This article originally ran in the Committed Indian a couple of weeks ago. In light of the recent news that the salary cap may not rise as expected next year, it seems apposite to share it with you. But you should still subscribe to the Committed Indian here.
One Goal. That’s the message that we hear all the time from the Blackhawks. That goal, of course, being the Stanley Cup. They’re right: that is the ultimate objective each and every season, but there are other considerations for this generation of Hawks, too, and one of them is starting to look more and more like a potential problem. Specifically, what the Blackhawks are doing about bringing prospects through the system and into the NHL.
If you’re familiar with www.capgeek.com (and if you aren’t, do go and have a look.. it’s hours of fun, even if you’re just pointing and laughing at the Flyers’ page) then you’ll likely be aware that the Hawks aren’t just jammed tight against the salary cap this season; next year things get even more.. ah.. “interesting”. As of this moment, the Hawks have 15 players under contract for the 2015-16 season and have a little under $66 million committed in salary already. That’s only $3 million under this year’s cap. The Hawks are looking at being in a state of cap crunch for the foreseeable future.
(Not that I’m going to complain about the Kane & Toews extensions: those huge contracts are going to be the norm for superstars.. just wait till Stamkos gets his next deal).
Stan Bowman is a smart man: the firesale after the 2010 Cup was not of his making and he handled it pretty well. In the meantime, the Hawks have built a pool of prospects that Hockey’s Future ranks at 4th in the league (even more impressive when you consider how late they’ve been picking: no other Cup winner of the last five years is in the top 10) which, theoretically, should provide a steady stream of Entry-Level deals to ameliorate the big money being paid to the stars.
It’s not quite working out that way, though. Sure, Brandon Saad, Ben Smith and Andrew Shaw have made the step up to become regulars in the NHL team, but Jeremy Morin is still struggling to establish himself and other prospects who were at least knocking on the door of the team, like Brandon Pirri, Ryan Stanton, Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen have all been jettisoned. Joakim Nordstrom is back in Rockford. Trevor van Riemsdyk, for now, is a regular on the 3rd defense pairing, so that’s something, but Joel Quenneville has always beeen more lenient with young defensemen.
Because that would seem to be the problem: that Q is reluctant to blood prospects, especially forwards, and keeps them on a brutally short leash. One bad turnover or penalty and the likes of Jeremy Morin or the now-departed Pirri will find themselves benched. Do it a couple of games in a row and you’ll be on your way back to Rockford while he talks in the press about “Needing to see more from you”, whatever that means. Q’s preference on his bottom six, the traditional proving ground for players making the leap from the AHL, is for pluggers and veterans, particularly of the grizzled variety. Thus we’ve seen Daniel Carcillo twice taking up a roster spot that could have been better used on a prospect, at least until he gets injured or suspended (and, lest we forget, it took Carcillo getting hurt for Brandon Saad to get any sort of a consistent run with the Hawks) and the likes of John Scott and Sheldon Brookbank dressing as forwards.
This has, generally, been more of a source of irritation than anything, frustrating for fans who want to get a look at these hot new prospects we’ve been hearing so much about rather than seeing a defenseman on the 4th line. But now, with a potential capocalypse fast approaching, it could be really bad news for the continued success of this team. The Hawks already got themselves into a jam this off season when the Cap came in lower than expected, leading to the shedding of yet another young player in Nick Leddy, who could reasonably have been expected to be a big part of the future. For all the talk of the Cap going into the stratosphere, there are no guarantees on this and there are already ominous rumblings about a weakening Canadian Dollar impacting on revenues (for those that don’t know, Canadian teams are required to pay their players in US Dollars). It’s not going to take much of a drop between the expected Cap and the actual number to have the Hawks front office scrambling.
Next season, Johnny Oduya, Michal Roszival, Brad Richards and Daniel Carcillo will be UFA, and it’s doubtful that any of them will be back, unless Oduya is willing to take a big pay cut. Of more interest are the RFAs: Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad and David Rundblad. Kruger is already on his “Bridge” contract and can reasonably expect a decent pay rise. Saad is coming of his Entry level and will likely end up on a “Bridge” deal as these are all the rage with the smart set these days, but he’s still going to have to get a hike in his wages. If Rundblad is going to be a starting defenseman next year, he’ll need paying too. And if he’s not, why on earth is he anywhere near the NHL team this season? Because those aren’t the only contracts that are up: take a look further down that Capgeek page, into the non-roster players. Matt Carey, Klas Dahlbeck, Adam Clendenning, Mac Carruth, Drew le Blanc and Joakim Nordstrom and Viktor Svedberg are all RFA after this year. Sure, their qualifying offers won’t have to be huge raises, mostly falling betweeen 5% and 10%, and some just won’t be back, but as we have seen this year, every cent is vital and having let these players’ ELCs drift by without ever getting a good look at most of them makes them more expensive options for call ups next year.
No one is suggesting that the Hawks punt this season purely to get prospects playing time, but now, when the games mean a little less, would seem like a time to be seeing what Dahlbeck or Clendenning or Johns or Danault can do. There is more than enough talent on this roster to nursemaid a couple of prospects along, as Detroit have done with Nyquist and Tatar, LA did with Toffoli and St Louis did with Tarasenko and Schwartz. Notice I haven’t mentioned Teuvo Teravainen in this mix: his talent will speak for itself as and when he’s ready. It’s the supporting cast that concerns me.
The time to win is always now, for sure, but I’m sure Rocky Wirtz and Stan Bowman are thinking “Dynasty” and the time to address that is also upon us. Even with the Central Division as competitive as it is, the Hawks would have to try really hard to blow making the playoffs this year. Desperately trying to replace key players with a bunch of raw prospects next season, however, and it could be a whole different story.
As ever, with the Blackhawks, these are First World Problems that a lot of teams would love to have. But with Winnipeg in town tonight, with all the reminders of the fire sale after the 2010 Cup that entails, it’s something to bear in mind. Besides, makes a change from fretting about the Power Play.
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