Regardless of the upcoming outcome of the Western Conference Final, salary cap constraints will force Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman into making some difficult roster decisions this summer.
As per GeneralFanager.com, the Blackhawks currently have over $64 million in salary-cap payroll invested for 2015-16. Assuming the salary cap reaches its latest projection of $71 million for next season, the ‘Hawks will have around $7 million in cap space.
Forwards Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger will be restricted free agents due for raises next season. Saad’s become a valuable top-six winger. He is coming off an entry-level contract and lacks arbitration rights, so Bowman will likely re-up him to an affordable two- or three-year bridge contract. Kruger, meanwhile, won’t be an expensive re-signing but he does have arbitration rights, which could make negotiations a bit tricky if he decides to push for more than Bowman is willing to pay.
Assuming the ‘Hawks re-sign Saad and Kruger for a combined $5 million per season, they won’t have enough to re-sign or replace pending unrestricted free agents Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Johnny Oduya, Michal Roszival, Kimmo Timonen, Andrew Desjardins and Daniel Carcillo.
It’s expected Bowman will try to replace those UFAs with cheaper players, but he still won’t have enough cap space to replenish the remainder of his roster after Saad and Kruger are re-signed. Bowman has no choice but to shed salary in order to replenish his lineup whilst remaining cap compliant.
The question is, which players will Bowman trade this summer?
Rule out team captain Jonathan Toews and his fellow superstar Patrick Kane. Having each signed identical eight-year, $84 million contracts last summer, they’re obviously not going anywhere.
Forget about blueline stalwarts Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. They’re far too invaluable. Seabrook is a UFA next summer and could cost around $7.5 million annually to re-sign, but Bowman will cross that bridge when he comes to it in a year’s time.
Starting goaltender Corey Crawford is coming off a solid regular-season, with a 2.27 GAA and a .924 SP. He’s an established NHL starting goalie who backstopped the Blackhawks to the 2013 Stanley Cup title. Despite this, there’s a belief Crawford should be traded and his job handed to backup Scott Darling. Bowman, however, recently claimed trading Crawford was something he wasn’t even considering.
Bowman could try trading aging winger Marian Hossa, who is obviously in decline. While his actual salary steadily drops from $7.9 million next season to only $750K in the final two years of his contract, it’s unlikely there will be many takers for a fading star carrying a $5.233 million annual cap hit through the end of the 2020-21 season. And if he retires before his contract ends, the Blackhawks will still get hit with salary-cap recapture penalties.
It’s unlikely Bowman will trade Niklas Hjalmarsson, especially since the ‘Hawks will be losing Johnny Oduya, Michal Rozsival and Kimmo Timonen to free agency. Next to Keith and Seabrook, Hjalmarsson is one of their few experienced blueliners under contract next season. Bowman could put Kris Versteeg ($2.2 million) or Andrew Shaw ($2 million) on the trade block, though on their own or together they won’t free up a lot of cap room.
That leaves wingers Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell as the likely trade candidates.
Sharp, 33, struggled through an injury-shortened performance this season, with only 43 points in 68 games after a career-best 78-point effort last season. He’s a streaky scorer but has considerable playoff experience, including 12 points in 16 games entering Game 7 of the 2015 Western Conference Final. While his cap hit is a pricey $5.9 million, he only has two years remaining on his contract.
Prior to this year’s trade deadline, there were reports claiming the Washington Capitals were interested in Sharp’s services. Capitals management has made landing a top-line right wing a priority this summer, so perhaps they’ll revisit their interest in Sharp.
Bickell, 29, failed to blossom into the power forward he was expected to become when the Blackhawks marched to the 2013 Stanley Cup championship. He has two years remaining on his contract at an annual cap hit of $4.5 million.
Despite Bickell’s offensive struggles, his size (6’4”, 233 pounds), strength and physical play could make him attractive for clubs lacking those attributes on their forward lines.
Shedding Sharp and Bickell sheds $9.9 million in much-needed cap space for the Blackhawks. It’s not a lot, but it could be enough for Bowman to restock their lineup with more affordable young players from within their system, via trades or free agency.