The Blackhawks bloodletting continued on Friday. But it might finally be over.
With the start of training camp a week away, the Hawks finally cleared some salary-cap space by trading veteran winger Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom to the Carolina Hurricanes in a pure salary dump. All the Hawks got in exchange were two unheralded defenseman prospects. The Hawks also gave up their third-round draft pick in 2017 and received Carolina’s fifth-rounder.
But the latest bit of payroll slashing allowed the Hawks to finally sign center Marcus Kruger, who was a restricted free agent. It’s just a one-year deal at the bargain-basement price of $1.5 million, per TSN’s Bob McKenzie. That’s a far cry from the long-term contract Kruger was hoping for. But with the Hawks’ cap situation, Kruger accepted that he had to wait a year for long-term security, and to be rewarded for his loyalty. Kruger had little leverage, as he made it abundantly clear he wanted to stay in Chicago. By giving the Hawks a hometown discount (it’s barely a raise from last year’s $1.4-million salary) rather than go to arbitration, Kruger made sure the Hawks didn’t let him walk, or trade him.
The Kruger deal leaves the Hawks with a little more than $900,000 of cap space to add or promote a cheap defenseman. So after dealing away or not re-signing Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Michal Rozsival, Kyle Cumiskey, Antti Raanta, Michal Rozsival, Kimmo Timonen, Daniel Carcillo, Versteeg and Nordstrom, general manager Stan Bowman might finally be done.
The Kruger signing, though inevitable (his agent, J.P. Barry, said earlier in the summer that Kruger would settle for a short-term deal if a worthwhile long-term deal was impossible), was a welcome bit of good news for the Hawks. Kruger has made himself an invaluable member of the team with his ability as a penalty-killer and as a shutdown center, anchoring the Hawks’ fourth line for the past three years. The 25-year-old Kruger had seven goals and 10 assists last season, and has missed just one game in each of the last three seasons.
As for Versteeg, with one year left on his contract at just $2.2 million (the Florida Panthers have paid half his $4.4-million salary since dealing him to Chicago in November of 2013), he had been a bargain for the Hawks. Coach Joel Quenneville loved him for his versatility — he played nearly every position on every line, and saw time on the power play and the penalty kill — but with the team up against the $71.4-million salary cap and Kruger still unsigned, either Versteeg or Bryan Bickell (or both) had to be dealt. Versteeg, who had 24 goals in 124 games with the Hawks since returning, was far easier to move.
“I understand that there are possibilities and nothing shocks me in this league anymore,” Versteeg said in July. “For myself to be moved, it wouldn’t shock me at all ever. But it’s part of the game and you understand that. But … hopefully I’m a Blackhawk in the end.”
Nordstrom appeared in 54 games with the Hawks in the past two seasons, proving to be an effective penalty-killer and fourth-liner.
In exchange, the Hawks received defense prospects Dennis Robertson and Jake Massie. The 24-year-old Robertson had three goals and 14 assists in 57 games with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers last season. Massie, 18, was taken in the sixth round of the draft in June.
“Kris is a skilled forward who has won a pair of Cups with the Blackhawks and can provide veteran leadership in our room,” said Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis. “Joakim is a solid, 200-foot player who can kill penalties. This gives us more options up front for this season, while also now giving us 10 picks in the first three rounds over the next two drafts.”
Bowman was not made available for comment.