After a day to digest the Chicago Blackhawks‘ third Stanley Cup Championship in six years, it’s time to start looking ahead to next season. The Blackhawks have a very difficult salary cap situation, so it’s time for GM Stan Bowman to prove just how good he really is.
After winning the Cup in 2010, Bowman had to retool the roster and jettison several key contributors to the team including Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien. The Blackhawks were able to keep almost all key players (Dave Bolland aside) from the 2013 championship team and only lost Nick Leddy off of the 2014 team that nearly won that Cup as well. In 2011 and 2012, the Blackhawks, while still competitive, found themselves exiting in the first round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons thanks largely to those losses the team suffered after 2010.
This current Hawks roster faces similar challenges, and Bowman is going to have to make some tough decisions. With a core group of Corey Crawford, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, the Hawks have too much talent to waste years as a low-level playoff team because of salary cap constraints.
The first thing Bowman needs to do is lock up Brandon Saad to a long-term deal. Saad is a restricted free agent, but he’s too critical to the Hawks’ future plans and needs to be kept.
His next priority needs to be Seabrook. With only one year remaining on his contract, the Hawks can’t afford to lose him. Bowman needs to hammer out a contract extension with Seabrook to keep him around for several years. It was clear how thin the Blackhawks were on defense in the postseason after letting Leddy go, and losing Seabrook would be a crushing blow.
With more money to Saad and large salary jumps to Kane and Toews, Bowman is going to have to start trimming the fat off the roster. Patrick Sharp is the obvious candidate to go. While the Hawks will miss his offense, his production is on the decline and he’s still owed $10.5 million over the next two years. Sharp is still productive and a low-level team with cap space will definitely offer up a mid-round pick to bring him to their club. Where Bowman is going to really earn his money is Bryan Bickell.
Bickell has two years and $8.5 million left on his contract, but he simply can’t be on the roster. His production is nowhere near his salary, and the playoff hawk that he had been the previous two seasons vanished this year. It’s going to be near impossible for Bowman to find a trade partner for Bickell, but he’s going to have to work some magic to move him off the roster. It must be done.
Along with Bickell, if Bowman could get Versteeg off the roster it would be a huge plus. Versteeg has one year and $4.7 million left on his contract. Other than a solid first half of the regular season, Versteeg’s production has been limited at best. He was a healthy scratch for a large number of playoff games and only was thrust back into active duty after the Bickell concussion (and lack of production).
The Blackhawks also have a number of unrestricted free agents, including Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Andrew Desjardins, Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival. While not all of these players will be gone, several of them will be. Vermette is almost certainly gone, and bringing back Rozsival coming off a severe ankle injury and his age will be dangerous. Richards would be fantastic to keep to center Kane, but he must agree to come back at a reduced price. Desjardins would also be an inexpensive fourth line mate to pair with Andrew Shaw and definitely has value. Oduya is a more difficult decision. The Hawks need defensemen, but Oduya will be 34 next season and is not the player he once was.
The decisions will be difficult. Trimming the right guys off the roster would open up the Hawks’ salary cap to sign a few productive players and keep the critical ones in need of new contracts. Bowman’s midsason acquisitions of Vermette, Desjardins and Kimmo Timonen worked out well for the club and should be applauded, but the GM’s decisions are only going to get more difficult.
The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup; now it’s time for Bowman to win the offseason.