First of all, congratulations to the Chicago Blackhawks and our buddies over at Second City Hockey. Quite a revival for a hockey starved city that had to 49 years to win another Cup. It was well deserved and they had an incredibly deep and great team.
Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, Chicago's in quite a bind. They have a huge bullseye on their back, and not just because they'll skate next season with the "defending Cup champ" tag on them. Thanks to some mis-management and foolish free agent signings the Blackhawks are in quite the pickle. They have about $57.6 million on the salary cap next season accounting for just 15 players, with the expected salary cap at the $58.8 million range, give or take a little.
In short, their lineup in October is going to look quite a bit different from what they iced this past playoffs.
Other than Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Antti Niemi, almost every single signed player has been mentioned as a possibility to be traded for some salary cap relief. To be sure, they're going to have to wheel and deal a little bit. Might they demote a guy like Brian Campbell ($7.14 million with an amazing six more years to go on his contract) or Cristobal Huet ($5.625 million with two more years) to the minors and eat that salary? Seems hefty and potentially too costly to wash away.
There's an area for exploitation here, and that's the name of the game. Chicago may not be interested in trading with Pittsburgh -- what would be their rationale to trade a solid player to a potential contender, even if it's out of conference? On top of that, Pittsburgh really doesn't have that many young, good, inexpensive players that would be valued by Chicago. If Ray Shero wants to take the next step, it may have to come from poaching a RFA that the Blackhawks just can't afford to match.
Who are some possibilities? Let's take the jump and see.
#32 / Right Wing / Chicago Blackhawks
May 13, 1986
Contract info: $3.083 million (Signed thru 2011-12 season)
|2009 - Kris Versteeg||79||20||24||44||8||35||4||3||4||0||184||10.9|
--This would have to be a trade, since Kris Versteeg is under contract, but he might be the ideal addition for Pittsburgh. Young, fast, skilled. Plug him into a line with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin and watch them go. Would Pittsburgh be willing to give up the draft picks and prospects enough to make it happen? Probably not. We can dream though.
#4 / Defenseman / Chicago Blackhawks
Jun 06, 1987
Contract status: Impending Restricted free agent
|2009 - Niklas Hjalmarsson||77||2||15||17||9||20||0||0||1||0||62||3.2|
Hjalmarsson has become something of an emerging star these playoffs. He's big, tough, unafraid to block shots and becoming a guy who can give 22-25 solid minutes of defense.
An offer of up to $3.1 million bucks would mean Chicago only receives a 2nd round draft pick (in 2011) if they choose not to match it. The Pens aren't immune to salary cap challenges, but with a lot of defensemen coming off the books, they'd probably have enough room to squeeze Hjalmarsson into their salary structure. Provided another opportunistic team doesn't sign him to an offer sheet first.
Would Ray Shero break the unwritten rule of GM's and target another team's RFA? That's debatable. It'd be a hit to his reputation and probably make a Penguin player a target for an offer sheet in the future. The Pens don't have any notable RFA's-to-be in the near future though.
#33 / Right Wing / Chicago Blackhawks
Mar 27, 1985
Contract status: $3.0 million (signed thru 2010-11 season)
|2009 - Dustin Byfuglien||82||17||17||34||-7||94||6||0||3||0||211||8.1|
No one's done more for their value this playoff than "Big Buff", who's scored 11 playoff goals and been damn near impossible and unstoppable in front of the net. Imagining him setting up shop for the Penguins and all the open ice it'd give to Crosby/Malkin is a good thought.
But, like Versteeg, he's under contract too, and dealing just a $3m salary won't totally solve Chicago's woes, especially when Byfuglien's a capable top 6 winger. Still, their GM is in a position not to say no to anything without hearing the trade offer out.
#16 / Left Wing / Chicago Blackhawks
Dec 12, 1985
Contract info: Restricted free agent
|2009 - Andrew Ladd||82||17||21||38||2||67||0||0||1||0||148||11.5|
Ladd could be a prime offer sheet target, if a team wants to play it that way. He'd add size, some scoring and would be a big boost for the Penguins. An offer of $2 million or so might be too much if Chicago gets inundated in the free agent frenzy. It'd only cost a 2nd round pick, and given the track record of how the Pens draft in that round it would probably be a good deal on paper.
#20 / Right Wing / Chicago Blackhawks
May 19, 1987
Contract status: Restricted free agent
|2009 - Jack Skille||6||1||1||2||-3||0||0||0||0||0||9||11.1|
Here's your wild card. Skille was picked 7th overall back in 2005, a couple of slots after Crosby. He's got good size and skill, but consistency and salary cap crunch has kept him mostly in the minor league, where he's been a good point producer for AHL Rockford.
Doubtlessly, Chicago would like to sign him and plug him into their NHL lineup -- he ought to be relatively cheap compared to their other roster players and he is enough of a player to not have a major letdown.
But again, Chicago's got celebrating, logistics of a parade and the draft. That's a lot for an organization to handle and the next few quicks will be quite the blur. If Skille makes it to July 1 without signing a contract, he could be a perfect candidate to sign him in that range that will really force a tough decision.
Will the Penguins be able to take advantage of this situation and come away with a favorable acquistion and quality young player? In all liklihood, probably not. Don't think that there aren't 28 other franchises that aren't also licking their chops and weighing their options about how to do the same thing. The Blackhawks have also known this storm was coming, surely their front office has been pouring over all the possibilities of how to retain as much of their team and who they'd be willing to part with, and for what cost.
There's a lot of pieces in motion here, least of all the salary cap situation in Pittsburgh and the trading chips they have to give, which we all know isn't ideal compared to a lot of other teams out there.
But where there's a will, there's usually a way. If Ray Shero and co. doesn't pull it off, it doesn't mean they didn't try or at least investigate. With a little diligence, luck and maybe getting their hands dirty they could just bring an important piece of this year's Stanley Cup champs over East to last year's champs.