NHL’s big new extensions reinforce Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews aren’t the Blackhawks’ problem

Whatever ails the Hawks’ salary cap, Kane and Toews are not to blame.

The Chicago Blackhawks are in an eternal cap crunch of sorts. In 2015, the team had to dump Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad. In 2016, it was Teuvo Teravainen to get rid of Bryan Bickell. This year, they lost Trevor van Riemsdyk, Scott Darling, and Marcus Kruger while making trades to increase cost certainty.

These problems are often put at the feet of the Blackhawks’ most expensive players, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Since the start of the 2015-16 season, they’ve each earned $10.5 million a year.

That’s the highest cap hit of any player in the game until Connor McDavid’s massive $100 million extension goes into effect next season. Then, Kane and Toews will be tied with Carey Price as the NHL’s second-most costly players in terms of cap hit.

It’s often said that winning when you spend so much cap space on a star or two is the problem. That when your star players command so much, it’s impossible to fill out the rest of your roster with championship-quality depth. Hence all the moves we discussed in the opening of this post.

But there are always going to be consequences to any kind of cap structure, whether it’s geared around a couple $10 million players or several guys in a tier below that. Operating under a hard cap system can put any expensive team in a bind, like we saw with the Capitals and Marcus Johansson just a few days ago.

However, it’s important to delineate between big contracts and bad contracts. Kane and Toews have the former. They do not have the latter.

Most superstars are fairly paid, if not underpaid

This has become a major topic with McDavid’s big $12.5 million per year extension coming: How much should the best players in the NHL actually be paid? What should they actually be worth?

The answer is probably something higher than where their cap numbers come in. McDavid will take up roughly 16-17 percent of the Oilers’ salary cap when his deal goes into effect. He’s also the best player in the league, someone who immediately transforms Edmonton’s top line into an absolute juggernaut regardless of linemates.

Years ago, the NHL’s best players were still making $10-11 million even when the average payroll was closer to $45-50 million. Most of the gains in team spending over the past decade have gone to the middle class of players, who now enjoy long-term extensions worth millions even if their impact pales in comparison to stars.

The reality is that Toews and Kane are absolutely worth $21 million. They’re good enough that their impact on the Blackhawks is worth an outsized cap hit. They’re not the problem. The problem is how margins narrow under this cap structure, increasing the importance of avoiding overpayment on non-elite players. That’s where the Blackhawks have screwed up.

Other contracts are the issue

The Blackhawks would easily be able to afford Kane and Toews at $21 million a year if they aggressively remodeled their cap structure to account for it. Instead, the same summer those deals went into effect, Chicago signed Brent Seabrook to an eight-year extension worth nearly $7 million per year.

This deal, like the Bryan Bickell extension before it, is where GM Stan Bowman really screwed up. Seabrook is a fine player, but nowhere near the top-pairing defenseman he needs to be to justify that contract. He’s also likely to get a lot worse from here as the deal goes through his 30s. It expires when he’s 39.

The problem isn’t Kane and Toews getting what they’re worth as two of the NHL’s better forwards. It’s wasting millions on overpayments to Seabrook when he’s no longer one of their best players, and giving him a complete no-movement clause to boot.

Just imagine briefly what this team looks like if Seabrook is actually one of the top 30 defensemen in the game. Suddenly, you have a monster first pairing with Duncan Keith to his left. That’s what the Hawks got from those two in the early 2010s, but they’re older now. Only one of them has been able to keep up his game at an elite level.

The Hawks got busted paying for past performance with Seabrook. That’s a cardinal sin of long-term dealmaking, and now they’re stuck with a No. 4 defenseman who’s paid like a No. 1. That’s worse than paying a slight premium for your two best forwards.

Bigger contracts are coming

And finally, while Kane and Toews were never really overpaid relative to their impacts to the team, we’re finally seeing the rest of the league catch up to their cap hits. The Blackhawks signed those $84 million contracts with their star players expecting higher increases in the salary cap than they ultimately got.

That limited what stars were getting in their deals for a year or two, but this summer we finally saw the big names start to break through with monster deals again. McDavid got $12.5 million per year, Price got $10.5 million per year, and Martin Jones and Marc-Edouard Vlasic got a combined $12.75 million per year on their big extensions from San Jose.

Next season will be the final one where Kane and Toews are the highest-paid players in the NHL, ending a three-year run. Surely the Blackhawks envisioned these contracts getting passed by others before they were over, helping to make them look more palatable than when they were signed.

Now that’s starting to happen. Kane and Toews have avoided major health issues and their deals end in their mid-30s. The Canadiens just locked up their 30-year-old stud goaltender a year removed from a significant knee injury through 2026 at the same cap hit. I think I know which deal I’d rather have.

The answer won’t be to trade Kane or Toews

This all gets us to the final point, which is that whatever ails the Blackhawks in the coming years, it likely won’t be solved by trading Kane or Toews. Not unless either player completely falls off the cliff soon, and if that happens, well, I doubt anyone is lining up to take on their contract.

So the Blackhawks are more or less stuck with these two, but luckily these are two you’d want to go to battle with. The Blackhawks have, and they’ve won. There’s still a good chance that can happen again in the near future.

But if the Blackhawks wanted to trade either player, they better have an awfully good plan in place to make up for it ASAP because this team doesn’t have any franchise players in the pipes. Alex DeBrincat, slow your roll.

No, the real answer would be the one we’ve increasingly discussed over the past couple years: trading Seabrook. How, where, I do not know. Would he waive his NMC? I kind of doubt it.

Kane and Toews are worth it, though. Even if they’re maybe worth, say, $19.5 million instead of $21 million, it’s better to have them at that price than not to have them at all. You can work it at the $21 million if you don’t make mistakes like Seabrook (or Bickell, or Marcus Kruger, and so on). If you don’t trade good, cheap players like Teravainen and Phillip Danault. And even if you do as the Hawks have, you’ll still have a pretty competitive team because that’s how good your core is. That’s how good Kane, Toews, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford — the core of the core, per se — are.

Chicago has made a lot of mistakes over the years. Kane and Toews’ extensions are not among them, and that cannot be said enough.