For the third time in six seasons, the Chicago Blackhawks are the Stanley Cup champions, evoking dynasty proclamations from even league commissioner Gary Bettman.
Whether or not you believe the ‘Hawks are indeed a championship dynasty (for the record, I believe they are the closest thing to it in the salary-cap world), there’s no question their management, led by GM Stan Bowman, deserves credit for building and maintaining a perennial Cup contender.
The numbers speak for themselves. Since 2009, the Blackhawks advanced to the Western Conference Finals five times and the Cup Final three times, winning three Cup championships.
What’s more remarkable is how the Blackhawks returned so quickly to championship form after being forced by salary-cap constraints to trade away several key players following their 2010 Cup triumph. Between June 2010 and June 2011, goaltender Annti Niemi, defenseman Brian Campbell and forwards Andrew Ladd, Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglien Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky departed via trades or free agency.
Few teams could survive such a deep roster purge. By retaining core players (notably Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp) and restocking the roster via shrewd trades, affordable free-agent signings and a strong pipeline of developing talent, the ‘Hawks won two more championships in 2013 and 2015.
As in 2010, salary-cap constraints are once again an issue for the Blackhawks. The cap ceiling is projected to only marginally increase for 2015-16, from $69 million to perhaps $71 million. With over $64 million invested in their cap payroll for next season, and with rising star Brandon Saad and reliable depth forward Marcus Kruger to re-sign, as well as several unrestricted free agents (Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Kimmo Timonen and Michal Rozsival) to replace, the Blackhawks must once again shed salary to free up roster space to retain key players and replace others.
Considering how well Bowman did with his previous retooling efforts, and with Blackhawks fans celebrating another championship, there seems to be little concern over the upcoming roster shake-up. Indeed, there appears to be an assumption that Bowman can easily return the Blackhawks to Cup contention.
At first glance, the roster seems in good shape to handle another significant change. Toews, Kane, Keith and goalie Corey Crawford are all in their playing prime and locked into long-term contracts. Seabrook is also in his prime. Aging but still dependable Marian Hossa plus reliable blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson are also under long-term contracts. Saad and Kruger will be re-signed. Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Trevor van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad are 24 or younger. Backup Scott Darling is 26.
But it could be more difficult to shed salary this time around, and it might take longer than three years to return to Cup contention.
Toews, Kane and Hjalmarsson are now in their late-twenties, while Keith, Seabrook and Crawford are in their early-thirties. Despite Hossa’s effectiveness, at 36 he’s definitely on the downside of his career. Over time, his lengthy contract could become a millstone upon the Blackhawks’ payroll. While Saad is undoubtedly headed to stardom, it still remains to be seen how Teravainen, van Riemsdyk and Rundblad develop in the coming years.
Bowman must also ensure he’s got sufficient cap space to re-sign Seabrook, who is eligible next summer for unrestricted free agency and could cost over $7 million annually to re-sign.
It’s assumed Bowman will shed salary by shipping out Sharp ($5.9-million annual cap hit with two years left on his contract), winger Bryan Bickell (two years, $4 million per) and perhaps even Versteeg (one year, $2.2 million) or the pesky Shaw (one year, $2 million) for draft picks, prospects or very affordable young players. Most of those moves, however, could be easier said than done.
When Bowman made his salary-dumping deals in 2010, most of the players he shipped out were in their early-to-mid-twenties, particularly Ladd and Byfuglien. Those he could try moving now are older and aren’t as promising compared to those who were dealt five years ago.
Injuries limited the 33-year-old Sharp to 43 points in 68 regular season games this season. While he did tally a respectable 15 points in 23 playoff games, the decline in his performance could hamper his trade value nearly as much as his cap hit and partial no-trade clause.
Bickell, 29, got his contract on the basis of his impressive performance (nine goals, 17 points in 23 playoff games) during the ‘Hawks 2013 championship run. At that time, it appeared he was blossoming into a power forward, but since then he’s failed to reach expectations.
Like Sharp, Versteeg’s effectiveness was also limited by injuries. It also seems like the Blackhawks are the only team where he’s effective, having bounced from Toronto to Philadelphia to Florida before returning to Chicago via trade last season. Shaw’s youth and gritty style will make him attractive in the trade market, but Bowman could be unwilling to part with him.
The sluggish increase in the salary cap could also hurt Bowman’s efforts to shed salary. Twenty of the NHL’s thirty franchises (including, of course, the Blackhawks) have cap payrolls exceeding $54 million. Twelve (excluding the ‘Hawks) have payrolls over $60 million. That doesn’t leave many teams capable of taking on high-salaried guys like Sharp or Bickell.
Of the ten teams with $53 million or less in cap space, many have self-imposed cap ceilings. In other words, just because they have lots of cap space doesn’t mean they’re going to use it all.
Assuming Bowman sheds sufficient cap space to re-sign his key players and replace his departed free agents, the Blackhawks roster will be considerably affected. The replacements will be low-salaried players, most likely a mix of veterans and inexperienced youth. As in 2010, that means the core players will be shouldering much of the burden. Those players, however, are all five years older and there’s no guarantee they can manage that workload as effectively as they once did
Bowman proved a general manager can swiftly rebuild a depleted championship roster around a strong core of talent into a winner in a short period of time within the constraints of a salary cap. Given the aforementioned obstacles he’s facing this time around, it’ll be very interesting to see if he can pull it off a second time.