Stan Bowman didn’t discuss it much in his exit interview with reporters after a disappointing season, but there’s one part of the Blackhawks’ offseason that he’s probably looking forward to. Unlike in recent years when the Hawks GM was working to squeeze beneath the iron fist of the NHL’s salary cap, the franchise enters this summer with a level of cap flexibility that it hasn’t had in years.
The numbers won’t be set until the NHL announces the official salary cap for the 2018-19 season, but we can already look at what the Blackhawks have on the books. And based on their current commitments and roster configuration, it is likely that Bowman will have millions to play around with to improve the product on the ice.
“You’re right, we’re not in a difficult cap position like we have been in some previous years. From that perspective, it’s looking better for the potential to make some moves,” Bowman said Monday. “I think we’re going to examine everything. We’re going to look long and hard at ways to improve our team through personnel.”
The NHL currently projects the salary cap, which was $75 million this season, to increase into the $78-82 million range for next season. Part of the variability there comes from whether the NHLPA decides to exercise the escalator clause. The union can move for a full five percent increase in the cap, or it could approve a partial increase, as these numbers impact the escrow on players’ compensation.
No matter what, the Blackhawks are in a different position this year. However, with the importance of retaining young players like Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz down the road, Bowman suggested prudence with how cap space would be used this summer.
“Knowing that’s on the horizon, you have to be prudent with what you do with your money this summer,” Bowman said.” It might be looking at some shorter-term contracts for some free agents.”
Here’s a detailed look at the Hawks’ salary cap situation entering the 2018 offseason, and how different scenarios could lead to different amounts of cap space. Numbers are provided by Cap Friendly.
What’s already on the books?
Patrick Kane: $10.5 million
Jonathan Toews: $10.5 million
Brandon Saad: $6 million
Marian Hossa: $5.275 million
Artem Anisimov: $4.55 million
Nick Schmaltz: $925,000
Dylan Sikura: $925,000
Alex DeBrincat: $778,333
Brent Seabrook: $6.875 million
Duncan Keith: $5.538 million
Connor Murphy: $3.85 million
Jan Rutta: $2.3 million
Erik Gustafsson: $1.2 million
Gustav Forsling: $872,500
Jordan Oesterle: $650,000
Corey Crawford: $6 million
Anton Forsberg: $750,000
Add a salary cap overage of $1.233 million as a result of the team’s performance bonuses from this season and the Blackhawks currently have $68.72 million committed to eight forwards, seven defensemen and two goalies for next season.
This includes Marian Hossa, whose contract will need to be on the books all summer until the team can place him on long-term injured reserve on the first day of the 2018-19 regular season, just like it did last year. Bowman’s goal for the offseason will be to get as close to the salary cap upper limit as possible in order to maximize the flexibility created by Hossa’s LTIR status. That shouldn’t be a problem.
The team also technically only needs to carry 20 players for the first day of the season because once Hossa goes on LTIR, it can recall players from the AHL to fill out the roster.
If the salary cap goes up to $78 million, then the Hawks would have more than $8 million to fill at least three roster spots. If it goes up to $82 million, then the Hawks would have more than $12 million in space.
Re-signing the RFAs
Bowman already said that re-signing the team’s three young restricted free agents — Vinnie Hinostroza, Anthony Duclair and John Hayden — would be a top priority. Doing that would get the team to 11 forwards on the books for next season.
Here are the projected contracts for Hinostroza, Duclair and Hayden based off past comparisons from Matt Cane.
Duclair: One year, $1.38 million
Hinostroza: One year, $1.13 million
Hayden: One year, $909,000
Now, here it’s worth noting that Bowman did give rather rich contracts to Gustafsson and Rutta, so it’s possible he ends up doing the same to these three. Still, these are projected cap hits below $3.5 million. Even if the Hawks decide to be a bit more generous than that with the young forwards, they probably won’t be committing more than $4-5 million to these players.
Figuring out the cap space
Signing the RFAs early on will likely be a priority given the need to establish costs for next season. It would be easier for Bowman to navigate free agency with Duclair, Hinostroza and Hayden already signed so he knows exactly what kind of money he has left to work with.
So let’s say Bowman follows the Rutta/Gustafsson pattern and goes a little higher than expected on the forwards to $4.5 million combined. That would mean the Blackhawks have $73.22 million committed to 11 forwards (including Hossa), seven defensemen and two goalies, which covers the NHL roster minimum.
Under a $78 million cap, that would leave almost $5 million to add other pieces. Under an $80 million cap, it’d be nearly $7 million, and under an $82 million cap, it’d be just under $9 million.
The possibility of trades
The other thing to remember here is that those projections don’t include any potential trades made by the Hawks.
The big names all have no-movement clauses, so it’s highly unlikely that a player like Brent Seabrook or Jonathan Toews is moved, but Bowman will surely be working the phones to see if there are deals worth making. He showed last summer that he’s willing to make unexpected moves.
The main name to watch will be center Artem Anisimov, whose no-movement clause turns into a partial no-trade clause on July 1. He’ll have to submit a list of 10 trades he can block trades to on the first day of the new league year, and at that point, the Blackhawks will have a much easier time fielding offers for him.
Shedding Anisimov’s $4.55 million cap hit would be a big way to add further flexibility, as would a potential trade of what’s left of Hossa’s contract. However, there’s no desperation to make a move because the team is already comfortably below the upper limit.
Finally, some breathing room
Even without knowing the exact salary cap for the 2018-19 NHL season, the Blackhawks should have no trouble assembling next season’s roster. Every million added to the upper limit will help the team, but unlike in recent years, that money isn’t necessary simply to maintain the roster that’s already in place. Instead, it’ll likely go to addressing defense and goaltending issues.
The Hawks should have money to spend this offseason, so the bigger questions will be how much and what do they do with it. Those answers will help determine whether the team can accomplish its desired return to contention next season.