Salary cap will force Blackhawks to make some tough decisions

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks hope next season isn’t just around the corner.

But whether it comes in the next few days following the Western Conference finals or it’s a few weeks from now following the Stanley Cup finals, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has been preparing for what’s next. The Blackhawks will enter a new salary-cap world next season when Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews' identical eight-year, $84 million contract extensions go into effect, and Bowman has already been striving to keep the Blackhawks competitive when that happens.

“We expect it to be sustainable,” Bowman said recently. “It’s a puzzle we got to put together. That’s a challenge, but I’m excited about that part of the job. You have to put the right pieces together.”

Bowman made sure to keep the franchise’s main pieces intact by taking care of Kane and Toews’ extensions last summer. His task this summer will be shuffling all the other pieces and making them fit within next salary’s cap, which NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said recently he expects to be about $71 million.

Kane and Toews’ cap hits next year will total $21 million, or 30 percent of the expected salary cap. Add in the other Blackhawks who have seen the ice in this year’s playoffs and are under contract for next season, and the Blackhawks have a little more than $66 million committed to 13 players. It doesn’t take a math genius to recognize Bowman has his work cut out for him this offseason.

Bowman will eventually need to trim some of the financial fat and trade away a few larger contracts to complete a 20-player roster under the salary cap, but his first priority will actually be adding on a significant contract. Chicago's 22-year-old forward, Brandon Saad, will become a restricted free agent after the season, and Bowman understands re-signing him is essential to the organization’s future.

Like Kane and Toews’ deals, Saad’s contract could be complicated and somewhat expensive. The Blackhawks and Saad will have to agree whether to go the route of a bridge contract or a long-term one. The other unknown element is whether another team will step forward and put in an offer sheet on Saad. Everyone is fully aware of the Blackhawks’ difficult cap situation ahead, and other teams could make it even more difficult by pursuing Saad.

The Blackhawks’ other key restricted free agent will be Marcus Kruger, an important role player. He signed a two-year, $2.65 million contract extension after the 2012-13 season. Restricted free agent defenseman David Rundblad, who was acquired for a second-round pick last season, could also be someone Bowman considers re-signing. Bowman has always been high on Rundblad's ability.

The Blackhawks are not expected to re-sign unrestricted free agents Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Michal Rozsival, Andrew Desjardins and Daniel Carcillo. Defenseman Kyle Cumiskey will also be a free agent.

Bowman will undoubtedly be putting his cellphone minutes to use once the season finishes. He needs to trade a few current NHL players for draft picks and prospects. He began that process by unloading Ben Smith at the trade deadline. Bryan Bickell ($4 million cap hit next season), Kris Versteeg ($2.2 million) and Andrew Shaw ($2 million) are among the players Bowman could look to trade. Patrick Sharp, who has a $5.9 million cap hit, has been rumored in the past to be on the trading block.

Once Bowman deals a few contracts, he and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville can begin getting a better picture of where they’ll need to plug roster spots with inexpensive prospects. Forward Teuvo Teravainen and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk will likely fill two of those spots. Both saw significant NHL time this season.

But there is a large pool of players to choose from to complete the roster. The Blackhawks have a number of prospects who appear ready for the NHL, and Bowman has signed a number of other players who have potential to be in the mix.

Among the Blackhawks’ forwards prospects, Phillip Danault (2011 first-round pick), Ryan Hartman (2013 first-round pick), Mark McNeill (2011 first-round pick), Joakim Nordstrom (2010 third-round pick) and Garret Ross (2012 fifth-round pick) are expected to get long looks at training camp. Stephen Johns (2012 second-round pick) and Mike Paliotta (2011 third-round pick) should be involved in the defenseman competition. Defenseman Viktor Svedberg (free-agent signing) could also be considered.

Bowman also went out and signed three free agents in recent months who could push for positions next season. He signed college free agents Tanner Kero and Kyle Baun, both forwards, and Russian forward Artemi Panarin. Baun drew favorable reviews from Quenneville after three NHL games. Kero had seven goals in his first 12 games for the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.

Panarin could be the biggest signing of them all. The 23-year-old Panarin was tied for fourth in the KHL with 62 points this past season and had five goals and five assists for Russia in the recent IIHF World Championship.

“He’s got a great skill set,” Bowman said. “He’s just an incredibly talented offensive player. He’s 23 years old. He’s in that age category of guys that are sort of ready to become NHL impact players.

“We’re always careful putting too many expectations on players. Based on his skill set, he’s going to be a very good player. It’s just being patient. We’ve been patient with Teravainen. You watch the way he’s playing right now, and that’s really how we envisioned this going for him. I don’t know with Panarin if it’s going to take him an adjustment period, but we don’t need to figure that out right now.”

The Blackhawks will likely be turning to younger players in their system more and more in the coming years. Vince Hinostroza, who recently left Notre Dame after two years and signed with the Blackhawks, North Dakota freshman Nick Schmaltz, North Dakota sophomore Luke Johnson, Michigan sophomore Tyler Motte, Miami Ohio sophomore Anthony Louis, Boston College sophomore Chris Calnan and Yale sophomore forward John Hayden could be among the next wave of Blackhawks forwards.

Defenseman Ville Pokka, who was acquired in the Nick Leddy trade, had a strong season with the IceHogs and could be a year or two away from being in the NHL. The Blackhawks also have an assortment of Swedish defensemen in the system, and Ohio State junior defenseman Sam Jardine has shown potential.

Bowman is optimistic about the Blackhawks’ future, but he also realizes nothing is for certain.

“You have to have some things go your way,” Bowman said. “You have to have some new players emerge every year that are able to take on bigger roles and step into positions when they’re given a chance. Even though there are changes year to year, I do think there’s no reason you can’t have some new faces come in and emerge as really key players. The guys who really do the heavy lifting are going to be back. For that reason, there’s a lot of excitement for the current season and as well as years to go.”

Bowman’s concentration right now is on the current season. The Blackhawks still have a chance to win their third Stanley Cup in six years. But once this season ends, he also likes the Blackhawks’ chances going forward.

“I’m really excited about next year,” Bowman said. “We’re not focusing on that at the moment because we’re in the middle of a playoff push. Our goal is winning the Cup. That’s the other part of my job, I have to be looking not only where we are now, but where are we going to be in six months. We spend a lot of time on that. We’re excited about that.

“There’s going to be some new players come in, but I think they’re players who are really going to add to the mix. Some of them have been waiting their turn. Some of them are newer to the organization. But I think they’re going to have a big impact where we go in the near future. We have a lot of candidates to fill those roles. We’re not exactly sure which ones will fill which roles yet. We don’t have to. We’ll figure that out in training camp. I definitely like the possibilities that are there for the team.”