The Chicago Blackhawks breathed a sigh of relief and patted themselves on the back earlier this month when they signed superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to long-term extensions, which will keep them with the team through the 2022-2023 season.
But business never stops for any NHL team, and that means the Blackhawks have to move on to the next piece of contractual strategy.
If the goal of general manager Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville is for the Blackhawks to remain a Stanley Cup contender, they have to keep a strong supporting cast in addition to their superstars. Toews and Kane can't do it alone, even though both players will be paid more than $10 million per season commencing in 2015-2016.
Left wing Brandon Saad also figures heavily in the Blackhawks' long-term future. Saad, 21, has already played two full seasons and has established himself as one of the team's most important players. He plays with speed, aggressiveness and skill every night.
Saad scored 19 goals and 28 assists and recorded a plus-20 rating in 78 regular-season games. He had an outstanding Corsi rating of 57.7, according to ExtraSkater.com, and that was the third-best on the Blackhawks behind Toews and Marian Hossa.
Saad continued to be a mainstay in the postseason. He scored six goals and added 10 assists in 19 games, and he recorded a plus-10 rating.
Saad is entering the final year of his entry-level contract with the Blackhawks, and he is scheduled to earn slightly more than $764,000. He will be due for a new contract prior to next season as a restricted free agent, and it's quite clear that he will cost the Blackhawks a lot more than he is currently earning.
Just how much more will largely be determined by his contribution in 2014-15 and the kind of salary-cap room the Blackhawks have available in 2015-16 and the years that follow.
All teams are operating with a $69 million salary cap this season. That figure is likely to go up in the future because the NHL appears to be a successful league that is earning money.
However, many teams were anticipating a salary cap that exceeded $70 million this year, but it did not get that high. Any estimation of what the cap will be in future years is simply guesswork.
The Blackhawks are more than $2.2 million over the cap for the upcoming season, and they will eventually have to make roster adjustments so they are below the cap. The Blachawks are currently $3.2 million below the $69 million cap for the 2015-16 season. That cap figure will be subject to future adjustment.
When Saad comes up for a new contract next year, it seems likely that he will want a contract in excess of $2.5 million per year. That figure could be low, but Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers just signed a two-year, $4.95 million contract on July 23, according to Larry Brooks of the New York Post.
Saad has been in the NHL on a full-time basis since the start of the 2012-13 season. It stands to reason that if Saad can continue to improve this season—quite likely for a young player who has already demonstrated impressive talent—he would earn a contract offer that is somewhat better than the one Kreider just signed.
Some of the other young forwards in the NHL who will be due for a new contract prior to the 2015-2016 season include Jakob Silfverberg of the Anaheim Ducks, Tomas Tatar of the Detroit Red Wings and Alex Galchenyuk of the Montreal Canadiens. Those three players are in the final year of their entry-level deals, and all will be keeping an eye on each other from a contractual point of view.
Complicating matters for the Blackhawks is that they will also have to contend with a number of free agents on their own roster. Defensemen Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents prior to 2015-16 and so are forwards Brad Richards and Peter Regin. Marcus Kruger and Nick Leddy will be restricted free agents.
Who is the Blackhawks' top priority signing for the future?
Bowman simply cannot rest on his recent accomplishments. He needs to get the team below the salary cap for the upcoming season, and he must keep an eye on the future.
Saad appears to be an integral part of the game plan for years to come.
That means Bowman must be prepared to manipulate his roster if he wants to keep talented, young players around on a long-term basis. Some veteran players appear to be at risk, but it seems quite certain that Saad will be around for years to come.
The Blackhawks will find a way to sign him because he has too much speed and ability to keep him from being anything but a long-term member of the team's core.