By Chris Emma–
(CBS) The winds of change are blowing through the humid Chicago summer skies.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman is a busy man. So soon after Chicago’s third Stanley Cup clincher in six years, the organization must be diligent in creating cap room.
The NHL’s salary cap for 2015-’16 has been set at $71.4 million, as announced on Tuesday, and the Blackhawks have $65 million committed on the books for next season. With that, they have only 12 skaters and three goaltenders locked in, and 10 free agents are set to hit the market.
The Blackhawks are in this position so often because they have hockey’s greatest core of talent in place and must build around it. This is how Chicago beats the salary cap era of the NHL, which is designed to create parity. It’s a luxury to have but a pain for Bowman to work through each summer.
Essentially, Bowman is done hoisting the Cup for a while and back to holding the phone.
Where do the Blackhawks go from here? Let’s look at some of the cap solutions available to Chicago.
1.) Trade Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell
While the Blackhawks have a list of high-salary untouchables — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith — there are some important trade assets who would ease the cap. Patrick Sharp has been a mainstay and key piece to the three championships in six seasons, and he’s an original to this core who dates back to 2006, but Sharp is 33, has seen his numbers drop (just five goals in the postseason) and is owned $5.9 million each of the next two seasons.
The Blackhawks’ lone bad contract, at least on appearance, is Bryan Bickell, who is owed $4 million through 2017. Bickell was a healthy scratch for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, an indictment to his struggles.
Trading Sharp and Bickell will be difficult for various reasons, those large contracts standing as the most important factor. But if Bowman can deal both, the Blackhawks’ payroll will be down to $55 million, about $16 million shy of the hard cap. If it’s just Sharp, the most likely trade candidate, Chicago still clears cap down to just a hair over $59 million. This is certainly a start.
2.) Hope Brandon Saad takes a hometown discount
One of the hottest restricted free agents set to hit the market just so happens to be a guy the Blackhawks are counting on for years to come. Brandon Saad is just 22 and coming off a full 82-game season primarily playing on the top line in which he scored 23 goals. He will be highly coveted by many teams, most notably his hometown Pittsburgh Penguins.
Bowman can only hope Saad gives the Blackhawks a hometown discount — even over his actual hometown — roughly in the neighborhood of $6 million over two years. He’s publicly stated he’s open to the idea, though it usually sounds better in theory than practice. By 2017, Chicago will have a lot more cap flexibility to work with. Essentially, Saad could sign a bridge contract to give Bowman more room to work.
Of course, Saad could well be ready for big money and the chance to be a star somewhere else, away from the spotlight following Toews and Kane. Or perhaps he just wants more money from the Blackhawks — and who could blame him? There’s a lot riding on these negotiations. While Bowman wants to keep his rising star, he doesn’t control this bargaining table.
3.) Lock up a few of your own
The Blackhawks’ easiest way to fill depth is with some of their own. On the roster, there are several free agents who won’t cost much. It’s likely that $2 million would be the max for some of the key players to add depth.
To secure forward depth, viable options include signing guys like Marcus Kruger, Andrew Desjardins, Joakim Nordstrom and counting on their abilities on the lower lines. One of the reasons for the Blackhawks’ success was how their third and fourth line brought such strong contributions.
This past postseason showed how important defensive depth is, so the Blackhawks would be wise to keep David Rundblad or Kyle Cumiskey around with new, cheap deals. You can’t have enough defensemen, as Bowman knows well.
4.) Open the door
Quite simply, who wouldn’t want to play for this Blackhawks organization right now? It’s a group competing for the Stanley Cup year in and year out. A free agent could be willing to take a smaller contract for a chance to be a part of this. Need proof? Brad Richards signed at 34 for one year and $2 million, then hoisted the Cup.
If the Blackhawks can create enough cap flexibility with the aforementioned moves, Richards would be a luxury to keep at that $2 million tag. Now 35, he’s still a commodity for that second-line center spot Chicago has long struggled to fill.
Keep an eye on names like Mike Santorelli, Derek Roy and Shawn Horcoff at center — and even a potential addition of a Martin St. Louis or Curtis Glencross on the wing.
5.) Count on the IceHogs
The rich get richer in Chicago — and, in this case, Rockford — because the Blackhawks have some talented, cheap reinforcements coming. The AHL’s IceHogs will supply the Blackhawks’ roster with at least four key role players who carry a six-figure price tag.
Count on Phillip Danault and Mark McNeill to take on center spots, especially with four centers from the Cup-winning team (Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Desjardins) hitting the free-agent market. While the Blackhawks will likely lock up two of those four free agents, Danault and McNeill will become regulars.
Ryan Hartman, the local product, played five games last year and proved he can take on a role on the third or fourth line next season. He could step right in for Desjardins’ spot and make an impact. And the headliner of this group is Stephen Johns, the highly touted defenseman from Notre Dame. With unrestricted free agent Johnny Oduya likely leaving town, in comes Johns, who would’ve seen ice time in these Stanley Cup Playoffs had he not suffered an injury.
There are other names to watch, too, like Kyle Baun and Erik Gustafsson, but if you’re looking for that next talent like Teuvo Teravainen, keep an eye on Artemi Panarin, who could be a star in the making.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.