The bedlam on the United Center ice last Monday night, which tumbled into the Blackhawks dressing room into the wee hours — cases of champagne and beer being rolled in, carts loaded with empties being rolled out —was a family affair, really. Moms and dads, fathers and sons.
But mostly, it was about brothers.
“Duncan, Brent, those guys are my brothers, my best friends in hockey,” Patrick Sharp said in the giddy aftermath of the Hawks’ third Stanley Cup in six seasons. “We’ve been together for 10 years. We’ve won three championships together. We’ve won gold medals.”
Brothers are forever, but teammates aren’t. It’s the cold, harsh reality of the modern era of the NHL, where a hard, unforgiving salary cap exists to prevent runs like this one that the Hawks are on — and possibly are at the end of. The championship window isn’t closing, not with the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook locked up. But while Las Vegas has already installed the Hawks as 7-to-1 favorites to repeat as champions next year, the reality is quite different.
Things are likely to get worse before they get better.
In the summer of 2010, the Hawks were decimated by salary-cap casualties — losing the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Antti Niemi, among many others —and they barely made the playoffs the following season. In the summer of 2013, the Hawks dealt away two-time champ Dave Bolland, and key role player Michael Frolik. Now comes the summer of 2015. It’ll be a summer of love in Chicago as the Cup makes its rounds, but it’ll also be a summer of pain.
Brandon Saad needs a new contract, and whether he gets a relatively cheap two-year bridge deal (essentially kicking the can down the road until the next cap-ocalypse) or a massive megadeal in the $5 million-per-season range, the Hawks will definitely sign him. Marcus Kruger needs a new deal, too, and deserves a raise from his $1.325 million deal. It won’t be easy, with 14 players signed and nearly $64 million of the $71.4-million salary cap (just announced on Tuesday) already taken up (thanks in large part to Toews’ and Kane’s extensions kicking in). And Stan Bowman said that Corey Crawford and his $6-million salary will not be on the block leading up to next Friday’s draft.
That leaves Sharp ($5.9 million), Bryan Bickell ($4 million) and Kris Versteeg ($2.2 million) as the likeliest to be dealt. Multiple sources say teams have been circling around Sharp since last spring, and he’s almost certain to be traded to clear up cap space. At least eight teams have expressed legitimate interest in recent days, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars among the interested teams.
Even amid the on-ice party Monday night, the salary cap was on Bowman’s mind.
“We’ll try to enjoy this for a little while, but we’ll get it done,” he said. “We always do.”
The Hawks will have plenty of talent next season, but they’ll be top-heavy, and much younger — especially on the back end. Johnny Oduya, brilliant in the Final, will walk. Michal Rozsival is likely done. Maybe David Rundblad (a restricted free agent), as well. Up front, Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette are certainly gone. Andrew Desjardins proved very valuable on the fourth line and might stick around for cheap.
The Hawks are shedding salary, not adding, so it’ll likely be a quiet free-agent period. Rookies such as Stephen Johns, imports such as Artemi Panarin, and college kids such as Kyle Baun could be everyday players next season. The Hawks have been one of the best teams in the league at drafting and developing talent, and top-tier college free agents keep choosing to sign the Hawks, so there’s reason for hope. But there will be inevitable growing pains.
“You know, $500,000 [in the salary cap] could make a difference, up or down,” team owner Rocky Wirtz said. “But Stan’s been working on it. It’s not like he’s going to wake up in the middle of June and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, what the heck are we going to do?’ He’s been working on this since training camp. I’m not worried because I have complete faith in the process they go through.”
The goal is to do this all again, to continue their remarkable domination of the NHL. As team president John McDonough kept saying Monday night, “We’re not done.” But, like in 2010, it’s a good thing they won the Stanley Cup this time around.
Because as hard as this one was, it’s only going to get harder.