Sunday, November 24, 2013

Next Blackhawks Sell-Off Looms

The next great Chicago Blackhawks yard sale is tentatively scheduled for summer 2015. At that time both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are unrestricted free agents and keeping them both is going to make the Hawks cap situation very interesting.

After winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Hawks were gutted in the off-season, unloading Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, and Andrew Ladd (among others) in trades, walking away from Antti Niemi's contract in arbitration, and letting useful bit parts like John Madden and Adam Burish walk in free agency. In other words, the Hawks lost a first-pairing defenceman, a No. 1 goalie, two top-six forwards, and a whole lot of depth. No wonder it took two years for the Blackhawks to get back to the top.

Last summer's post-championship off-season didn't hurt the Hawks quite as much, with far fewer significant pieces departing, but the Hawks' depth was still hurt. Chicago dealt Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik in trades, and lost Ray Emery and Viktor Stalberg to free agency.

Expect the next Chicago sell-off to look more like the post-2010 Cup trade bonanza rather than last year's shuffling, because Toews and Kane are going to bring in monster salaries and everyone else is going to feel the squeeze.

Toews and Kane will easily command salaries of at least $8 million a season, and probably closer to $8.5 million. Under an estimated salary cap of $66.1 million, there won't be a lot of room left over for everyone else. If we estimate that Kane and Toews will pull in $17 million combined, Cap Geek projects the nine other Blackhawks currently signed for the 2015-16 season to account for approximately $40.813 million, leaving about $8.3 million to sign 12 players.

To save cap space the Hawks will have to rely on players on entry-level deals, like first-round picks Teuvo Teravainen and Phillip Danault, who could slot in at centre on the third and fourth lines. The Hawks could also save money if someone like Adam Clendening, who will have just completed his entry-level deal, makes the defence. For those three players you're looking at around $2.6 to $2.75 million, giving the Hawks about $5.5-5.7 million to sign 9 players.

With such little cap space it would mean relying extensively on players with contracts less than $1 million (of which the Hawks currently have six). Signing nine players to the league minimum salary for the 2015-16 season of $575,000 would make the Hawks cap compliant, but that makes it tough to win games, especially considering it would mean letting go young players like Brandon Pirri, Nick Leddy, and Brandon Saad.

Instead, expect the Hawks to free up some cap space through trades in order to spend money in a more balanced way. So let's look at the players who could potentially shake loose from Chicago sometime before the 2015-16 season.

Brent Seabrook

The biggest prize to be had from Chicago is definitely Brent Seabrook, although the Hawks will be loath to give him up. However, Seabrook becomes a UFA one year after Kane and Toews and should command a salary of about $7-$7.5 million a season, something in the range of what Dion Phaneuf gets this off-season. Accounting for a raise for Seabrook would further complicate matters for Chicago, unless the cap ceiling increases drastically. He's also the player that would net them the biggest return most capable of keeping Chicago's cyclic winning going.

Patrick Sharp

After the original Stanley Cup sell-off, the Hawks did everything they could to keep Sharp, prioritizing him over a handful of other valuable players. It was the right move as Sharp has been a two-way force since then. However, he'll be entering his 34-year-old season and the Hawks will likely want to keep someone younger, like Pirri or Saad, even if it means dealing Sharp. Plus, Sharp should still bring back some value as his contract will only have two years remaining and a resonable $5.9 million cap hit.

Marian Hossa

I'm sure the Hawks would love for Hossa to retire before they sign Toews and Kane, considering Hossa will be entering his 37-year-old season. Unfortunately, under the new CBA the Hawks will incur a cap-recapture penalty if Hossa retires early (he's signed through the 2020-21 season), which will cost $2.625 million a season. That's still a valuable $2.65 million in savings to use elsewhere. Otherwise, it will be hard to convince someone to take on an aging Hossa with plenty of years left on his contract.

Brian Bickell

With only six points through his first 22 games of the 2013 season, it looks like Bickell conned the Blackhawks after getting hot for a few weeks in last year's playoffs. Still, Bickell will only be 29 in the summer of 2015, and with two years remaining on his deal there could be a market for him considering the NHL's power forward fetish.


Depending on what sort of contracts the Hawks give out over the next couple of seasons, there should be a handful of talented players hitting restricted free agency as well, most importantly Saad and Pirri, but also Leddy and Marcus Kruger, all of whom will have arbitration rights. That's important, because Niemi's arbitration award was too rich for the cap-strapped Hawks in 2010, in part because they had to overpay Nicklas Hjalmarsson after the San Jose Sharks gave him an offer sheet. The Hawks will once again be susceptible to predatory offer sheets, and although they will have the right to match it could mean trouble elsewhere.

For now, the Blackhawks are safe to chase another Stanley Cup. But even as early as this summer the looming Toews and Kane contract negotiations are going to shake up a championship roster.

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