Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has had the uncanny ability for years now to somehow find a way to squeeze his uber-talented rosters under the NHL salary cap. Bowman’s willingness to trade or let walk valued players with high-priced contracts only to replace them to the same effect with affordable veterans and young players has enabled the team to become the NHL’s dynasty franchise over the last decade. However, heading into 2017-18, has Bowman finally put himself in a position that he can’t get out of?
The NHL’s salary cap limit for next season has not yet been decided, but early indications are that it could remain flat or rise only a minimal amount. Based on 2016-17’s $73MM ceiling, the Chicago Blackhawks would be more than $4.5MM over the cap if the season started today (via CapFriendly). That total includes a total of 13 forwards, seven defenseman, and two goalies, ten of which will make under $1MM next season. What it doesn’t include is new contracts for restricted free agents Dennis Rasmussen and Tomas Jurco, the possibility of bringing back veteran defenseman Brian Campbell, or the Blackhawk’s major need for a backup goalie, which will only off-set the cap by Jeff Glass’ $600K contract.
Of course, Chicago does have some assistance this off-season in the form of the Expansion Draft, in which they will lose someone’s cap hit. The team certainly hopes that that cap hit is from Marcus Kruger. Kruger has played an important role for the Blackhawks as a two-way specialist and reliable third-line center, but at over $3MM annually, he’s just not affordable. Rumor has it that the team is willing to move picks and players if it means that the Vegas Golden Knights will select Kruger, but there is no guarantee that Vegas will take the bait. Defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk has been offered up as a companion to Kruger for the Knights, which at $825K for a top-four defenseman would be a major loss for Chicago. However, if the Blackhawks want to protect forwards like Ryan Hartman or Richard Panik in the Expansion Draft, they currently would have no choice but to expose van Riemsdyk. Thus, the team really lacks the leverage to command any deal where the Knights take Kruger to get van Riemsdyk and such a deal may not even come to fruition. Chicago will do all it can, expansion-wise or not, to move Kruger, but it’s far from a done deal.
Even if they are successful in moving Kruger, the Chicago Sun Times’ Mark Lazerus opines that this may not be enough if the cap doesn’t go up significantly; and he’s not alone. Lazerus states that there is rampant speculation that the team may be forced to move a bigger name than Kruger to become cap compliant. Kruger’s salary would (currently) still leave the Blackhawks in the red and even he and van Riemsdyk wouldn’t do it. Bowman could use roster management to get under, but it would leave the team with little to no flexibility in the free agent market and even for in-season call-ups and demotions. Instead, one of Chicago’s core players might need to move. Lazerus knows that neither Brent Seabrook or Artem Anisimov have been asked to waive their No-Movement clauses to be dealt elsewhere and it’s hard to imagine the team trading many of their other No-Movement players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, or Corey Crawford. Marian Hossa may as well be immovable as well, given that the 38-year-old has four years left on his contract at $5.275MM per. That leaves defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who Lazerus believes could very well end up on the move. Hjalmarsson is the only high-priced player on the roster without a true No-Movement clause, as he has a limited No-Trade in which he can submit a 10-team list of destinations. This gives the team some flexibility to make a move they couldn’t with the others barring a waiver. Hjalmarsson carries a $4.1MM cap hit, which alone is insufficient, but in addition to Kruger and possibly others would get the Blackhawks where they need to be.
If it potentially takes Hjalmarsson, Kruger, and van Riemsdyk – two of Chicago’s top-four defenseman and a key penalty killer – along with goalie Scott Darling, already a cap casualty this off-season, to get under the salary cap for next season, is Bowman’s system really still working? Perhaps more than any other team in the NHL, Chicago is hoping for an unexpected bump in the salary cap for 2017-18. If that doesn’t happen, the Expansion Draft could just be the beginning of the Blackhawk’s shedding of key players this summer.