s huge (6’6, 244 pounds) and can score (13-plus goals in three straight seasons), which would make for an interesting fit with the Hawks, who clearly wanted to get bigger this summer.
Justin Williams: He’s got loads of championship experience and 100 points over the past two seasons.
Beau Bennett: Bennett could be a bargain after the Devils non-tendered him this month. He’s shown flashes of being a solid two-way winger during parts of five seasons in the NHL. It’d be worth seeing whether he can put it together in Chicago.
I’d also be open to Patrick Sharp returning on a Brian Campbell-like deal that minimizes risk. There’s a lot of skepticism about whether he can still play at a high level, but his shot metrics were still strong in an otherwise brutal 2016-17, so it may be a worthwhile gamble if the price is right.
(Quick plug: You can read more from me on Gagner, Bonino, Boyle, and Sharp over at The Athletic. Subscription required, and yes I’m biased, but they’re building quite the hockey coverage team with Scott Powers, James Mirtle, Craig Custance, Katie Strang, Justin Bourne, Tyler Dellow, etc.)
As for defensemen, part of the trouble is that the Blackhawks would really need a proper top-four guy because they already have a bunch of question marks. Getting more lottery tickets is good, but I’m not sure it’d be worth using the Hawks’ potential cap space on someone who might just end up being another third-pairing guy on a team that may end up having way too many of them.
Alzner would not be the answer to what ails to this team, particularly if he wants a lucrative deal at a lengthy term. Campbell might be worth bringing back, but then you run into the same issue as last year with four lefty defensemen (Campbell, Keith, Forsling, Kempny) who aren’t comfortable playing their offside regularly. Cody Franson is another target who could conceivably work.
However, if Hossa doesn’t go on LTIR until the start of the season, most of these guys are non-options (barring other major trades).
What should the Hawks do?
All of this hinges on what happens with Hossa and Kruger (or someone else who might be traded). If the Hawks don’t use LTIR on Hossa before the season and free up that space, the answer here isn’t particularly interesting. They’d trade Kruger and basically look for guys willing to sign for a million bucks or less.
But if the Hawks make the moves to clear those two, giving them nearly $6 million in cap space, it’d be fascinating. What if you could get Gagner for $3.5 million and Bennett for $2 million?
Then you could roll out a lineup like this:
F1: Brandon Saad — Jonathan Toews — Richard Panik
F2: Nick Schmaltz — Artem Anisimov — Patrick Kane
F3: Beau Bennett — Sam Gagner — Ryan Hartman
F4: Tomas Jurco — Tanner Kero — John Hayden
D1: Duncan Keith — Connor Murphy
D2: Michal Kempny — Brent Seabrook
D3: Gustav Forsling — Jan Rutta
G1: Corey Crawford
G2: Anton Forsberg
Yes, you’d be limited your ability to make further additions during the season, but let’s be honest: those trades often move the needle only slightly at massive cost. Johnny Oduya, Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann, Antoine Vermette, Kimmo Timonen, and so on. Fine players, but should the Hawks pass up opportunities to build their best team now to leave open the chance to give up high picks and good prospects for pieces like that? I’m not so sure.
So this is the situation that the Blackhawks are entering with free agency opening on Saturday afternoon at 11 a.m. CT. Expect a fascinating few days.