Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cap Crunch

toews kane blackhawksThe Chicago Blackhawks announced a trio of signings today and, in the process, solidified their competitiveness for the foreseeable future. The Hawks signed Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to identical 5-year deals worth $6.3 million per season, while signing Duncan Keith to a monster 13-year deal worth $5.5 million per season. While signing these three players was absolutely essential for the Hawks, the deals do come with some negative consequences.

The first negative is the Hawks' dwindling cap space. This is a product of some questionable deals made by Dale Tallon a few years ago. The major problem is Brian Campbell and his salary of $7+ million per year. Oh, there’s still six years left after this season. Campbell isn’t playing horribly. He has 14 points and is plus-6, although he only has one goal. However, if you’re paying a player over $7 million a season you’d like more production than that. The second problem is Christobal Huet, who is making over $5.5 million for the next two seasons. His production is acceptable and solid goaltending doesn’t come cheap, but this isn’t the best contract. The Hawks cap issue is also compounded by the Marian Hossa signing. Hossa is an awesome talent, but at the time I thought that signing would create trouble for the Hawks both in the immediate future (now) and in the long term (since Hossa is signed for 12 years
until he is 42). These signings created the cap problems the Hawks now face.

There are rumours that the team president, John McDonough, pushed these free agent signings because he didn’t believe the young Hawks were ready to take the next step without help. The media savvy McDonough also desired to make a large splash in the Chicago sports market. It may have been prudent to wait, since the young Hawks such as Toews, Kane, Keith, Cam Barker, Brent Seabrook, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland have progressed so rapidly. Although Chicago was the laughingstock of the league for over a decade, so I can’t entirely fault the management for wanting to create a winner at the first opportunity. And if the Hawks are able to win the Stanley Cup this year then the moves will be successful. However, if the Hawks are unable to achieve the Stanley Cup they will not have the same team to make another deep run next spring.

By the start of next season either Sharp or Barker will not be playing for the Blackhawks. Barker makes just over $3 million for the next two years, while Sharp makes $3.9 million over the same period. The reason the Hawks need to trade one of these players is because they will have close to $60.5 million tied up in 9 forwards, 5 defencemen, and 1 goalie. The cap’s upper limit is $56.8 million.

Sharp and Barker are both valuable players on the team, but are expendable considering the depth the Hawks possess. The Hawks will obviously keep Toews, Kane, and Hossa. Both Bolland and Versteeg are younger and cheaper and Byfuglien provides an essential physical element the Hawks cannot afford to lose. This makes trading Sharp the most logical choice. He is valuable and would certainly provide a handsome return of draft picks and/or young, cheap prospects.

Barker is behind both Keith and Seabrook on the Chicago blueline and has seemingly been a part of trade rumours ever since the Hawks drafted him. It would be nice to trade Campbell instead of Barker, but that will be extremely difficult. I would say his contract is untradeable, but the Rangers were able to sucker the Canadiens into taking Gomez’s absurd contract, so there is a chance. Barker, much like Sharp, is a valuable commodity considering his age (23), skill-set (offensive, puck-moving defenceman), and cap hit ($3.083 million).

The Bruins were in a similar situation as the Hawks this summer and were forced to deal Phil Kessel to the Leafs. The return they received was certainly substantial, but it immediately weakened them. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they too will need to move someone they don’t want to. Thankfully, the player they move will be further down their depth chart than Phil Kessel was for the Bruins.

To spend money on the rest of their roster and ensure they have the depth needed for playoff success, the Hawks need to trade Barker or Sharp (possibly both) and still make additional moves. It is likely the Hawks will also make smaller moves this year in order to clear "tagging" room (the concept explained here). Moving Brent Sopel appears inevitable.

Even if the Hawks move both Sharp and Barker they will still be a force in the Western Conference for the next decade. They have all the pieces required to create a sustained contender. Most of their core players aren’t even 25. It’s frightening to think how dominant the team can be with experience.

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