Bryan Bickell is in Carolina. Andrew Shaw is in Montreal. And the Blackhawks are no longer in salary-cap hell.
“We have enough cap room now,” general manager Stan Bowman said. “We don’t have a salary-cap problem.”
No, they don’t have a cap problem. But they do have a problem, and it’s thanks to the cap. A forward group that Joel Quenneville said wasn’t deep enough last season is thinner than ever. And a defensive corps that was too top-heavy and too reliant on rookies has yet to be improved. With five or six roster spots to fill, the Hawks have a little more than $6 million in cap space. That’s fine. That’s doable. But that’s hardly ideal.
Free agency opens on Friday, and teams are now able to contact players. Bowman would love to be a major player for a big top-line wing such as Milan Lucic, or to bring back Andrew Ladd. He’d be thrilled to get a No. 4 defenseman such as Dan Hamhuis, whom he tried and failed to get at the trade deadline in March. Heck, throw Steven Stamkos in there while you’re at it.
But the Hawks don’t have the cap space for any of that. So Bowman will be simply dipping his toes in the free-agency waters, not making a big splash.
The one name to look out for is Brian Campbell, the 37-year-old former Hawks defenseman who’s coming off a massive eight-year contract that netted him more than $57 million. At this stage of his career, Campbell — who had a strong season for the Florida Panthers, with 31 points and a plus-31 rating, and who has had positive possession numbers in all nine of his NHL seasons —doesn’t need the money. He needs a chance to win. And that’s the built-in advantage the Hawks have — veteran free agents looking to make one last run at the Stanley Cup see Chicago as the place to be, and are willing to play for less money to do it.
If the Hawks can convince Campbell to come back to Chicago for Brad Richards-like money — maybe a two-year deal worth $4 million tops —that would stabilize the back end while leaving enough money to fill out the forward group with young and cheap players. A third pairing of Trevor van Riemsdyk rotating with the likes of Michal Kempny, Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg —rather than a third pairing cobbled together from just those three unproven players —would be a huge difference-maker for the Hawks, who never quite managed to fill Johnny Oduya’s skates last season.
As for the forwards, well, brace yourselves. The bottom six is going to be dicey —fascinating, but dicey. Does Bowman try to bring back underwhelming deadline acquisitions Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann at a bargain rate? Can he sign a Sam Gagner or a P.A. Parenteau for a song? Or does he promote within and take his chances with highly touted prospects such as Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz, just out of college, to replace the ever-useful Teuvo Teravainen? Can Marcus Kruger thrive on a third line, allowing Dennis Rasmussen to be the everyday fourth-line center? Can Ryan Hartman be Andrew Shaw? Can Vinnie Hinostroza be an everyday player at his size? Is Kyle Baun a bust? What about Tanner Kero? And who is Martin Lundberg, anyway?
All those kids will probably get a shot at some point. There are three, maybe four, everyday forward spots unclaimed.
“I think more than ever we’re going to have opportunities,” Bowman said. “Whether it’s filled with young guys or with free agents, we’ll figure that out over the next six weeks as we get into the summer. But obviously there’s going to have to be some young players that we’ve had in our system take that step, and I think there’s a lot of excitement from our perspective. Those guys have been waiting their turn.”
Quenneville’s guess is as good as anybody’s at this point. But one thing’s for sure: the coach’s famously short patience will be tested early and often as the Hawks rebuild, retool and recalibrate around their still-unrivaled core.
“It’s definitely never going to be easy with our team,” Quenneville said of the salary cap. “It’s amazing how well Stan manages it during the year and in the summer, and especially these couple of weeks. It’s a very busy time, and I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.”