The Hawks May Be Down, But Not Out
For the first time in the last 10 years, the Chicago Blackhawks will not be playing postseason hockey. After a run of three Stanley Cups in the last decade, the championship window looks to be closing.
The team shouldn’t be pronounced dead yet, but years of buying at the deadline, giving out lengthy contracts, and relying on their core brings an inevitable end of arguably the best team this decade.
The Beginning Of The End
Let’s get one thing straight, Patrick Kane is not slowing down. The Buffalo native is only two years removed from capturing the Art Ross and Hart trophies for most points and most valuable player respectively. He has logged almost a point per game this season and will remain the backbone of the Hawks offense until further notice. At only 29, Kane should have a few more elite years left before the eventual decline.
The same cannot be said for the rest of the championship core. Former Selke winner Johnathan Toews is logging a negative plus/minus for the first time in his career and has a career-high 42 giveaways with eight games left in the season. Two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith is a -22 in the plus/minus department. Brent Seabrook was a healthy scratch earlier this season, his first since signing a brand new contract. All three of these players could see their lowest point totals in the last 10 years by season’s end.
The dip in production, however, can be partially blamed on the absence of goaltender Corey Crawford. The two-time cup winner went 16-9-2 before an apparent concussion problem derailed his season. Whether Crawford is being held out an extended amount of time due to the team’s performance is debatable, but either way, goaltending has been abysmal in Chicago. In fact, the veteran net-minder was on track for a career year before the injury. Since the all-star break, no team has allowed more goals than Chicago, with only Carolina and Calgary owning a worse save percentage.
The team may have another run in them. With decent goaltending, it is reasonable to think that Chicago might be better than third worst in the Western Conference. With a healthy Crawford, the team should have a year or two to contend for the playoffs, and while they may not be front-runners for another cup, they simply have too much talent to be a bottom-feeder.
Why They Will Be In Trouble
The Blackhawks traded the present for the future in almost every way possible. They gave their stars maximum term despite their age, and in Duncan Keith’s case, an even longer term due to signing him before the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Here is a breakdown of some of the larger contracts that will hamper the Hawks down the line:
|Player||Avg. Annual Value||Length||Expiration||Age At Contract’s End||No Move (NMC) or Trade (NMT) Cause|
|Brent Seabrook||$6.875 Million||8 Years||2023-2024||38||Full NMC until 2022-2023 then Modified NTC|
|Duncan Keith||$5.538 Million||13 Years||2022-2023||39||Full NMC|
|Jonathan Toews||$10.5 Million||8 Years||2022-2023||34||Full NMC|
|Patrick Kane||$10.5 Million||8 Years||2022-2023||34||Full NMC|
While Kane and Toews should be serviceable at age 34 and possibly beyond, Seabrook and Keith have likely seen their best days on the ice. If the Hawks are looking at a full-scale rebuild, it is likely that they will have to work around the d-men’s contracts, unless they are willing to accept diminished value due to remaining money, years, and no-move clauses.
How To Circumvent The Cap Crunch
Marian Hossa was sidelined this season due to side-effects of a reaction with his hockey equipment. At age 38 and three more seasons under contract, Hossa was placed on long-term IR (LTIR). The Hawks received cap relief for every dollar of the winger’s $5.275 million dollar cap hit.
Hossa may not return to the ice, and at age 40 it would be a tough return after taking an entire year off. While I am not suggesting that any injury is fabricated or exaggerated, we have seen teams take advantage of the LTIR. We have seen stories of conflicting reports of players who have had teams place them on the reserve. More on the breakdown of LTIR can be found here.
Now, since Hossa and Keith signed contracts with terms longer than eight year maximum, there are penalties built into the new CBA that penalizes teams like Chicago who front-loaded these long term contracts to be on the hook for less money if said player retires. Both players received a bulk of money owed to them in the first few years of the contract and while their cap hit is high, they are not owed much money in their final few years.
If Hossa retired, for instance, the Hawks would receive a penalty equivalent to the amount that Hossa has already received minus his actual accrued cap hit. A more detailed breakdown in this 2016 article forecasting the eventual retirement of the forward here.
If either one of Seabrook or Keith end up being approved for LTIR placement by the NHL, Chicago could clear up cap space to go sign big-name free agents. For now, they must rely either on these players finishing out their contracts or for another team to trade for them in a few years in a deal approved by the player themselves.
It’s not to say Chicago has not started a youth movement. Rookie Alex DeBrincat has been sensational this year. Veteran blue-liner and long-time Blackhawk Niklas Hjalmarsson was traded to Arizona. The team even moved out promising winger Ryan Hartman to their division rivals in Nashville for a first-round pick in a move that will need to play out before it can be judged.
With almost $50 million tied up to their seven highest-paid players each season the next three years, the team better hope their healthy core can lead them to the promise land. General Manager Stan Bowman may have a harder time leading the team coming down from a run of championships than he did building up for them.
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