Cap Crunch Bites Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks have had their fair share of salary cap-related moves in the years that they have been on the winning side of the equation. While they had a disappointing first round exit this year, they were not exempt from the same fate this season. Bryan Bickell carried an albatross of a contract with $4 Million and one year remaining on what was a $16 million dollar deal over four years.

While Bickell had played a big role in the Blackhawks Cup run in 2013, that contract had become more of a bad mortgage on a house with a leaky roof. Bickell unfortunately, was a one hit wonder in the Indianhead sweater and the contract was a strain on the team as well as Bickell, who was the subject of many a nasty tweet.

Certainly, anyone would have taken that money, and thought I can keep this going. Cleary Bickell tried, but no one aspires to one hit wonder status. A change was needed for everyone, but it was going to be costly.

The Blackhawks knew it. The Fans knew it, and every team with cap space knew it too as they sat waiting for the opportunity to pick Stan Bowman’s pocket.

Inevitable Cost of Winning

There were hints and whispers that the cost was going to be Teuvo Teravainen around the trade deadline last season, but everyone breathed a sigh of relief when that never came to fruition. However, the thought was stored away in the back of everyone’s mind as the summer got into full swing after the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup last Sunday.

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The Buyout window opened on Wednesday, and that was the final hope. The Blackhawks could buyout Bickell’s contract, but that move would have proven costly next year when the Blackhawks would have had two big players in Artemi Panarin, and Teravainen (among others) hitting free agency. In addition, the probability of an expansion draft and their ability to only protect a limited number of players would weigh on this decision as well.

A buyout would have saved $3 Million this coming season, but it would have cost $1.5 Million next season which could have proven to be a major issue.

At the end of the day, moving Bickell’s contract at any cost was going to be the only way, and it was always going to cost a promising young star as the Patrick Sharp trade had. It was even more painful because Teravainen was a known quantity, unlike Stephen Johns who was still a prospect who had yet to make a real impact in the Blackhawks system. Though, everyone knew of Johns’ promise, which was realized as he became a contributor for the Dallas Stars in the playoffs.

The Blackhawks had a similar situation with Brandon Saad last summer, but at least that netted Patrick Kane his long coveted second line center (Artem Anisimov) and given the end result there it went a long way towards easing the pain.

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Problem Resolution is Painful

So, what do all of these things have in common?

While ultimately exceedingly painful they all solved a problem. By the trade deadline or ahead of free agency next summer, Teravainen was almost certain to be gone anyway unless there was hope that the cap was going to go on an epic rise. Though the hope of that happening is fairly slim given rumors that it could stay stagnant or even go down this year, which is why the Blackhawks didn’t immediately use the cap space to re-sign Andrew Shaw or extend Artemi Panarin.

Both are things that are most likely on Stan Bowman’s mind right now , and inevitably at the top of his list of priorities, but neither is going to come until the actual cap number is revealed by the NHL. Talks with Panarin’s camp can not occur until free agency officially commences on July 1.

“Yeah, the way Andrew played, obviously we like what he brings to the table and we’d like to try and make something work,” said general manager Stan Bowman. “This is a step in the right direction. We had to move Bickell to have some flexibility as we go into next season. But it’s still unknown where cap is going to be so tough to predict what happens over the next couple of weeks.” (Tracey Myers – CSN Chicago)

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Even though everyone will be associating this move with keeping Shaw, at the end of the day Bowman is in a chess match for the long haul, and thinking several steps ahead is always an advantage. Teravainen was always going to be a cap casualty, and it would have been even more painful next year when the team, the fans, and the organization had one more year to watch him progress and perhaps have that breakout season everyone was waiting to see.

Even if it had been an epic year, it might have already been too little too late as Panarin had already jumped onto the scene and proven his value right out of the gates, and he made his linemates better. Teravainen will inevitably get there, and it will have people second guessing this very move for years to come, but the Blackhawks are and always have been about right now. Winning teams generally are.

The object of the game is to prop the Stanley Cup window open by any means necessary, and for as long as possible. While Teravainen could have fit on this side of that window, his inevitable salary increase next year was bound to price him right onto the side that he currently sits on.

Same Time, Next Year

The fact is the Blackhawks would have been in the same place next year; Only the question would have been paying Teravainen or paying Panarin. Unless Panarin has a monumentally unremarkable season next year (which is unlikely to happen), Teravainen was going to be redlined to the best available trade partner at the deadline or before an offer sheet could materialize.

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Many factors have led to the Blackhawks cap woes, not the least of which being the massive contracts handed out to their core including a pair of contracts for Kane and Jonathan Toews at a $10.5 Million cap hit ($13.8 actual contract), each. In addition, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, Artem Anisimov, Marcus Kruger, Marian Hossa, and Niklas Hjalmarsson each has gotten their big pay days and earned multi-year deals. Not all of those deals are going to be as beneficial in a year or two as the players age, and their games are perhaps on the wrong side of their career arc.

Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook are the two biggest concerns and both extend beyond 2020 when Hossa has passed 40 by, and Seabrook will be nearing that number. The Blackhawks are already watching Hossa’s numbers decline, though he is still one of the most effective forwards on the defensive side, he is but a shadow of himself offensively. Of course, he is still a useful forward for Chicago, but the time has come for him to perhaps find his way into more of a bottom six role.

Richard Panik was signed shortly after the news broke that Teravainen and Bickell had been jettisoned to Carolina. A cap friendly one year ‘prove it’ type of deal that is worth $875,000 with the hopes that Panik will build upon the outstanding performance he put up towards the end of the Blackhawks first round battle with the St. Louis Blues and become a bigger contributor.

Panik could certainly find his way onto the top line with Hossa and Toews, or perhaps another player will fill Hossa’s spot giving the top line a fresh new look that could help elevate Toews’ and Panik’s games. Only time will tell as a number of prospects on entry level contracts are bound to audition for a bigger role during training camp and through the season.

The Blackhawks will be hoping to find their own Bryan Rust or Conor Sheary, who each made strides during the Penguins run to the Stanley Cup during the postseason. Much like Saad and Shaw rose to the challenge in 2013.

Cap Reality: Retool or Rebuild

For the Blackhawks, the deep cuts will never stop as long as they are on the right side of the standings come playoff time. In the years that come post Kane and Toews, the fanbase will be wishing for the cap crunch as they sit on the edge of their seats watching to see where their beloved team lands in the draft lottery. That day will eventually come too. The painful rebuilding years will make the retooling feel like a cake walk.

The Stanley Cup requires pounds of flesh and piles of cash, the teams that spend to the limits are always going to have tough decisions to make as they work to keep their core together, but don’t for a second believe that the window stays open without Kane and Toews. While their $10.5 Million is a hindrance, they certainly could have entertained larger offers on the open market.

It would have been incredible to sign them up long-term for a number like $8 Million, but the prospect of seeing them walk away would be enough to produce a shudder in anyone who loves this team.

As he always does, Bowman will rebuild this team to the best of his ability with every penny he has at his disposal and certainly the fan base and much of the league will not necessarily agree with the choices, and the deep cuts he makes but at the end of the day his job was never going to make him the most popular guy in the room. He has one purpose, to put together a team that can win. It will not always result in a Stanley Cup because it is the hardest trophy to win (and repeat) in all of sports, but he will always be working to give the team their best chance to stay in the hunt.

The rest of it is up to the players and coaches, and a little puck luck along the way. One thing is certain, no one is ready to see this train coming into the station just yet.