Potential Solutions to the Chicago Blackhawks' Impending Salary-Cap Crisis

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistFebruary 2, 2015

WINNIPEG, MB - NOVEMBER 21: Patrick Kane #88 and Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks discuss strategy during first period action against the Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre on November 21, 2013 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)
Jonathan Kozub/Getty Images

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are once again on the verge of seeing a massive pay raise. In 2010, the end of the duo’s entry-level contracts forced the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks to gut their team's depth, sending away a number of useful players and setting the team back significantly. Is such a sell-off in the cards once again?

The situation certainly doesn’t look good. Both Kane and Toews are coming off deals with an annual cap hit of $6.3 million and moving on to new, long-term contracts with an annual cap hit of $10.5 million, adding a total of $8.4 million to Chicago’s books over what the Blackhawks will pay this season.

When these deals were announced in July, that seemed difficult but not insurmountable, as the NHL’s salary cap for 2015-16 was expected to exceed $75 million. Now, with the Canadian dollar plummeting and league revenue dropping along with it, the situation is decidedly more complicated.

Let’s start by considering what next season’s roster will look like. Chicago has eight forwards, four defencemen and two goaltenders under contract for a total of $64.96 million, leaving them with several vacancies and little room to maneuver:

Projected 2015-16 Blackhawks Roster
Left WingCentreRight Wing
Patrick SharpJonathan ToewsPatrick Kane
------Marian Hossa
Bryan BickellAndrew ShawKris Versteeg
------Ben Smith
Left DefenceRight DefenceGoal
Duncan KeithBrent SeabrookCorey Crawford
Niklas Hjalmarsson---Antti Raanta
---Trevor Van Riemsdyk
NHLNumbers.com

As the New York Post's Larry Brooks noted in his latest column, the salary cap for next year is likely to be just under $72 million if the NHL and NHLPA agree to implement the 5 percent escalator in the collective bargaining agreement and the Canadian dollar holds firm at 80 cents against the U.S. dollar.

As the Canadian dollar is now south of that mark, we may see the number drop further than that, so we’ll plan around a $71 million cap. That leaves Chicago with just $6.5 million to pay for seven to nine additional players.

EDMONTON, AB - JANUARY 9: Teuvo Teravainen #86 of the Chicago Blackhawks stands for the singing of the national anthem prior to the game against the Edmonton Oilers on January 9, 2015 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHL
Andy Devlin/Getty Images

For planning purposes, let’s make some assumptions.

First, to save money, Chicago decides to go with a 22-man roster—only one spare forward and defencemen. For simplicity’s sake we’ll call those guys Joakim Nordstrom and David Rundblad and assume they accept their qualifying offers, which I calculate at $660,000 and $913,500, respectively.

Let’s further assume that the team goes cheap at centre, promoting Andrew Shaw to the No. 2 job and sticking Teuvo Teravainen and his $1.34 million cap hit in the No. 3 slot.

Those moves reduce Chicago’s cap room to just over $3.5 million and leave the team with five positions to fill.

Two of those slots will be likely be filled by Brandon Saad (No. 2 left wing) and Marcus Kruger (No. 4 centre), both restricted free agents coming off cheap deals. Kruger shouldn’t be too pricey, given that while valuable, his role does not produce impressive offensive totals. If we pencil him in for a slight raise to $1.5 million, we should be in the ballpark.

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 04:  Brandon Saad #20 of the Chicago Blackhawks reacts after Patrick Sharp #10 (not pictured) scored the game winning goal against the Dallas Stars in overtime of the NHL game at the United Center on January 4, 2015 in Chicago, Illin
Bill Smith/Getty Images

But the $2 million or so left over isn’t likely to suffice for Saad alone—who will be an incredibly attractive offer-sheet target, given the Blackhawks’ cap problems—let alone for Saad plus No. 4 and No. 5 defencemen and someone to round out the fourth line.

Let's assume that general manager Stan Bowman can negotiate a killer deal and pencil Saad in for money comparable to the three-year bridge contract signed by Ondrej Palat in Tampa Bay. (Palat inked a three-year deal worth $3.33 million per year last summer and Saad is a more proven player than Palat was then).

We'll further say that Chicago can fill the remaining three roster slots for $4.5 million in free agency.

Even with those somewhat favourable assumptions, the Blackhawks will be roughly $6 million over the salary-cap limit by the time they’ve filled out their roster.

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 01:  Patrick Sharp #10 and Brent Seabrook #7 of the Chicago Blackhawks chase after the puck during the NHL game against the Minnesota Wild on April 1, 2012 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty
Bill Smith/Getty Images

That’s going to be difficult to manage, and it’s going to entail some sacrifice. The following players are logical trade bait to make it work:

  • Patrick Sharp. Sharp earns $5.9 million per season, but he will also need to be replaced if traded and by a reasonably competent player given the weakness at centre.
  • Brent Seabrook. Seabrook’s deal is for $5.8 million per year, but as with Sharp, if he’s dealt Chicago needs to replace him with another top-four defenceman.
  • Bryan Bickell. Bickell has a $4 million cap hit, and the problem here is many teams will be dealing with their own cap issues and will be reluctant to take that on.
  • Marcus Kruger. We have Kruger penciled in for $1.5 million, but while he plays an important role Chicago might be able to shave half-million off the cap by going after a bargain-bin free agent.

It’s a very good bet that the 2015-16 Blackhawks are going to be a significantly lesser team than this year’s edition. Even if they trade away the first three players and spend $2 million less on each of their replacements, the club is likely to be right up against next year’s salary cap.

The other options are even uglier. Key players—Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson—likely aren’t going anywhere, and given his back-diving contract, neither will Marian Hossa.

Corey Crawford’s a tough sale, too. Only so many teams are ever looking for goalies, Crawford has a massive long-term contract, and managers will be skeptical of his true talent, given the team he’s playing behind. Outside of those players, the only guy making significant dollars will be Saad, who the Blackhawks should be loath to part with.

It’s going to be a long and ugly summer, and it’s going to cost the Blackhawks dearly.

Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.

Unless otherwise noted, salary-cap and contract information courtesy of NHLNumbers.com.

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