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Chicago Blackhawks' Salary-Cap Sacrifices Start Early with Ben Smith Trade

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistMarch 2, 2015

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 16:  Ben Smith #28 of the Chicago Blackhawks watches for the puck during the NHL game against the Winnipeg Jets at the United Center on January 16, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bill Smith/Getty Images

On Monday, the Chicago Blackhawks made an objectively terrible trade, a deal that made them a worse team in the here and now while simultaneously strengthening a potential playoff rival. Why did they do it? Presumably for salary-cap reasons.

ESPN's Pierre LeBrun noted the details of the trade:

Pierre LeBrun @PierreVLeBrun

Ben Smith has been dealt to San Jose. Not sure yet on return for Chicago

Pierre LeBrun @PierreVLeBrun

In return for Smith, Blackhawks get pending UFA center Andrew Desjardins

NHL Numbers tells the story for us. Andrew Desjardins, depth centre, has a $750,000 cap hit this season and will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Meanwhile Ben Smith, depth centre, has a $1.5 million cap hit for this season and also 2015-16. From a Chicago perspective, there’s no doubt that’s the real selling feature.

Pierre LeBrun @PierreVLeBrun

Sharks retaining salary on Desjardins allows Hawks to keep Teravainen up

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 27:  General manager Doug Wilson of the San Jose Sharks speaks at the podium during the 2014 NHL Entry Draft at Wells Fargo Center on June 27, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

The problem is that San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson didn’t wake up one morning with the uncontrollable urge to solve counterpart Stan Bowman’s problems. If he’s willing to take on a player who costs twice as much, there must be a reason for it. As it turns out, the reason is that Smith is a far better player than Desjardins.

Not that the difference is obvious at first glance. Desjardins has eight points on the season while Smith has nine; from a superficial perspective, it’s easy to sell the idea that the Blackhawks made a tiny downgrade to free up some money. But when we really dig into these two players, we see that the gap between them is wider than a glance at point totals would suggest.

We may as well start by looking at usage and results. Smith has been in the NHL for two full seasons, and during that time, he has started three shifts in the defensive zone for every one he started in the opposition end.

He’s had the luxury of playing for a pretty good Chicago team, but given that specialized usage, his line has been spectacularly successful; the Blackhakws outshoot and outscore their opposition by a significant margin when he’s on the ice.

BUFFALO, NY - NOVEMBER 18:  Andrew Desjardins #10 of the San Jose Sharks watches the action against the Buffalo Sabres on November 18, 2014 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bill Wippert/Getty Images

When we look at Desjardins over the same span, he is considerably less impressive. Like Smith, he starts more shifts at the hard end of the rink, but the ratio is much closer to 50/50. San Jose hasn’t been as good as Chicago over the last two seasons (few teams have), but it has been a competent squad, and in that context, the fact that the Sharks get outshot and outscored (by a 3-2 ratio in the latter category) rather strongly points to Desjardins’ line as one of the club’s weakest points.  

Add in other little tidbits—like the fact that Smith leads all Blackhawks forwards in shorthanded ice time and that, unlike Desjardins, he’s won more than half his faceoffs this year—and this deal gets pretty lopsided in favour of San Jose in a hurry.  

It had to be a tough deal for Bowman to pull the trigger on. The Blackhawks' cap problems have him painted into a corner, and he obviously felt this was the least bad option.

But even so, it’s a move that hurts. Chicago is a legitimate contender, a team that has paid a heavy price in terms of its future to get better right now. Making the team worse, even if we’re talking about depth forwards, runs counter to its core goal of winning a championship.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 28:  Vice President and General Manager of the Chicago Blackhawks Stan Bowman attends the 2014 NHL Entry Draft at Wells Fargo Center on June 28, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

It’s a harbinger of the kind of move we’re going to see this summer.

With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane starting rich new contracts next season and the Canadian dollar keeping next year’s cap pinned firmly in place, it’s no wonder that Bowman and his staff have been working hard for a Cup run this season. Nobody knows what other sacrifices are going to be necessary in June and July.  

Statistics courtesy of BehindTheNet.caStats.Hockeyanalysis.com and NHL.com

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

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