Salary Cap Reduction Will Tomahawk Chicago

Will this be Hossa's last chance to lift the cup as a member of the Hawks?

Will this be Marian Hossa’s last chance to lift the cup as a member of the Hawks?

When you look around at the financial landscape of professional sports, you see a frightening example of why it is so difficult to create and keep together a team that can win multiple championships. The Montreal Canadiens of the late 1960s extending into the mid-1970s were one of the greatest legendary dynasties in professional sports history. Other examples would be the great New York Islander squads of the early 1980s and the Edmonton Oilers wrecking crew that would immediately follow.

At the start of the 2005-2006 season, in an effort to create more competitive balance across the league and ensure financial viability of all clubs, Gary Bettman oversaw a sweeping change that would put the dynasty to rest forever. The salary cap. Did it have the intended effect? Some say yes, others vehemently say no.  The league has certainly enjoyed more balance on the ice, with teams being able to make their way to the last and final playoff spot in their respective conference and win the Stanley Cup (2011-12 LA Kings) with the 8th ranked payroll in the league. To look at franchises wallowing in financial turmoil such as the Phoenix Coyotes, New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and several more is to know that the NHL business model still has plenty of flaws.

Coming out of the lockout that nearly stole the game we all love so much, the salary cap was set at 60 million dollars (with that being a funny number of course as the league would pro-rate the high end to 70.2 million to coincide with the 48 game schedule). After the Stanley Cup playoffs end and before the summer moves begin, teams will have to re-adjust back down to next year’s cap number of 64.3 million. Teams as a result have been reluctant to add high priced talent either via trade or free agency this season (Roberto Luongo in Vancouver being the obvious poster boy) even though it could improve their chances at hoisting the most cherished trophy in all of sports. It also will have severe ramifications on some player’s futures as there are a high number of entry level deals expiring over the next two seasons for players that most, if not all, clubs will want to lock up on longer term deals.

How Does This Affect the Hawks?

The closest example of the non-dynasty future of the National Hockey League and closest comparison to the fire sale that the sports world witnessed by the Florida Marlins after their surprise World Series victory is the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks were coming off a thrilling championship run and had just defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in the summer of 2010. But Stan Bowman, hired in July of 2009 to replace Dale Tallon as general manager, knew he was sitting on a time bomb. After just one title run, he knew there was no way he could keep this group together for barely another week, let alone another year. It would lead to the departure of some key players vital to that run as Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg were ex-employees of the Chicago franchise a month after drinking from Lord Stanley.

Bowman than had to work on extending Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. He would haggle with the agents of those players for as little as $50,000 in an effort to save every last precious penny that was available to him. Every general manager wishes he could hear the response back from Toews himself, when Bowman went to visit him at his Chicago condominium in the summer of 2010 to explain the dire straits….

‘I don’t want my contract to get in the way and, if I sign, everybody says, ‘Does that mean I’m going to get traded or what?’ about (Keith) and Kane. So unless we can do it together I really don’t care about my contract,’

While Bowman can be credited for putting Chicago back on semi-solid financial footing, he is facing yet another crunch in the coming seasons. Let’s further examine just what we are talking about before I get to the player I fear could be the next casualty of the cap.

The Salary Cap Crunch

Blackhawks under contract 2013-2014 18
Total salary committed 60,035,962
Salary Cap 2013-2014 64,300,000
Projected cap space 4,264,038

If you project out healthy scratches, injuries, suspensions, etc. most NHL clubs typically will carry 23-25 players on its active roster with the corresponding salary counting against the cap threshold. In other words, the Blackhawks have to sign 5-7 players with only 4.2 million dollars in cap space, an average of 600-850 thousand per player. Let’s have a quick look at just who is not under contract once the summer begins and what they were earning this season….

Markus Kruger Restricted Free Agent 900,000
Nick Leddy Restricted Free Agent 1,116,666
Viktor Stalberg Unrestricted Free Agent 875,000
Jamal Mayers Unrestricted Free Agent 650,000
Bryan Bickell Unrestricted Free Agent 541,667
Michal Rosival Unrestricted Free Agent 2,000,000
Ray Emery Unrestricted Free Agent 1,150,000

Now let’s review who might be signed and at what cost. Of course, this is all speculative so we  chose a standard 10% raise across the board….

Markus Kruger Resigned 990,000
Nick Leddy Resigned 1,228,332
Viktor Stalberg Resigned 962,500
Jamal Mayers Free Agent N/A
Bryan Bickell Resigned 595,833
Michal Rosival Free Agent N/A
Ray Emery Resigned 1,265,000

The Blackhawks would be wise to try and retain Emery at that cost to backup Corey Crawford, especially coming off the season he has had behind the Chicago defense. Do not see a place going forward for Mayers and he is listed as a free agent who Bowman will not retain. Not many fans are going to envision a scenario where Rosival is with the big club past this season. Most agree he is too brittle at this point in his career to justify that salary.

 

United Center (Lindsey Ungar/Flickr)

United Center (Lindsey Ungar/Flickr)

The End Result

The assumption shown above will bump the Hawks back up to 23 players on the active roster but puts them short on the new salary cap by 777,627. And there lies the problem. This is not even taking into account the 2014-2015 season when expiring contracts will be among the likes of Dave Bolland, Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Bollig. Andrew Shaw and Niklas Hjalmarsson. To say that the 10% assumed raise is light is an understatement. The situation could potentially be worse depending on the particular mood of any given agent on any chosen morning. A slight deviation in the taste of the milk they choose for their morning cereal could easily bump that figure to 20 or 25%.

What could be the potential solution for Stan Bowman then? There really is not much choice but to make some tough decisions on some good hockey players. Bowman has done a good job to ensure there are not many long term deals on the books, the Blackhawks only having 3; Patrick Sharp is signed through 2017, Marian Hossa 2021 and Duncan Keith 2023. Hiding behind the scenes are upcoming extensions however for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, both in 2015 and Brent Seabrook in 2016.

Reality

The only logical thing Bowman can do after this season is to cut ties with Marian Hossa. He has brought some of his best hockey to the Windy City, scoring 78 goals and adding 107 assists in 203 games, helping the team win the Stanley Cup in 2010. But reality has to take precedence over anything else in today’s salary structured world of professional sports and the facts are Hossa will turn 35 years old at the middle of next season and is owed 5.275 million dollars all the way out to 2021. An amnesty buyout looks to be Bowman’s one and only choice in this matter. Everyone will agree that the long term deals of Sharp and Keith would be the two to remain on the ledger. Letting Marian walk and thanking him for his service would flip the cap scenario from being negative to having another 4.5 million dollars to play with. And in today’s NHL, that makes a world of difference in earning extra playoff revenue versus an early visit to the links.

Similarly, fellow writer Steve Ives did a great piece on Who Are The NHL Amnesty Buyout Candidates (Eastern Conference) with the Western conference to follow. It is a great read and highly recommended.

Blackhawks news and notes

Patrick Sharp is scheduled to resume skating as early as today with coach Joel Quennville commenting his forward’s recovery from a torn AC joint is ‘progressing’. The Hawks were stymied by an absolutely fantastic performance by Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky last night as the teams played a 65 minute thriller in Ohio. Patrick Kane, who earlier picked up his 400th NHL point with a sublime saucer dish to Johnny Oduya, scored the shootout winner as the Hawks picked up the bonus point. The club leads the league with 47 points in 27 games, 4 ahead of the second place Anaheim Ducks.

Andy Graziano

Andy Graziano

Andy resides in Central NJ with his wife and two children. He has played and coached the great sport of hockey for over 30 years and is in his first year covering the Chicago Blackhawks for THW. Childhood hero was Steve Yzerman and favorite author is Stephen King. 'If it isn't fun, it's not worth playing' 'You score on 0% of the shots you don't take' You can follow his exploits and adventures on Twitter : @tazman19.
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