NHL trade deadline will show Blackhawks the value of salary-cap space in a flat-cap world

The Red Wings and Sharks each received fourth-round draft picks for taking on $1.1 million and $1.4 million cap hits this weekend, setting a precedent that could benefit the cap space-loaded Blackhawks.

SHARE NHL trade deadline will show Blackhawks the value of salary-cap space in a flat-cap world
Trades like the Lightning’s acquisition of former Blue Jackets defenseman David Savard provide new information about trade dynamics in a flat-cap NHL.

Trades like the Lightning’s acquisition of former Blue Jackets defenseman David Savard provide new information about trade dynamics in a flat-cap NHL.

Paul Vernon/AP

After more than a decade of constantly pressing up against the salary cap, the Blackhawks find themselves the envy of the NHL in terms of cap space.

Even better for the Hawks, this newfound flexibility comes at a time when cap space is more valuable than ever.

The moves around the league ahead of the trade deadline Monday should reflect that changing dynamic.

The flattened cap, which reportedly might remain flat for several more seasons, took many general managers — who planned for the future assuming the cap would continue rising by at least $3 million annually — by surprise. 

As a result, 15 teams had less than $5 million of cap space — even including long-term injured-reserve savings — as of Sunday afternoon, per CapFriendly. Conversely, only four teams (the lowly Devils, Kings, Red Wings and Senators) had more cap space than the Hawks’ roughly $20.2 million.

That financial imbalance has significantly changed trades this year. 

Talented but overpriced players, such as the Sabres’ Taylor Hall and his $8 million cap hit or the Blues’ Mike Hoffman and his $4 million cap hit, have been more difficult than usual to move. The Sabres dealt Hall to the Bruins late Sunday.

Even moderately priced depth players have fetched lower-than-usual returns. For example, the Red Wings received only a fourth-round pick from the Avalanche for Patrik Nemeth, even after retaining 50% of his $3 million cap hit.

For the Hawks, that means Calvin de Haan — who likely will be exposed in the expansion draft and probably isn’t part of the team’s long-term plans but would normally interest a contender hoping to add a reliable second- or third-pairing defenseman rental — isn’t worth moving. His slightly excessive $4.5 million cap hit negates almost all of his value.

On the other hand, taking on a cap hit to free up cap space for another team has become a lucrative business. 

The Hawks on Thursday got Henrik Borgstrom almost solely by taking Brett Connolly’s $3.5 million cap hit off the Panthers’ hands. Arguably the three best players in the five-player deal all went the same direction — to Chicago.

And two three-way trades over the weekend demonstrated the cap space-to-asset translation.

To help the Lightning fit in ex-Blue Jackets defenseman David Savard, the Wings received a fourth-round pick solely by absorbing 25% (about $1.1 million) of Savard’s cap hit. To help the Maple Leafs fit in ex-Jackets forward Nick Foligno, the Sharks also received a fourth-round pick for absorbing 25% (about $1.4 million) of Foligno’s cap hit.

Monday’s possible frenzy of trades will create a larger sample size to assess the worth of each million, each draft pick and each tier of NHL player in the confusing flat-cap world. 

But that new Wings/Sharks precedent seems to be great news for the Hawks. 

Even after taking on Connolly, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman still has plenty of space to absorb another bad contract or two.

Considering how killing just $1 million to $1.5 million of cap space seems to equate to a mid-round pick, Bowman might be able to demand a first-round pick or acclaimed prospect if he assumes a legitimately awful contract such as Canucks forward Loui Eriksson’s ($6 million cap hit) or Islanders winger Andrew Ladd’s ($5.5 million) on Monday or this summer.

“For where we are right now, it’s exciting to be on this side,” Bowman said last week. “If we have another couple of assets to add to [our current] mix, then we’d be a team in the coming years that would have more things at our disposal to help us, whether it’s help us on the ice or help us [trade for new players].”

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