Looking up at the rafters at the United Center it is hard to legitimately question what the Chicago Blackhawks’ front office is doing, having lifted three Stanley Cup banners since 2010.
But a salary cap that has done any team any favors looks like it is going to put Chicago in a position that few would want to step in and be in. Having signed their main core to big contracts and then watch as the cap not jump up as maybe they have expected has put the Blackhawks in a sticky situation each and every offseason, one that severely limits what they can do during free agency.
They handed out the biggest contracts to their two biggest stars, giving identical deals to Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews that will pay them an average annual value (AAV) of $10.5 million. Those deals forced the team to penny pinch, which made dealing complementary winger and at the time pending restricted free agent Brandon Saad a necessity.
But while they moved Saad out of town, traded Andrew Shaw, and was forced to give up Teuvo Teravainen just to get rid of Bryan Bickell’s contract, they decided to give reigning Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin a contract extension (2 years, $12 million) that carries an AAV of $6 million.
Panarin showed excellent chemistry with Kane, and the two of them pushed each other towards major trophies, the
latter becoming the first American-born player to win the Art Ross Trophy. Keeping Panarin on a bridge deal allows him to prove he can continue to play at a high level before earning a long-term commitment from the Blackhawks. With him currently sitting fifth in the league in points, it looks like he will be able too.
A bridge deal will also allow the Blackhawks the time they need to move some numbers around. With so much money tied into such a few amount of players, Chicago needed to be cautious before adding any amount of money over any kind of term.
As of right now, looking ahead to next season, the Blackhawks have over $40 million committed into 10 forwards (according to Cap Friendly, after sliding Nick Schmaltz up from the minors). Just Kane, Toews, and Marian Hossa take up over $16 million of cap space while having nearly another $10 million between Artem Anisimov and Marcus Kruger.
They will also Richard Panik heading into restricted free agency. While he has cooled off from hot start to the season, he is already two goals shy of matching his career high with over half the season left to go.
The defensive group is in almost as rough a shape. They would only need to add one more player with five already under contract – Michal Kempny is a restricted at the end of the year and could be an option for the sixth spot. The five under contract, which includes Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, account for $18.120 million against the 2017 cap.
Scott Darling is set to become an unrestricted free agent and despite how well he has played, he may be the top target for the Vegas expansion franchise at the moment, bringing him back may be very unlikely. Mac Carruth is a pending restricted free agent and may get the call as the team’s backup next year with Corey Crawford leading the way in the net.
What exactly the Blackhawks do to create some extra space won’t really be known until the exact amount the salary cap goes up is released by the league. At the current mark, Chicago will have about $6.374 million (according to Cap Friendly) to spend next year on three forwards, one defenseman, and a goalie.
That equals to $1.274 per player, not an impossible figure to work with, but in order to give them some wiggle room, a look at some of the potential moves the Blackhawks could do to free up some space.
The 26-year old defensive minded forward isn’t probably someone that Joel Quenneville is going to want to give up but a $3.083 million cap hit for their third line center isn’t something they are probably going to be able to afford once the Panarin contract kicks in.
Kruger has taken the most faceoffs for the Blackhawks while in the defensive zone, albeit losing the majority of them (48.6%). He has the lowest ZS% at 5v5, according to NHL.com’s counting.
The Swede has shown some strong possession numbers, posting the fifth highest Corsi-For-Percentage (CF%) among Blackhawks’ forwards, impressive considering he starts almost all his shifts in the defensive zone.
He remains one of the best on the team in suppressing the opposing team’s offense, allowing the fewest SA/60 and the third lowest SCA/60. He has also allowed less actual goals (1.70 GA/60) than is expected (2.02 xGA/60).
It will be hard to part ways with a player that has been that good in the defensive zone. But Toews isn’t going anywhere, and Anisimov has joined with Kane and Panarin to form one of the best lines in hockey. Kruger could be the odd man out and create some decent space on his way out.
The Blackhawks are still paying Hjalmarsson under the contract they had to match from the San Jose Sharks so they would not lose him as a restricted free agent. The 29-year-old Hjalmarsson likely won’t match his career high total of 26 points, but he has actually already equaled his best mark for goals with four.
A shutdown defenseman, Hjalmarsson has posted good possession numbers this year (second among Blackhawks’ defensemen in CF%) and has been great in shot/chance suppression. Keith and Seabrook have no movement clauses, throwing them out of this conversation.
Hjalmarsson has a modified agreement, where he can submit a ten team trade list that he could be moved to, according to Cap Friendly.
Boy wouldn’t this be a giant curveball, as well as pretty much destroy the goalie market for the upcoming offseason? Despite his chemistry with Kane and Panarin, Anisimov would probably be a better option, but he has a full no-movement clause, as Crawford’s is modified but with no details released (again, according to Cap Friendly).
Darling has played well in some extended playing time while Crawford was out with an injury, and would come much cheaper. Crawford’s $6 million cap hit is the fourth highest on the team currently and by far the largest number of any player with the slightest possibility of being moved.
Will it happen? It’s hard to make a case to move a two-time Stanley Cup winner but it might the easiest one to make of the ones that could be up for grab.
Crawford won’t make it easy, as he is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, posting the second best 5v5 save percentage, and high-danger save percentage in the entire league right now. His overall SV% of .927 would be the best mark of his entire NHL career.
The Blackhawks have put themselves up against the wall with handing out so many big contracts and tying up so much of the cap to so few people. They have shown the ability to work around it before, but it looks like it might cost a player more valuable than they have ever had to give up in order to keep a team fielded on the ice.
It was almost a best scenario case to get the Panarin contract done now, to give the front office as much time as humanly possible to figure out their game plan heading into this offseason.