Lower salary cap could force Hawks to unload some veterans

Written By BY MARK LAZERUS Posted: 06/28/2014, 02:09am

PHILADELPHIA — The week began with plenty of talk about the Blackhawks adding a key piece to another Stanley Cup run. The week ended with the Hawks having to seriously consider moving key pieces of their previous Stanley Cup runs.

Of all of Friday’s developments — the Anaheim Ducks beating out the Hawks for Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler, Nashville landing Pittsburgh’s James Neal, the Florida Panthers keeping the top pick after all and choosing defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the Hawks trading up to pick Madison center Nick Schmaltz — perhaps the most significant one was the long-awaited release of the 2014-15 salary cap number.

It’s $69 million. And it’s bad news for the Hawks.

The hope was that the cap would break the $70-million mark, with some estimates putting it at $71 million or higher. But a weakened Canadian dollar and the players’ desire to pay less escrow dropped it to $69 million. For a team such as the Hawks — who already are about half a million over the cap with 22 players signed — it was a troubling development. But for Hawks GM Stan Bowman, it was not a surprising one.

“It’s about right where we thought — at least, where I thought,” Bowman said. “I remember months ago when everyone was all excited about the number, I told you guys let’s wait and see where it is, be more cautious. We’ve been kind of expecting it to be right around this range. I wasn’t really surprised.

But it still leaves the Hawks with some decisions to make. So never mind the 2015-16 season, when the imminent contract extensions — likely more than $10 million per season — for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane kick in. Now the Hawks have genuine cap concerns for 2014-15.

The Hawks didn’t make any personnel moves on the first night of the draft, but there are six more rounds on Saturday, and with all the general managers under the same roof, deals happen fast and furious — like the one that sent Kesler and a draft pick to Anaheim (another Western Conference contender getting stronger) for center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa and two picks. Or the one that sent Neal to the Predators (another Central Division team adding firepower) for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

Vancouver GM Jim Benning said the Hawks “were in it right until the end,” and Kesler confirmed that the only two teams he was willing to waive his no-trade clause for were Anaheim and Chicago. The Hawks also have talked with Ottawa about Jason Spezza, but Spezza has one year left on his deal at a $7 million cap hit — a hefty price tag for a space-starved team. Same goes for Colorado’s Paul Stastny, an unrestricted free agent who could command more than $7 million.

The West keeps getting better, but Bowman referenced the Blues adding Steve Ott and Ryan Miller at this year’s trade deadline and the Hawks resisting the temptation to respond, saying he doesn’t want to be “reactionary.” That said, both Bowman and Joel Quenneville wouldn’t rule out free agency or trades to find that elusive second-line center.

“We get asked quite regularly who is going to play in that spot, who is going to be the second-line center,” Quenneville said. “That’s been going on for almost every year I’ve been here — it’s not an issue with me. But if you can better your team — we played against a team in L.A. that down the middle had four great centermen with great experience and it helped their hockey club.”

But it’s not just about putting the puzzle together, it’s about making the numbers work, too.

Only the Philadelphia Flyers are already over the cap like the Hawks are. And it likely means someone has to go. Maybe more than one someone. A source said the Hawks would like to shed Johnny Oduya’s $3.375 million salary. And for the second straight day, Bowman declined to back up agent Rick Curran’s strong statement that Patrick Sharp was not on the trade block, saying it wasn’t helpful to discuss rumors. But the Hawks are listening to offers, and their close call in the Kesler sweepstakes is proof that they’re not necessarily standing pat — whether it’s addition or subtraction.

“All I can say is we believe in the guys we have, and I think we’ve got a really good thing going,” Bowman said. “We were one shot away from being in the Final this year. We don’t need to make big changes. I believe in the guys that have been with our group for a long time. We want to keep that group together more so than anything, not take it apart.”

The question is, will the math let them?

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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