[As I noted on Twitter last week, our Summer Blackhawks prospect rankings, originally scheduled for release on Monday, will be delayed due to a family emergency that had me pulled away and out of town last week. I don’t want to commit to a new date just yet, but I am working on it. The draft has taken precedent now. Thanks to all who sent nice notes the past week. I was off the grid for the most part. To those I didn’t get back to, I do appreciate it.]
By Chris Block
Today will kick-off our draft week coverage with the requisite state of the Blackhawks roster business in the wake of the salary cap becoming official for next season.
The Blackhawks currently do not own a 1st round selection in the NHL Draft this Friday in Sunrise, Florida. Chicago occupies just 2 spots over the initial 120 picks in the 2015 NHL Draft. You can expect that to change between now and this weekend, with the Hawks eyeing picks in return for some currently rostered players. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the situation the Blackhawks are in now because of new contracts kicking in, others still to be hammered out and the salary cap being the primary enemy of the defending Stanley Cup Champs.
2015-16 Salary Cap Guidelines Set
NHL released its parameters for the 2015-16 salary cap on Tuesday in conjunction with the National Hockey League Players Association per terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The new “upper limit” is set at $71.4 million, up $2.4M from the 2014-15 season.
For the Blackhawks, that 3.5% increase doesn’t do much to help lift the weight of the cap crush general manager Stan Bowman and company are under heading into the draft this week and free agency period in another seven days.
With Brandon Saad due for a substantial raise from his entry-level contract and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane’s cap numbers each increasing from $6.3M to $10.5M next year, several current roster players will have to be dealt away. Marcus Kruger is another restricted free agent who needs a new deal and will probably see his former $1.325M cap hit doubled.
At this point, Bowman has 14 players under contract for next season to the tune of approximately $64.5M on the salary cap. That would leave roughly $6.9 million to fill the remaining 8-9 contract slots on the 23-man NHL roster.
This does not include Artemi Panarin, who figures to be a part of the 2015-16 Hawks. But the right-shooting playmaking winger also is rumored to have an out-clause that would allow him to return to Russia should he not make the Blackhawks out of training camp. Panarin is a 5’11” winger who led SKA Saint Petersburg in scoring this past season with 26 goals and 36 assists in 54 games. Those 62 points were the 4th most in the KHL over the regular season. He also posted 5 goals and 15 assists in 20 playoff games, helping SKA to win the KHL Gagarin Cup over the Kazan Ak Bars, who were backstopped by Blackhawks’ property Anders Nilsson, the KHL’s best goalie in the postseason.
The existence of said “opt-out clause” is something Panarin’s KHL club vice-president has commented on. I’m not sure if anyone with the Hawks has been asked or confirmed that clause to this point. If they did, I missed it. I would think if such clause does exist then there’s little chance Panarin wouldn’t make the NHL roster unless he’s a total disaster.
Panarin signed a 2-year entry-level contract that is also heavily performance bonus laden. So, he could wind up costing the Hawks much more than his $812,500 per year cap hit should he become a big hit in a Blackhawks sweater. Which would mean the Hawks could face cap penalties should they reside at the upper limit throughout such season. Panarin turns 24 in October.
Saad and Kruger together, assuming they’re both re-signed, figure to eat up just about all of that aforementioned $6.9M collectively on their next deals. Assuming that is the case (and it won’t be far off if not right on the money for those two contracts) that would put the Hawks at the new $71.4M upper limit with just 16 players under contract. Saad and Kruger, in that order, are the Blackhawks priorities at this point.
So, clearly some major maneuvering is now in the cards.
Patrick Sharp, 33, who has two years left on his contract with a cap hit of $5.9M per, is all but certain to be traded prior to Friday’s NHL Draft, with Washington being the most likely destination. Other contracted players, like Bryan Bickell, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Shaw are all potentially in limbo. Un-restricted free agents, like Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette and Johnny Oduya are unlikely to be re-signed.
Though Sharp is exiting his prime years, he’s still a valuable top six player. His contract was also structured so his actual salary dollars back-dive somewhat. Sharp will make $5.5 million in 2015-16 and $5 million in 2016-17. His contact also no longer calls for July 1st “signing” bonuses. Basically what those constitute is the player receiving a lump of his yearly salary up front on July 1. Sharp collected $4M, 3M and 2M on each July 1st in the initial 3 years of his current five year contract from the Hawks. Those lump sum payments on July 1 can be a detractor for a lot of teams that don’t have the resources that the upper echelon revenue teams such as the Hawks have. That’s no longer an issue for the Hawks in trading Sharp.
The key for the Hawks this week is finding appropriate value and trading Sharp prior to the Draft in exchange for some draft picks. Sharp is Chicago’s most valuable commodity among the players they’d prefer to move. Currently the Blackhawks do not have a pick in the first round and their only second round selection is #54, which is the compensatory pick they received for 2010 1st round pick Kevin Hayes electing to not sign with Chicago, instead choosing to sign with the New York Rangers.
Right now the Hawks occupy just 2 spots (#54 and 91) over the initial 120 draft picks coming this weekend. They traded their 1st round pick (#30) to Arizona in the Vermette deal and their original 2nd round selection (#61) to Philadelphia in the Kimmo Timonen trade. The Blackhawks have also lost their 2nd round pick in the 2016 Draft in the Timonen swap.
Bowman must be hoping Sharp alone can bring a 1st round draft choice, with Washington’s pick at #22 probably being the more likely target than anything else at this point, three days before the draft. Picks could still be shuffled around before then and there may be better options as a result. The question the Hawks might be asking themselves though is if the pool of players that will be there at #22 (or in that 20-30 range) will really be all that much better than the prospects in the top third of the 2nd round? Would Bowman and Co. try to package a larger deal to get into the top 15 or would targeting multiple second round picks be the safer bet? It’s a tough question because opinions once you get out of that top 15 seem to greatly vary based on the various scouting services rankings.
This is a huge draft year for the Hawks. They don’t need to land 18-year olds that are a year or two away. However, a defenseman they could draft this weekend could arrive about the time that Niklas Hjalmarsson goes UFA in 2019. That defenseman or another drafted this weekend could also wind up being mentored under Duncan Keith in the final years of his career. The point being, the 2014 and 2015 drafts truly will be looked upon as being the next generation of Blackhawks – beyond Hossa, Sharp, Seabrook and possibly even Hjalmarsson. I believe that’s the reason you’ve seen the Hawks scrambling to sign college free agents with promises and burning entry-level years for guys like Kyle Baun and Michael Paliotta because there’s a lot of uncertainty as to who those next generation Blackhawks will be.
Bickell has years remaining on his current deal at a $4M per cap hit. The trouble with moving Bickell is his actual per year cost escalated over the length of the 4-year contract he signed in the aftermath of his 2013 playoff heroics. Bickell is to be paid $4.5M each of the next two seasons. After another disappointing regular season and playoff, and with questions over the health of his knees, trading Bickell without retaining salary may be Bowman’s toughest bargain this summer.
Versteeg would be a much easier deal. Dale Tallon retained half of Versteeg’s contract when Florida dealt Versteeg to the Hawks on November 14, 2013. He’s set to be paid $4.7M in actual dollars in 2015-16, but the Hawks are only dealing half of Versteeg’s $4.4M cap hit (2.2M). Thus, Versteeg’s skill could be an attractive option to a lot of teams looking to add depth this off season. Artemi Panarin has been penciled next to Versteeg’s spot on next year’s roster already. Versteeg and Panarin are very comparable players as well.
Andrew Shaw is the most intriguing name in the Hawks’ rumor mill. If Shaw is to remain a fourth line right winger, then he becomes expendable. Ryan Hartman can slide into that role at half the cost and every dollar will count. Kyle Baun is also an option in a fourth line winger role, but Hartman would be the frontrunner going into training camp.
But Shaw is still a valuable commodity to the Hawks as well for his versatility and ‘sandpaper’ style of play. Though, again, if they shop Bickell and can’t work a deal that makes sense, Shaw will be the name that other teams will inquire about. Hartman won’t be able to fill Shaw’s shows completely at the onset, but come next spring that might not be a negative trade off. In a year, Hartman could be the better player. Probably anticipate Hartman works into the Hawks plans next year either way, so if they have plans down the middle that don’t include Shaw, it might be time to sell on him anyhow.
Vermette will be 33 in late July. The Hawks certainly cannot afford to pay him anywhere in the ballpark of the $3.75M he’s been paid the past five seasons.
Brad Richards was the type of signing the Hawks will hope to make every summer now – a veteran willing to sign well below his market value for a chance to win a Cup. Richards was 34 years of age at the time he was bought out of his contract with the New York Rangers ($6.667M cap hit through 2019-20). Richards is nowhere near the player he once was and probably shouldn’t factor into where the Hawks go from here. The nine days off after the sweep of Minnesota in the conference semi-final series can’t be overlooked. Richards was one of the main benefactors of that extended rest going into the Anaheim series and it showed as he was one of the Hawks best players at the start of that series. It’s probably best the Hawks move on from this player.
Johnny Oduya will be 34 on October 1st. His 3-year, $10.125M (3.375 cap hit) has now expired. Oduya’s contract was front-loaded and his best paying year was devastated by the lockout shortened 2012-13 season. Oduya was paid $2.825M in real dollars this past season. So, with two Cups now Oduya may be looking to cash-in somewhere with a playoff contender that can pay him a 3-4 year deal at his market value. That’s certainly out of the Hawks range as far as what the salary cap will allow them to pay unless they can shed even more salary without retaining salary or taking any significant money back in return for Sharp, Bickell, Versteeg and/or possibly others.
Bringing Rozsival back as the 7th defenseman on a $1M deal for 1-year wouldn’t be a bad idea. Right now the defense looks to be Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Stephen Johns and two veteran players who are not yet under contract.
The wild card here is Mike Reilly, the soon-to-be 22 year old defensemen who left Minnesota and has decided not to sign with the team which drafted him, Columbus, and going the free agency route.
Reilly has reportedly narrowed his list down to three teams; Los Angeles, Minnesota and the Blackhawks. Reilly was a guest of the Blackhawks in Chicago during the Stanley Cup Final. Reilly’s host was Barry Smith, the Blackhawks Director of Player Development. After Game 1 of the Final, Stan Bowman flew to Buffalo to meet with Reilly, who was visiting with teams at the NHL Draft Combine. Three days later, Reilly was at the United Center for Game 3.
The Wild and Blackhawks are believed to be the frontrunners in the pursuit of this 2011-4th round draft choice of the Blue Jackets. Reilly played a year of junior hockey after being drafted then three years with the Gophers. Being it was four years since his draft, he became eligible for free agency after choosing to leave college and balk at signing with Columbus.
Reilly’s father is a minority investor in the Minnesota Wild. So, there’s that factor when it comes to his ultimate decision, expected to come down this week. Reilly’s father is also a former NHL draft pick. He was selected by Montreal in the 1977 amateur draft (8th round 140th overall out of Colorado College) when Scotty Bowman was still the Canadiens head coach and Sam Pollock was the GM. Mike Reilly Sr. never did skate in an NHL game, however and made his money in the financial industries.
During that time, Mike Reilly Sr found himself in Chicago, where Mike Reilly Jr. was born. But the Reillys do call Minnesota home.
Should Reilly sign with the Hawks that would create some uncertainty and increased competition amongst TvR, Johns and the other young defense that as of now are currently penciled into next year’s roster. To get Reilly, the Hawks almost assuredly would have to guarantee him a spot on the NHL roster to start because Minnesota has an open spot to give. Reilly acquitted himself well at the World Championships playing for the U.S. so there’s the feeling that he might be NHL ready now. It’s highly doubtful the Hawks would dress three virtual rookies (Reilly, TvR and Johns) on defense on Opening Night. Reilly is tall but wirey and could use some time to improve his strength at the AHL level. But he’s in a unique position right now where he’s hyped and has multiple suitors and can potentially leverage himself right into the NHL.
Joakim Nordstrom is a restricted free agent and will certainly be qualified by the Blackhawks this week. His cap hit would be roughly the same (AAV $766,666 on his 3-year ELC) or less when he re-signs under a new 1-way contract.
As crucial as locking Saad down is, Marcus Kruger’s importance to the Hawks shouldn’t be overlooked. Should Kruger’s asking price be too high, or he and his agent be seeking an increased offensive role that the Hawks don’t see in him, then the Hawks center ice position will see a deep state of flux this offseason that won’t easily be repaired given their cap constraints. Nordstrom and Phillip Danault would first be looked to fill that 4th line center role, which is not a traditional 4th line center position as most observers know.
Bowman has indicated they’d be interested in bringing Andrew Desjardins back on an affordable deal, which is probably no more than $1M in Bowman’s mind. A Desjardins return would be good in a stability sense and also because the Hawks don’t have many wingers they’re ready to promote from Rockford just yet.
As for the goaltending position, I can’t see the Hawks entertaining the idea of dealing Corey Crawford at this time. Granted, had the cap come in under 70 million, then that option would have had to been explored. The idea of trading Crawford should scare Hawks fans to tears, but sadly it doesn’t.
Crawford’s first round series against Nashville is often pointed to, but its somehow forgotten that Crawford saved the Hawks ass in that Game 6, clinching the series and then again in the Finals when the Hawks were resoundingly outplayed for large portions of the early part of the series against Tampa. Crawford’s second round sweep of Minnesota gave the Hawks a much-needed 9 days off before the Anaheim series that I would hope history will not forget as time moves on.
Darling proved he can be an dependable back up. But there’s a huge difference in being Plan B and The Guy. And there’s no way of knowing how Darling would handle that role. Crawford is a special kind of personality in that he’s handled the scrutiny of the fans, media, etc in Chicago with incredible class and grace. He’s virtually unflappable and his teammates adore him.
Perhaps the Hawks could move Antti Raanta for another draft pick. I tend to doubt that too, though. If there was a market for Raanta I think it would be evident by now. The reality is names like Eddie Lack and Cam Talbot are coveted well ahead of Raanta and the Hawks would be better served keeping Raanta and retaining a third goalie who has had some success for then at the NHL level.
The “salary floor,” or the minimum amount of salary cap each team is required to spend next season will be $52.8M. When the NHL came out of the 2012-13 lockout, the upper limit was then set at $60.0 million, though teams (such as the eventual Cup champions that 2013 season) were permitted to spend up to $70.2M in that transitionary season. The cap rose to $64.3M for the first full season after the lockout. It rose another $4.7M for this past ’14-15 season and now will have risen 19% in just 30 months since the lockout ended.
Yet, that’s still not enough to save the 2015 Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks squad from partial implosion.
The concept of having two players eating up 29.4% of your team’s salary cap can be debated. It’s a model that has not worked out well for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough had no other choice in this matter, however. Playing hardball with the faces of the franchise, or trading one and not the other would have flown in direct contradiction with everything Wirtz and McDonough have been preaching in the turnaround of the Blackhawks franchise.
So, here they are. With the major Canadian and U.S. television deals firmly in place for the foreseeable time, and the steam dissipating off the mega outdoor games, the cap won’t see any major leaps in the near future.
It’s certainly not ideal, using thirty percent of your cap on two players. It also could make winning a fourth Cup more difficult than it has previously been. New elite level players must be developed and emerge to a high level while still on low dollar or entry-level status contracts.
Brandon Saad becoming the player he has so far on an entry-level contract was a huge part of the Blackhawks’ ability to capture a 3rd Cup in 6 seasons, just as Kane and Toews were to the 2010 team.
More of the same will be necessary for the Hawks to remain atop the league and return to the Finals.
Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the prime candidates for promotion to the Blackhawks NHL roster in the fall as well as a few of team’s top prospects who are unlikely to make the jump from Rockford this October.
Blackhawks Unrestricted Free Agents – as of June 23, 2015
Spencer Abbott [signed 1-yr deal w/ Frolunda-SHL]
Pierre-Cedric Labrie [signed 1-yr AHL contract w/Rockford]
Peter Regin [signed with Jokerit (Helsinki)-KHL]
Kimmo Timonen [retiring]
Blackhawks Restricted Free Agents – as of June 23, 2015
Dennis Rasmussen [appears headed back to Sweden]
Anders Nilsson (never signed – acquired rights in Nick Leddy trade)