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Breaking down Blackhawks’ salary cap, expansion draft effects of Brent Seabrook’s retirement

The Hawks will be able to protect an additional forward from Seattle, and also exceed the salary cap by up to an additional $6.875 million, because of Seabrook’s unofficial retirement.

Brent Seabrook’s retirement brings more flexibility to the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation.
AP Photos

Brent Seabrook’s unofficial retirement last week left an emotional hole in the Blackhawks’ locker room.

But there are silver linings.

Seabrook’s retirement substantially improves the Hawks’ outlook for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft this summer, as well as their salary-cap situation.

First, to be clear, Seabrook technically didn’t retire, as far as the league is concerned. He’s unable to continue his career because of injury and will spend the remaining 3.5 seasons of his contract on long-term injured reserve (LTIR).

That works well for Seabrook and the Hawks. He’ll collect his remaining $15.5 million in salary (mostly through insurance), and the team won’t be subject to any of the cap recapture penalties that accompany premature retirements.

With that said, here’s how his unofficial retirement affects the Hawks.

Expansion draft

Because of Seabrook’s no-movement clause, the Hawks would’ve been required to use a protection spot for him.

Now they won’t have to.

The NHL presumably will make Seabrook exempt because of his career-ending injury. That’s what the league did with 12 players in comparable situations entering the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft in 2017. If it doesn’t for some reason, Seabrook could waive his clause.

The Hawks now will have a protection spot to use on someone else, regardless of whether they choose to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie or eight skaters and one goalie.

Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews still require protection because of their no-movement clause. Alex DeBrincat, Kevin Lankinen, Dylan Strome and Connor Murphy are near-certain bets to be protected, too. Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik, Pius Suter, Philipp Kurashev, Ian Mitchell, Adam Boqvist, Nicolas Beaudin and other players in their first two years under contract are exempt.

The Hawks’ decision comes down to defensemen Calvin de Haan and Nikita Zadorov and forwards Brandon Hagel and Alex Nylander. This is where an open protection spot makes a huge difference.

Because of Seabrook’s retirement, the Hawks can protect one of the two defensemen and both forwards (plus another forward, such as David Kampf). Or they could protect both defensemen but expose both forwards.

Blackhawks’ expansion draft outlook

Exempt Protection required Likely protected Might be protected Likely Exposed
Exempt Protection required Likely protected Might be protected Likely Exposed
Kubalik Kane DeBrincat Nylander Janmark (UFA)
Suter Toews Strome Hagel Soderberg (UFA)
Dach Keith Murphy Kampf Shaw
Kurashev Lankinen Zadorov Carpenter
Mitchell de Haan Highmore
Boqvist Wallmark
Beaudin Carlsson
Johnson Subban
Kalynuk Delia
& more & more

Salary cap

In the simplest terms, the Hawks now will be able to exceed the salary cap by up to an additional $6.875 million — the amount of Seabrook’s cap hit.

The actual situation isn’t nearly that simple, though.

The Hawks have a ton of players on LTIR — Toews, Seabrook, Nylander, Dach, Andrew Shaw and Zack Smith — whose cumulative cap hits add up to $26.3 million.

Their active roster at the time they began using LTIR — which was, in this case, the start of the season — had an accruable cap space limit (ACSL) of $81.3 million, just shy of the NHL salary cap of $81.5 million.

Teams are allowed to exceed their ACSL by the amount of their LTIR, so the Hawks’ cap hit limit is functionally $107.6 million right now. They’re nowhere near that currently — they were at $85.4 million Thursday — so they do have a lot of short-term flexibility.

General manager Stan Bowman acknowledged last week the Hawks “certainly have plenty of cap space right now if we were going to make any moves.”

But the Hawks likely will target players on expiring contracts (or with one season remaining) if they make any acquisitions because they won’t enjoy as much flexibility in future seasons.

Dach and Nylander will be healthy again by next season, if not sooner. Toews might be, too, and Shaw theoretically could be. Smith’s contract expires this summer. Thus, the Hawks might have just Seabrook’s $6.875 million worth of LTIR space next season.

If that happens, their financial situation likely will become tight again, especially with the cap expected to stay at $81.5 million for several more seasons.

They’ll have to afford raises for Nylander, Suter and Hagel this summer and for Dach, Boqvist, Lankinen and Murphy in the summer of 2022, some of which could be large.

While having Seabrook’s contract — long considered one of the worst in the NHL — on LTIR instead of on the active roster (or standard IR) helps the cause, it’s still not as good as not having the contract at all would be.

The main reason why is that, for teams using LTIR, players’ cap hits include their maximum possible performance bonuses added to their average annual salary.

That makes AHL call-ups and other roster transactions more difficult because performance bonuses are most common in prospects’ contracts.

The Hawks could try to trade Seabrook’s contract, like they did when they sent Marian Hossa’s contract to the Coyotes in 2018. But doing so also requires trading some “sweetener” assets — in 2018, those were Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle and a third-round pick — to make taking on the bad contract worth it for the other team.

Fortunately, the Hawks are in a much better financial position now than they were in 2018 and — unless they plan to sign some big-name free agents — probably won’t have to do that.

In fact, the Hawks could assume the opposite role and receive assets for taking on another team’s bad contract, especially if Toews and/or Shaw remain alongside Seabrook on LTIR permanently. Doing that comes with its risks, though.

All told, the Hawks’ cap situation is better now than it was two weeks ago — before Seabrook went on LTIR — but it’s still not perfect.

“We’ve been through this before,” Bowman said. “It’s not like we have to figure out how it works. It’ll evolve over time how we handle the situation in the coming years. We have some ideas.”