There isn’t a team in the NHL in more cap trouble than the Chicago Blackhawks. It isn’t a coincidence that the Blackhawks have been one of the most successful teams in the league over the last half-decade; the team has had to walk a fine line between keeping itself a contender and complying with the salary ceiling.
Unlike Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Boston (the three teams that CapGeek.com lists as currently being over the cap) Chicago doesn’t have a ready-made solution in the form of a player ready to be assigned to long-term injured reserve.
What it does have is a useful yet expendable player to dangle in front of other teams.
Back in July, we wrote that trading Nick Leddy for futures was Chicago’s easiest way out of its current cap predicament. The removal of his $2.7 million cap hit would go a long way toward getting Chicago back in the black (CapGeek’s best guess at the team’s roster has them roughly $2.2 million over the league-mandated limit), and with both David Rundblad and Adam Clendening in the system the team has built-in replacement options. Such a trade would also remove an impediment next summer, when Leddy becomes a restricted free agent.
It’s a far better idea than trading Johnny Oduya, who is much less replaceable in his key role on the Blackhawks’ shutdown pairing.
But even with Leddy gone, the Blackhawks are going to be close to the ceiling. That gives them limited ability later in the year to take on salary to address any weaknesses that have developed or simply to load up with rentals for the playoffs. It means that they’ll need to watch every penny, perhaps going with a 22-man roster rather than a full 23-man list at points in the year. It might mean promoting Michael Leighton to the backup role at times and sending waiver-exempt Antti Raanta to the minors (there is a $200,000 difference in the cap hits of the two, and while Raanta is on a one-way deal it’s cheap enough to bury if needed).
The solution is to jettison luxuries. Oduya doesn’t qualify; he plays a critical role for the team. Better candidates can be found up front.
Kris Versteeg is often mentioned, largely because he fell sharply out of favour in the 2014 postseason. Chicago got him from Florida with the idea that he’d be a cheap scorer; the Panthers retained half of his salary to make him go away. The Blackhawks could probably dump him if they were willing to include a draft pick or prospect in the transaction, and particularly if they opted to retain a portion of his current $2.2 million cap hit.
Bryan Bickell had a good postseason for the second consecutive year and Chicago obviously loves his size, but he’s another good candidate for a trade out of town. He was only playing 11:21 per game in the regular season, managing 15 points and a minus-six rating for a contender, and he earns $4.0 million per year. He does have a limited no-trade clause, but like all big wingers with some scoring touch he probably has a modicum of trade value.
Moving those guys might be easier said than done, and Chicago is on the clock. Unlike Boston, which needs to clear room to get Torey Krug and Reilly Smith in for an exhibition game or two, the Blackhawks can wait until the end of camp without obvious ramifications. The negative part of such an approach is that the closer they get to opening night the less leverage the team will have in negotiations.
But if Chicago can trade Leddy for futures and then follow that up by moving one of their superfluous forwards out of town (including a necessary sweetener in the latter deal) the team’s cap problems will be solved and the club’s status as a contender won’t be significantly impacted. It's the ideal solution, if general manager Stan Bowman can find a team willing to help him out.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.