The confetti has barely been swept up from the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup Championship parade, and already salary-dumping scenarios for the Hawks are being concocted. While Islanders great Mike Bossy suggested the Hawks can become a dynasty, some observers say the party’s already over as The Cap, in their eyes, crushes all hope.
Where the truth is, perhaps, only Chicago GM Stan Bowman knows. At least, Hawks fans hope he does.
Based on his statements, Bowman has made the salary cap issue a priority for some time, and is weighing his options. “There’s not one way to approach it. We’ve been preparing for this for a long time. It’s not something that caught us off-guard. We’d love to have everybody back, but that’s just not a possibility. So, we’ve got to move on.”
That said, where are the Blackhawks now, and what might the direction of the team be in the off-season?
The quandary starts with figuring out what ‘The Cap’ really is. The two Internet sites devoted to monitoring NHL teams’ cap-related activity, and often quoted in discussions of the subject are NHLNumbers.com and CapGeek.com. These offer different versions of teams’ budgets and the attendant restrictions.
Attempts to explain the complexities of negotiating the salary cap, and the management thereof, are often less than clear. Teams are allowed to spend a maximum amount over the course of a season; however, this not a hard number, but a total amount calculated according to the days that players actually spend on the active roster. So while the amount of the annual payroll constitutes an overall parameter, the cap hit is revised on a daily basis.
When Stan Bowman shuffled players like Jack Skille, Brian Bickell and Jacob Dowell in and out of the AHL farm team in Rockford this year, it was noted that every day they were off the roster produced incremental savings that eventually added up.
The complexity of the calculation was apparently also a factor in why Bowman didn’t replace injured players with ‘rentals’ at the trade deadline; and affected the status of players like Dave Bolland and Adam Burish relative to Long Term Injury Reserve, which also affects cap fluctations.
The Blackhawks’ announcement this past year of the signing of their marquee stars, Captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith to extensions, touched off a flurry of forecasts. Canada’s TSN network, in particular, was certain that ‘tagging issues’ (the impact that future monies committed have on current cap levels) would scupper the Hawks, and that players Patrick Sharp and Brent Sopel would be traded. TSN fueled the rumor mills accordingly. However, when nothing of the sort happened, TSN maven Bob McKenzie had to wipe the egg off his face, admitting on Twitter he didn’t really understand how tagging worked.
In 2009-10, the Blackhawks, according to the information available from NHLNumbers.com, played with a roster that had a total cap hit of $62.9 million dollars. But if the so-called ‘cap ceiling’ for 2009-10 was $56.8 million, the number most often referred to in the hockey media, how does that add up?
And if, as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman suggested recently, the cap number is rising for next season by two to two and half million, what is the real operational ceiling for salaries and bonuses for 2010-11?
Depending on who you believe, the budgetary guidelines for 2010-11, may be anywhere from about just under fifty-nine to over sixty-four million. This presumably includes what NHLNumbers.com and CapGeek.com, refer to as the ‘bonus cushion’.
Unless one has access to the proprietary information of NHL GMs, the guessing game on cap management is just that.
There is no question the executive branch in Chicago has plenty of work to do. Both Hawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz and Stan Bowman have made it clear, for many months now, the Blackhawks have adopted a philosophy of securing a core group, while, as Wirtz said in an interview in the Chicago Sun Times, “filling in the rest of the roster.”
Rather than attempting to predict how the Blackhawks may re-tool their lineup for next year, let’s examine the assets they have on hand; the value of these assets in potential transactions; and the impact these moves may have on the performance of the team.
One of the keynotes of the Chicago Blackhawks’ approach to developing its players is versatility. Coach Joel Quenneville sprinkles his statements with the phrases “plays in all situations”, “Lots of options”, and “different looks”.
In practice, the movement of Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg from wing to center, and Dustin Byfuglien between the defense and forward positions provided some of the more dramatic examples.
This emphasis on versatility was demonstrated as Quenneville shuffled his lines, defense pairs, and even his goaltenders, throughout the season. In the playoffs, he didn’t hesitate to switch up his combinations while facing different opponents. This earned him some criticism, but with a Stanley Cup now in the house, the nay-saying is muted.
Another issue that was raised during the season, especially in view of the targeting of star players by other teams, was that of the need for physical players. The acquisition of the veteran Nick Boynton for playoff duty; the signing of prospects like Brendan Bollig and Ryan Stanton; and the speculation about up and coming agitator Kyle Beach as a latter-day Al Secord, combining scoring punch with throwing a punch, all spoke to that issue.
How do the Hawks see the development of the team, relative to their stated objective of remaining a contender for years to come?
We have already seen how the coaching staff has grown the talent on hand.
Patrick Kane has substantially improved his game, as has Dave Bolland, and Dustin Byfuglien; Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg have gone from being spare parts on their former teams to clutch performers. Youngsters like Niklas Hjalmarsson (becoming a legitimate Top 4 d-man) and Troy Brouwer (scoring over 20 goals last year) have become valuable components. The previously unknown Antti Niemi, who wrested the number one job from the highly paid Cristobal Huet, is the first Finnish netminder, and one of a handful of rookies, to win a Stanley Cup.
It’s reasonable to expect these players to continue their improvement.
The Hawks are built for the future: the majority of the team is less than 27 years of age. Barely into their twenties, Conn Smythe and Olympic Gold medalist Toews, and silver Olympian Kane are already all-world. Being signed long term along with Norris Trophy nominee Keith, and cornerstones like Hossa and Campbell secure for years to come, those five alone are a starting line-up as impressive as any in the NHL. Backstopped by Niemi, the Hawks have a solid core around which to continue as contenders.
Beyond that, Chicago’s depth is cited frequently. When asked why the Flyers were beaten by the Hawks, Philly captain Mike Richards was blunt: “They rolled four lines. We could only roll three.”
The Blackhawks being very conscious of marketing their players to their audience, it’s probably no accident that the ‘Black Aces’ (players brought up for the playoffs who are held in reserve) were introduced individually by former Hawks star, and current TV broadcaster Ed Olczyk during the Cup parade on June 12th.
Among the prospects who were singled out: defensemen Brian Connelly and Shawn Lalonde; forwards Bickell, Dowell and Beach; and goalie Corey Crawford. Are these kids being groomed for a shot at the big club next year?
During post-victory interviews with ESPN Chicago and the Chicago Daily Herald, Stan Bowman made no secret of his intention to make changes. The players concurred.
With Cam Barker’s $3 million leaving in the trade that brought Kim Johnsson, albeit briefly, and more importantly, former first round pick defenseman Nick Leddy, from Minnesota, Bowman began the process of paring down the salary mass while migrating the team to a more equitable balance between premium priced and less expensive players.
It should be noted here that Bowman’s management style represents a significant shift from that of his predecessor Dale Tallon, who spent liberally on free agents, many of whom did not deliver full value. Adrian Aucoin, Martin Lapointe, Robert Lang have already been forgotten. Martin Havlat and Nikolai Khabibulin also ate up massive chunks of salary cap, yet were uneven in the overall picture.
The Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet contracts were the most severely criticized signings, and may have contributed to Tallon’s eventual exit from the GM chair.
The resolution of Huet’s situation appears imminent. Says Bowman: “Obviously, the goaltending is a situation we’re going to have to look at and figure something out. But we’re going to work on that. We’ll get it straightened out by October.”
Hawks radio announcer John Wiedeman seemed to concede, in a recent interview with The NHL Network, that Huet may have played his last days in Chicago.
The elimination of his $5.625 million from the cap number could be a foregone conclusion.
Whether than means sending the French-born goalie to the minors, waiving him, attempting to arrange a transfer back to the European Leagues or even the KHL, remains to be seen.
The impact of Cristobal Huet’s presumed subtraction is significant. NHLNumbers.com pegs the current cap hit for the Hawks at $57.56 million; post-Huet, that hit is 51.95. If the cap rises by two million or more, and the operational number is equal or superior to the 2009-10 number of $62.99MM, that would already give Stan Bowman anywhere from eleven to thirteen million dollars to work with.
Meanwhile, Campbell has shown he is a central cog in the Hawk machine, and posted an impressive plus-11 during the playoffs, setting up a number of game-changing goals, specifically Patrick Kane’s OT Cup winner.
Much is made of Marian Hossa’s contract; but the annual cap hit ($5.233MM) is in fact lower than that of Havlát’s previous $6MM deal. Few would dispute Hossa is a major upgrade.
Using the online calculator at CapGeek.com, one can plug in any number of potential rosters for one’s team.
Doing the exercise with the Blackhawks in mind, a variety of results is achieved. Depending on what cap ceiling number one accepts as being credible, the cost-cutting transactions assumed necessary to assemble a 20-22 man roster can be easily illustrated.
Running the Cap Geek calculator, using a number equal to the $63 million the Hawks operated with last year, very few changes were shown as being necessary. In that theoretical model, Niemi’s and Hjalmarsson’s salaries were adjusted to $2.5 and $2 million respectively; prospects like Kyle Beach and Brian Bickell filled spots left by departing free agents.
In a ‘worst case’ scenario, what does Stan Bowman really need to do? Would the trading of a Sharp or Versteeg cripple the Hawks? Given that they were once deemed expendable, yet became Cup winners in Chicago, it is still possible they could be replaced.
In the business of hockey, sentiment gives way to the bottom line.
For those who want to slice and dice the roster, many hours can be spent on sites like Cap Geek. These virtual mechanisms are, at best, approximations, but they begin to give us an idea of just how difficult—or easy, depending on your point of view—it is to be a GM.
In the real world of possible trades, Stan Bowman is in the best posture. Every one of his players is a Stanley Cup winner, and other teams are always in the market for Stanley Cup winners.
Names mentioned include Sharp, Versteeg, Byfuglien, Kopecky and Campbell. Their annual salaries range from one point two million, to seven million. Looking at the money paid to similar players at their positions, all of them, even Campbell, are in the range of the current market price (witness similar numbers for d-men like Chara, Niedermayer,Bouwmeester, Boyle, Phaneuf, Jovanovski and Redden, to name a few). To underscore that, all one has to do is look at how the overheated UFA market has driven GMs to shell out major dollars and no trade clauses.
Teams looking for Cup-winning talent along with cost certainty can look to Stan Bowman as a trading partner. Any one of the aforementioned players would have an immediate and positive impact.
Would the Hawks be ready and able to deal for first or second picks in the upcoming draft?
The 2010 crop of UFAs is being described as ‘thin’ by a number of observers including Yvon Pedneault, recognized in Canada and Quebec as one of the sport’s most eminent analysts.
In his recent radio broadcast on Corus Sports in Montreal, Pedneault asserted that the discussions between General Managers have already been taking place and that we can expect substantial trading leading up to the amateur draft and free agent market, both just two weeks away.
Lest anyone argue that the Blackhawks front office is in ‘panic mode’, the fact is that the cap ceiling for 2010-11, whatever it might be, does not come into effect until opening day in October. Between now and then, there are more than three months for wheeling and dealing.
Contrary to the cynical view of the Chicago Blackhawks being a ‘one hit wonder’, the current situation reflects the reality of change as part and parcel of professional team sports. As has been proven time and time again, the sum of the parts is always superior to the individual.
The Blackhawks showed that a team, playing within a well-thought out system, and each man executing his task, can make its way to the top. Staying there is another matter; succeeding as back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions, is something no team has done in more than a decade.
The last team to do so, the Red Wings, and the one previous, the Penguins, were led by a certain William “Scotty” Bowman. That same Mr. Bowman, already inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a Builder, is now advising the Chicago Blackhawks.
Bowman may say publicly that he stays in the background, but as Sun Media reported during the playoffs, the elder Bowman is actively involved in strategy sessions. Son Stan, named for the Cup Scotty won nine times as a coach also acknowledges his influence. “I mean, why wouldn’t you take his advice?” says Stan.
Hockey’s longest serving writer and commentator, Stan Fischler, who was present when the Hawks won the 1961 Cup, refutes the cynics. “This team has better balance, but not Glenn Hall.” He cites three reasons why the Blackhawks will continue to be a force: “One, they won the Cup. Two, they have a smart front office which knows what to do. Three, Scotty.”
Chicago’s organization seems to have taken a few pages from the Scotty Bowman book of team building. Like the Montreal Canadiens of his era, the team is stockpiling young talent that can be slotted in if and when roster players need to be replaced. Like the Detroit Red Wings during Bowman’s tenure, the Hawks are instituting a ‘system-first’ approach that allows players to be interchangeable components in a method that maximizes their skills.
As for his perceived surplus of talent, and the challenge of making the numbers work, Bowman’s typically unruffled demeanor is evident: “There’s a lot of things that are going to have to work out, but it’s certainly a good problem to have. We’re Stanley Cup champs and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The odds-makers already have the Hawks as favorites to repeat. Bodog, the leading hockey betting site in Canada, has posted Chicago at 11-2 to win the Cup next year.
Toe Blake once said, “Predictions are for gypsies”, but it’s a good bet the off-season for Blackhawks fans will be as exciting as the season they just witnessed. It might also be a good bet that the Blackhawks will be as exciting, and successful, a team next year, as this.
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.