The biggest contract concern for the Chicago Blackhawks at the moment is defenseman Brent Seabrook, who can become a restricted free agent after the 2010-11 season.
However, they should also consider locking up one of their young forwards.
Viktor Stalberg was acquired in the deal sending Kris Versteeg to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and is also eligible to become a RFA after this season. Listed at 6’3", 200 pounds and still only 24 years old, Stalberg has matriculated his way up from the fourth line on opening night to skating with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the last two games. He brings elite speed to the ice and has shown excellent hands around the net, leading to four goals and four assists on the new season.
But just getting off to a nice start isn’t why the Blackhawks should lock up Stalberg now.
For this season, the Stalberg’s cap hit is under $1M and he still hasn’t received enough NHL exposure to raise his agent’s leverage. Locking up Stalberg for somewhere around three-to-five years now at a lower price would give the Blackhawks the benefit of having the potential of an underpaid player similar to Andrew Ladd.
Looking back at the recent history of the Blackhawks, players like Stalberg cashed in at the expense of former general manager Dale Tallon. Tallon handed out $3M deals like they were candy on Halloween, giving inflated deals to players like Cam Barker, Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland before they had proved much at the NHL level.
At the other end of the spectrum is Troy Brouwer, who received a two-year deal with a cap number of $1.025M that, with a lot of hard work from Brouwer, into an affordable 20-goal scorer last year.
Like Stalberg and Seabrook, Brouwer will be eligible for RFA status this summer, while another player making $1M per, Tomas Kopecky, will be unrestricted. Considering his NHL experience, locking up Stalberg in the neighborhood of $1M would make sense for both parties.
However, examining the future contract situations on the Hawks’ roster makes locking up Stalberg even more important.
Fans have already seen a few of the young prospects that will play a role in the team’s future this year when veterans have been hurt or sick. Forward prospects Brandon Pirri and Jeremy Morin could be inserted into the lineup permanently as early as next fall, and other prospects like Kyle Beach, Igor Makarov and Kevin and Jimmy Hayes are all in line to potentially jump to the NHL at some point in the next few years.
But the Hawks will need affordable young players to work their way into the NHL lineup, and produce, during the coming seasons.
Joining Seabrook, Brouwer and Stalberg as restricted free agents this coming summer are Jack Skille and Corey Crawford at the NHL level and Evan Brophey and Ryan Potulny in Rockford. If Seabrook receives his market value (somewhere around $5M per), the Blackhawks will only be able to afford somewhere around $1M per player to fill out their active roster next year.
The free agent concerns don’t stop there.
Patrick Sharp is in the third year of a four-year deal he received at the bargain-basement cap number of $3.9M and has well-exceeded that value with his play on the ice. As we talked about over the summer, his value on the open market as a center could be over $5M, which is well out of the Blackhawks’ range with their roster as it’s currently constructed.
For the next four years, the Blackhawks have Toews, Kane, Bolland and Marian Hossa locked up at forward. If GM Stan Bowman can lock up Stalberg at an affordable cap number, and he continues to develop into the exciting player fans have seen on occasion this year, the Hawks could continue to build the core group of players in a manner that allows them to keep players longer than three or four seasons.
But the first step in making that plan a reality is negotiating. It would be wise for Bowman to make a call to Stalberg’s agent soon.