Since the Blackhawks added the (bigger than expected) salary of Niklas Hjalmarsson to their bottom line on Monday, trade rumors have started to circle the organization once again. Yet again, the central figure of many rumors is versatile forward Patrick Sharp, and the prospect of losing another fan favorite has many committed indians concerned.
While the thought of losing Sharp should cause concern, there are a number of realities that Blackhawks fans are going to need to deal with over the coming months.
First, repeating as Stanley Cup Champion is incredibly difficult. Hockey fans know that winning the Cup is the hardest championship in professional sports, and the Hawks went 49 years between opportunities to kiss the trophy. But winning it back-to-back is nearly impossible.
Since 1990, the Cup has named 19 champions. Only twice in those 19 seasons did a champion repeat, and it hasn’t happened since 1998. There’s a very good reason for that: free agency. Players, and their agents, want to be paid according to their talents and organizations must stay within the confines of the salary cap. Also, teams want to mimic the defending champion and the easiest way to do that is by adding players from the champion’s roster.
The Blackhawks won the Cup last year with one of the youngest groups in recent memory to accomplish hockey’s ultimate goal. Their players are going to be popular targets for the next decade. It’s time Hawks fans get used to it.
In light of the difficult nature of repeating, the second reality Hawks fans need to deal with is compromise. Much like the 1985 Bears, these Blackhawks have a young enough roster and a good enough core to do special things for a number of years to come. However, for a team to maintain prolonged success in the era of the salary cap, the importance of continuing to keep the organization stocked full of talented future replacements is paramount.
GM Stan Bowman has done that.
Blackhawks fans need to consider an important concept: would you rather be excited about one championship for possibly 49 more years, or would you prefer a proactive front office that works to keep the organization loaded and competitive for the next decade? Winning two or three more championships in the next decade wouldn’t happen if the Hawks waited for contracts to expire and lost assets for nothing. It also wouldn’t happen if the Hawks stayed handcuffed by the salary cap at the expense of younger talent like Niklas Hjalmarsson.
While we might not like Hjalmarsson signing the offer sheet from San Jose, you cannot fault a 23-year-old for being excited about a 300% pay raise.
However, in light of that deal it is important to remember that a player’s salary cap number and their abilities to impact the product on the ice need to justify one another relative to the cost for a replacement.
At the end of the day, the Blackhawks did not feel that they could replace the potential impact of Hjalmarsson on the ice over the next four years for less than $3.5M, and the future may prove their confidence in the young man to be appropriate. This also holds true for assets currently on the NHL roster like Sharp and Brian Campbell; the Hawks can’t trade someone they can’t afford to replace.
Players like Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg and Dustin Byfuglien are easily replaced by players making less money. That is not the case with a player like Sharp.
The third reality Hawks fans need to deal with is that some assets are unlikely/impossible to move. Cristobal Huet will go to Rockford and that’s probably the extend of his departure from Chicago because of his ridiculous salary. Campbell, however, is a different scenario because, despite his abilities on the ice being valuable, his salary is enormous and he has a no-trade clause. It’s going to be nearly impossible for the Hawks to move either of these players.
Which is why headlines grab the sexy target instead of the easy ones, and look at Sharp as trade bait.
What is more likely is that the Blackhawks will make a couple of minor moves to bump players like Marty Reasoner and Tomas Kopecky off the roster. Given Sharp’s ability to play center, the Hawks could leave him in the circle and look to someone like Jake Dowell as a possible fourth line center with Toews and Dave Bolland filling out the set. A player like Viktor Stalberg, Jack Skille or Bryan Bickell would fill the opened wing position on the fourth line where Kopecky spent most of last year.
Blackhawks fans need to look back at 1992, the last time the Hawks played for the Stanley Cup (and lost) and how that team was dismantled. Management at that time had no growth model or organizational structure in place to adequately replace players like Steve Larmer, Jeremy Roenick and, eventually, Chris Chelios.
Under Bill Wirtz’s management, the team’s approach to player movement could be described as “Dump, No Chase.”
Under Rocky Wirtz’s management, the team’s approach appears to be more closely aligned to “Reload, Replace.”
Take heart, Blackhawks fans. There may indeed be additional movement, but these Blackhawks are not simply dumping talent to clear cap space. From what we’ve seen already this summer, with Bowman adding impressive kids to the system in every deal, a deal won’t happen without a positive impact on the future of the organization.
I would rather have confidence that the team will compete for the division, conference and Cup for the next ten years than be bitter that popular players have been dealt. It appears the franchise would, too.