Until Monday night, the speculation surrounding the summer exodus at the United Center centered on Antti Niemi's shadow resting on the locker of Patrick Sharp .
As the Chicago Blackhawks try to solve their problem between the pipes, the need to make salary cap flexibility available in the wake of Niklas Hjalmarsson's four-year, $14M contract that has brought Sharp back to the front page of trade rumors. However, the Blackhawks cannot afford to move Sharp.
When any professional sports team logically evaluates their roster at the end of a season, there are a number of factors that come into play. Obviously the biggest factor is money, and in the NHL it's much more serious than other pro sports in North America.
In Major League Baseball, the "salary cap" means about as much as a fart in the wind; if you miss it, who cares?
In the NBA, if you exceed the cap you pay a luxury tax; NBA teams care as much about the cap as Donald Trump does about filing for corporate bankruptcy.
In the NFL, well, let's wait and see what that situation looks like in 12 months. This will be one of the central issues of an enormous contractual dispute between the Players' Association and the League as they work on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
In the NHL, it's a hard cap. You can't go over, no matter what.
So when NHL teams look at free agency, it's a lot more of a life-and-death decision. If a team locks up a player for an excessively long term and he doesn't perform, the team is saddled with what essentially becomes contractual cancer (cough... Rick DiPietro... cough). Unfortunately for the Blackhawks, the contract of Brian Campbell would qualify as such.
But when a team in the NHL looks at a player, whether he's on their roster or a free agent, the salary of the specific player isn't the only thing that comes into play; the cost of a potential replacement, and the realistic potential of replacing the player, is also important.
In the case of Sharp (and Campbell for that matter), this second criteria is what makes it nearly impossible to move either player.
Consider the following statistics. These are the points leaders at the center position from the 2009-10 season:
Sharp would have ranked 21st in the NHL among centermen in scoring with 66 points. That's fairly impressive.
When you consider his gaudy plus-minus rating, the third-best among these elite centers, he certainly appears to be among the best centers in the game.
But let's take it a step further.
Of the 20 centers that scored more points than Sharp, only eight won a higher percentage of their faceoffs last year than Sharp (51.7%): Toews (57.3), Koivu (56.9), Crosby (55.9), Kesler (55.1), Datsyuk (55.1), Thornton (53.9), Lecavalier (53.3) and Zajac (52.9). As an aside, isn't it nice to have both Sharp and Toews in the same uniform?
So right now we've established that Sharp is an elite center in the NHL based on essentially the three surface-level statistics by which centers are graded: point production, plus-minus and faceoff percentage. If the Blackhawks just wanted to replace Sharp's production on the ice, it would be nearly impossible.
But what about the cost part of the equation?
Of this list of 20 centers that scored more points than Sharp, only three have a cap number lower than Sharp's $3.900M: Zajac ($3.888M), Stamkos ($3.725M) and Koivu ($3.250M). However, Stamkos is in the final season of his entry-level contract and only God knows how much money he'll make when he's extended, especially in light of Koivu's recent extension that will begin in the 2011-12 season with a cap number of $6.750M.
So not only could the Blackhawks not afford to replace Sharp's production on the ice, but they can't afford to do it by trade or free agency, either; the only comparable player on this list is Zajac.
Now add to all of these numbers that Sharp scored 22 points in the playoffs, tying for the team lead with 11 goals. Sharp plays a complete game, and his jersey bears the "A" for a very good reason.
The Blackhawks have moved other pieces, such as Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd, because there is a very good possibility that a younger player like Jack Skille, Bryan Bickell, Viktor Stalberg and Shawn Lalonde will replace their production on the ice this year for significantly less money.
There isn't a player in the Hawks' organization that can replace what Sharp brings to the ice every night.
Now consider a 2010-11 season in which Sharp is the center on the Hawks' second line next to either Marian Hossa or Patrick Kane for a full season. He could be closer to 75-80 points next year playing next to either of those elite wings; fans forget that Dave Bolland and Hossa missed big parts of last season.
Looking around free agency, we've already discussed the reality check for the Hawks and Niemi's camp when it comes to his salary situation. There are goalies on the market right now - Jose Theodore and Marty Turco to name just two - that had nearly identical save percentages to Niemi last year. In the case of Theodore, he won games as well as the primary netminder in Washington for most of the year.
Niemi's agent, Bill Zito, has been fairly public in the last week, speaking with a number of Chicago media outlets. On 670 The Score, he put the pressure on the Blackhawks to get a deal done.
"Is the team really going to walk away from a 27-year-old goalie that won the Stanley Cup? You're crazy; you'll make a trade first," Zito told The Score on Wednesday. "The onus is on the Hawks right now to figure out what it is that they want to do."
However, when CommittedIndians spoke with Zito on Friday, it appeared that reality was beginning to settle in. While his Wednesday assertion that the Hawks would make a trade to accommodate his client was both confident and accurate, creating enough space could be the bigger issue.
"[Niemi's] aware that there's always a possibility that he might not be able to be part of it," Zito said. "He certainly likes it [in Chicago], but he understands the nature of the salary cap system and the CBA part of it."
The CBA and salary cap will absolutely play a role in anything Hawks GM Stan Bowman does the rest of the summer just as it has in every move they've made so far, and that isn't limited to bringing back restricted free agents. If Bowman has to choose between keeping a goaltender with 42 career games played and an elite center, it would, and should , be Niemi that's wearing a different uniform this winter.