In a league struggling to maintain relevancy (thanks to a commissioner that makes Vince McMahon running the XFL look astute), having an Original Six team in a major market regain relevancy gave the NHL a badly-needed boost that executives openly celebrated.
However, the system currently in place (one that caters to the teams that cannot keep up) potentially jeopardizes this story from realizing its proper conclusion.
The same young players that fueled the Blackhawks revival will quickly hit free agency and create a massive salary cap challenge that Dale Tallon (or his replacement) needs to carefully navigate.
This offseason alone, the Blackhawks have to address unrestricted free agents like Martin Havlat, Nikolai Khabibulin (very unlikely to return because of Cristobal Huet’s contract), and Sammy Pahlsson, attempt to protect talented young restricted free agents Kris Versteeg, Dave Bolland, and Cam Barker, and possibly acquire a center to balance the scoring lines.
Looming over any moves made this offseason are Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, who all hit free agency a year from now and will be looking for hefty new contracts of their own. Therefore, all contracts negotiated this offseason will likely take that fact into consideration.
Priority Number One: Re-Sign Havlat
Already in negotiations with Havlat’s agent, the Blackhawks plan on keeping their leading scorer—as long as the annual salary remains stays near (preferably a little below) his 2009 $6 million mark.
Previously struggling to stay in the line-up, Havlat played 81 games this past year and put up a career high 77 points. Of added value, Havlat often played on a line with Bolland and Andrew Ladd that went up against the other teams’ top scoring line—and he still registered an impressive plus-29.
Before this season, Havlat had not played in more than 70 games since his second year in 2002. This lack of durability led to Ottawa trading him for less than market value. The last thing a team facing future cap issues needs is for a major investment to miss significant time due to injury.
That being said, Havlat’s versatility that allows him to play either on a top scoring line or this year’s group—which acted more as a checking line—makes him a player the Blackhawks need to retain.
Priority Number Two: Attempt to Lock Up the Young Players
Luckily for the Blackhawks, the financial problems around the league due to the economy may curb the frenzy for restricted free agents previously seen in past years. Still, key young players like Versteeg, Bolland, and Barker could be attractive to other teams and it only takes one opposing GM to put the Blackhawks in a major bind.
Versteeg, a finalist for the Calder trophy, finished second in rookie scoring behind Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan. He can play both on the wing and at center, and looks to be a solid top-six forward that will play on both specialty teams units.
His size (just 5'10", 169 lbs.) may scare some teams away—but in today’s NHL skill trumps size, and Versteeg thrives in an up-tempo system. At just 23 years old, he should cash in despite the tough economic environment, and it would behoove the Blackhawks to sign him/match any offers barring a monstrous opposing offer.
Bolland, a skilled center capable of playing on both a scoring or checking line, emerged playing next to Havlat and Ladd and possesses the same versatility as Versteeg. A capable penalty killer and power-play option (including playing as a point man on some power-play units), Bolland’s upside could be attractive to certain teams looking for younger options.
In a perfect world, the Blackhawks would re-sign Bolland and acquire an offensive-minded center to allow Bolland to remain the top defensive-minded option. However, cap restraints and other teams’ interest in Bolland may not allow that to happen—and may force the Blackhawks into a tough predicament.
Cam Barker’s situation may be the most complicated matter of all. Scoring 40 points in just 68 games in 2009 after being called up, Barker projects to be one of the NHL’s better offensive defensemen, capable of quarterbacking a top power-play unit (five power play goals this past season).
What leaves the Blackhawks in a major pinch is the gigantic financial commitment made to Brian Campbell last off-season, making it difficult to heavily invest in another offensive defenseman that will not regularly play on the penalty kill units or oppose top forward lines.
Ideally, the Blackhawks could unload Campbell’s monstrosity of a deal and sign Barker for a much more affordable rate. Reality states that Campbell’s contract cannot be feasibly dealt (unless the Hawks eat the vast majority of remaining money, which constricts the cap in its own right) and Barker may receive a strong offer from a team looking for an offensive spark on their blue line.
Priority Number Three: Re-Negotiating with Toews, Keith, and Kane
Already a strong two-way player, Jonathan Toews earned the Blackhawks' captaincy at just 20 years of age, and should remain with the team as long as he wants to stay in Chicago.
Mature well beyond his years, investing in Toews is a necessary move for the Blackhawks franchise to retain their newly-gained momentum—and should occur well before he hits the open market.
While not having the scoring potential of a Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, Toews projects to being a Mike Modano type of player that can reliably center on the top scoring line, lead the number-one power-play unit, and kill penalties if called upon to do so.
Starting to receive his rightful attention as one of NHL’s top defensive defensemen, Duncan Keith has become the Blackhawks' top shutdown defender—and is an emerging offensive threat to boot (44 points in 2009).
One of the league leaders in plus/minus the past two seasons (plus-30 in 2008, plus-33 in 2009), Keith and defensive mate Brent Seabrook always get called upon to stop the opposing teams’ top scoring line, and have successfully answered the challenge in stifling them.
Despite a moderately successful playoff debut (only six points in 17 games and a plus-one), Keith commands top-level money and the Blackhawks would be wise to oblige on that. Even with the Campbell contract tying up so much money on the blue line, Keith needs to be retained no matter the price tag.
Finally, flashy young star Patrick Kane sits in line waiting for his own big money deal. Unlike Toews and Keith, I think the Blackhawks' decision to sign him long term is not a-cut and-dry proposition.
Kane possesses the potential to develop one of the NHL’s top scorers annually (142 points in his first two seasons), but struggles on the defensive end and has size limitations (just 5'10", 163 lbs.) that likely keep him from ever entering the top echelon of NHL players.
In a normal situation, the Blackhawks re-sign Kane despite his flaws (which his strengths far outweigh) and let his game mature. However, the Blackhawks' sticky cap situation requires tough personnel decisions to be made—and allowing Kane to test the market may not be as foolish at it seems.
Replacing a top center like Toews or lock-down defender like Keith is near impossible, but diminutive scoring wings can be found (the Hawks already have a talented one with Versteeg, assuming they retain him). Sacrificing Kane, if he commands a top salary, could be the correct—if very unpopular—business move.
Glaring Need at Center
Acquiring Sammy Pahlsson at the deadline gave the Blackhawks another strong defensive-minded center, but the need remains for a scoring-minded player to center a line with talented wings like Versteeg, Havlat, and Patrick Sharp.
Free agent Mike Cammalleri would be the ideal fit, but his salary demands and the Blackhawks' already-tight cap situation dictates that possibility unlikely. In an even higher tax bracket comes Henrik Sedin (with his twin Daniel also along for the ride), but signing the Sedins means not being able to afford Toews or Kane (and probably Keith).
A more realistic scenario comes in a trade, with young players like Barker and prospects like Jack Skille and goalies Corey Crawford or Antti Niemi potential options (along with draft picks) to acquire a Jason Spezza (whom Ottawa reportedly became disillusioned with during a tough season) or Brad Richards.
However it happens, the Blackhawks ideally acquire a center that balances the lines and allows Toews and Kane to remain paired on the same line whenever possible. While many teams would gladly take Dave Bolland as their second-line center, to compete with the Detroits and the Pittsburghs of the world the Blackhawks need to match their firepower with multiple potent scoring lines.
How Can or Will This Happen?
Once a decision is made with Havlat, the picture will become clearer regarding cap flexibility and potential needs to fill. Re-signing Havlat does not address the need at center, but it will allow the Blackhawks to focus on that need without having to worry replacing a top scorer that fortifies their strength on the wings.
Retaining Havlat and acquiring a high-profile center would add a lot of new salary, but it also gives the team depth to possibly let a younger free agent walk. Also, a trade for a center could send possibly send salary (ideally Campbell’s salary) to the other team, especially a team looking to make a lateral move and not just a salary dump.
Along with those potential moves, Tallon will have to make the tough decisions on deciding which young players will be signed, which young players may have to be let go, and which young players can be traded away. My view is that Barker and Kane are luxuries, while Versteeg, Toews, and Keith need to be retained.
Stan Bowman (son of legendary coach Scotty Bowman), the man in charge of the Blackhawks' salary cap, has a daunting task ahead of him figuring how to work things out. For the Blackhawks to remain competitive with and eventually overtake the Red Wings (who have already locked up key guys Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen or the long term), Bowman and Tallon must find a way to negotiate the cap while adding to a talented core that still clearly falls short of Detroit.