Blackhawks enter key three-week stretch as NHL offseason begins

It will be years before history passes its final judgment on this era of the NHL and whether the Blackhawks, with their three Stanley Cups in six seasons, or the Pittsburgh Penguins, with their three Cups in nine seasons and the first repeat championship of the salary-cap era, are the gold standard of their time.

But far more pressing is the very near future, the three-week window between the Stanley Cup finale Sunday and the free-agent feeding frenzy July 1. In between will be the expansion draft for the Vegas Golden Knights and the NHL entry draft, which the Hawks will host June 23-24.

The Hawks won’t be completely remade in these three weeks, but they certainly will look different by the end of them.

General manager Stan Bowman already has fired assistant coach and Joel Quenneville confidant Mike Kitchen, as well as Rockford coach Ted Dent. Longtime NHL defenseman Ulf Samuelsson is expected to take over for Kitchen, with perhaps a third assistant added to the mix. The Hawks also have traded backup goalie Scott Darling to the Carolina Hurricanes and signed a pair of Czech imports — forward David Kampf and defenseman Jan Rutta.

Could the Blackhawks possibly deal away Niklas Hjalmarsson (left) or Marian Hossa to get under next year's salary cap? (AP Photo)

But the big changes are yet to come. It almost certainly will start with center Marcus Kruger ending up with the Golden Knights. As currently made up, the Hawks have a cap hit of about $77 million (thanks in part to a bonus overage of more than $3.5 million), and that doesn’t include a backup goalie. The first step to getting cap-compliant is shedding Kruger’s $3.08 million contract, and the Hawks will do whatever it takes to ensure the Golden Knights take him off their hands — even if that means sweetening the pot by including defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, who also will be exposed in the expansion draft.

Losing Kruger will be a significant blow to the Hawks — he’s overpaid, but he’s one of the best defensive forwards and penalty-killers in the league — but a necessary one. And it still won’t be enough for the Hawks to get under the cap, which might stay flat at $73 million or rise only $1 million to $2 million if the NHL Players’ Association chooses not to use its full 5 percent escalator. The final number will be announced in the next week or two.

That means a major player might be on the way out, and there are plenty of candidates. Defenseman Brent Seabrook is the Hawks’ beating heart in the dressing room, but he’s also 32 and has seven years left on a contract that carries a $6.875 million cap hit. Artem Anisimov is the No. 2 center the Hawks sought for years, but he might be a luxury they can’t afford at $4.55 million a season. Winger Marian Hossa is a future Hall of Famer, but he is 38 with four years left on a deal worth $5.275 million a season. And Niklas Hjalmarsson is one of the top defensive defensemen in the game with a very fair cap hit of $4.1 million, but he is the only member of the core without a full no-trade clause and might be the easiest to move.

Seabrook’s contract would be hard to move without the Hawks retaining significant salary, and multiple sources said they have little interest in dealing him. In fact, according to league sources, neither Seabrook nor Anisimov has been asked to waive his no-trade clause, and Hjalmarsson hasn’t yet been asked to submit a list of 10 teams to which he would accept a trade.

But something has to give. Bowman has painted himself into a corner, and he has the next three weeks to figure a way out.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

 

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