Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman knows how to build a Stanley Cup champion, but more importantly, he understands how to construct a roster that will contend for titles over a long period of time.
After his team won its second championship in four years with a six-game triumph over the Boston Bruins in June, Bowman quickly got to work and has re-signed three critical components to the team's future success.
The most recent move was to re-sign star defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to a team-friendly five-year contract worth $20.5 million on Wednesday, per TSN's Pierre LeBrun. Re-signing a player like Hjalmarsson long-term for only $4.1 million per season is phenomenal business when you consider the fact that the 26-year-old Swede would be a No. 1 defenseman on many NHL teams.
As NHL.com's Dan Rosen notes, Chicago has an excellent core of veterans and talented young players signed for at least the next two years:
CHI has Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Bickell, Kruger, Saad, Seabrook, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Oduya, Leddy, Rozsival, Crawford signed thru 14-15.— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) September 4, 2013
The most impressive aspect of Bowman's offseason signings is that the club should still have more than enough salary-cap space to re-sign franchise-cornerstone forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, easily the two most important players in the Blackhawks' championship core.
It's an issue that Bowman wasn't willing to discuss when fielding questions about Hjalmarsson's extension. After all, his two best players cannot be re-signed until the 2013-14 season ends, per league rules:
Bowman deflecting questions about Toews and Kane extensions next summer. Says these deals are about locking up key players. #Blackhawks— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) September 4, 2013
Bowman: "We've been planning for [re-signing Kane and Toews]." Team can't re-sign until one year from contract expiration. #Blackhawks— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) June 27, 2013
The goal for Bowman over the past three years was to surround Toews and Kane with the amount of talent needed to win another Stanley Cup, following the roster blowup due to severe salary-cap issues that occurred after the 2010 championship:
How many more Stanley Cups will Toews and Kane win in Chicago?
After accomplishing this mission by restocking the team's depth and finding the goalie of the future in Crawford, it's time to settle Toews and Kane's future. Both are eligible for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2015, when their current contracts, which carry an average annual salary of $6.3 million, expire.
According to CapGeek, Chicago currently has about $36.613 million in salary-cap space committed to seven players (Sharp, Bickell, Hossa, Seabrook, Keith, Hjalmarsson and Crawford) when Toews and Kane's contracts expire.
By that time, the cap ceiling should be much higher than it will be for 2013-14, which is $64.3 million. Based on an August story from The Score, "The NHL's salary cap could go up to $80 million within the next four years, according to Elliotte Friedman of CBC Sports."
Bowman didn't admit history of cap rising year-over-year (except for this year's reset) factors into recent extensions, but it clearly does.— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) September 4, 2013
Even if the cap ceiling isn't substantially higher when Toews' and Kane's next contracts commence, the Blackhawks would be able to shed cap space if veteran defensemen Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival were not re-signed after the 2013-14 season (combined $5,583,333 cap number).
But the most important factor in the Blackhawks' brilliant managing of the salary cap is building depth through the draft.
Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad are two examples of recent draft picks by Bowman who played key roles in the team's 2013 championship. The next wave of young players expected to make a similar impact include Jeremy Morin, Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Hayes, Mark McNeill and future star Teuvo Teravainen.
With so many talented young forwards ready to play important roles in the near future, the Blackhawks will be able to replace veterans who leave the team via free agency or the trade market (such as Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg and Michael Frolik) with guys on cap-saving entry-level deals.
Bowman says priority is re-signing Toews & Kane when contracts come up, will have to rely on farm system to build around their contracts.— ESPN Chicago (@ESPNChiHawks) July 27, 2013
What will it actually take to re-sign Toews and Kane? Given their importance to the franchise's success on and off the ice, it would be shocking if their next contracts were for less than eight years, the maximum term allowed under the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
They will want to be well compensated as two of the top 10 players in the world, but it woudn't be surprising if the two signed below market value to allow Bowman the financial flexibility to build a championship-caliber roster. Toews and Kane don't appear to be selfish stars who care more about personal wealth than team success.
Will the Blackhawks repeat as champions next season?
Matching eight-year contracts worth $68 million, a $2.2 million-per-year raise over what they earn now, would be fair to these superstars and to the Blackhawks.
The bottom line is that whatever Toews and Kane's next contracts require financially to be completed, the Blackhawks should have plenty of cap space to work with, thanks to Bowman's genius handling of the roster.
It's crazy to think that just one year ago, Bowman was on the hot seat after two straight first-round playoff exits. As the 2013-14 season approaches, a case could be made that he's the best GM in the NHL.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft.