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Postponed season, lost NHL revenue might affect Blackhawks’ free-agency plans

If the salary cap barely increases — or stays the same — next season, the Hawks’ already-concerning contract situation this summer might become dire.

The Blackhawks may have to get creative to re-sign rookie breakout Dominik Kubalik this summer if the NHL salary cap doesn’t increase.
AP Photos

On March 4, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly made waves around the hockey world by projecting the 2020-21 salary cap to be between $84 million and $88.2 million.

Eleven days later, the NHL is staring down the barrel of a drastically lower cap for next season.

Daly’s proposed range would have represented a big leap from the $81.5 million cap this season. The upper threshold would have been a $6.7 million increase. A jump of that degree would mark a departure from more modest increases the last four summers ($2 million, $4.5 million, $2 million and $1.6 million).

The possibility of a bigger increase excited a lot of high-payroll and high-revenue teams (such as the Blackhawks), which would benefit on the ice from the monetary flexibility without feeling the slightest pinch off the ice. Low-payroll and low-revenue teams in smaller markets had the opposite reaction.

But the NHL certainly wasn’t anticipating the coronavirus epidemic that soon would put its season on hold indefinitely.

Even if the league eventually completes the rest of the regular season and the playoffs in full, the delay likely still would have some financial impact on NHL revenues, which are tied directly to the salary cap for the next season. If many games are lost or rescheduled games are played without fans, league revenues might be dented tremendously.

That dent might mean the cap will barely increase, stay the same or even decrease — although NHL owners and the players’ union can establish an arbitrary cap disconnected from revenue growth (or lack thereof) for one year in emergency situations such as this one.

For the Hawks, who already were moving toward a difficult summer with limited space to re-sign some key players, a stagnant cap might be disastrous.

With an $81.5 million cap, general manager Stan Bowman would have only $8 million with which to re-sign Corey Crawford, Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik and Drake Caggiula, plus re-sign or replace depth players such as Matthew Highmore, Slater Koekkoek and the backup goalie.

That would be impossible, given that Crawford, Kubalik and Strome will command salaries at or above $3 million or $4 million. Strome’s back-to-earth season has decreased his value, sure, but Kubalik’s 30-goal rookie eruption and Crawford’s stellar campaign have elevated their stocks.

Buying out players such as Olli Maatta and Zack Smith — both of whom have buyout-friendly contracts — could free up an additional $5.5 million, but they would have to be replaced, too. There’s also a chance concussion-plagued Andrew Shaw might decide to unofficially retire, which would move his $3.9 million cap hit for 2020-21 to long-term injured reserve.

But even if all those dominoes fall Bowman’s way, the Hawks still will struggle to retain the same below-average roster they fielded this season, much less make necessary improvements. Bringing in outside free agents would be unfeasible.

That’s why the $84 million to $88.2 million projection Daly announced less than two weeks ago was so exciting for the Hawks — and why the financial repercussions of this coronavirus delay might be so problematic.

NOTE: The roughly 1,200 workers who staff the United Center for Hawks and Bulls games will be paid ‘‘through the remainder of the originally scheduled season,’’ team chairmen Rocky Wirtz and Jerry Reinsdorf announced.

The Hawks and Bulls join a growing number of franchises around the country pledging to compensate arena workers unexpectedly left unemployed by the postponements of the NHL and NBA seasons.