There are lots of rumors flying around the Blackhawks right now, and most of them have to do with potential player movement. However, while some rumors center around improving the team for a run at the Stanley Cup this year, most of them are the work of mad scientists/hockey writers that are trying to make all of the current Hawks fit into the salary cap next year.
The latest rumor is that the Blackhawks will announce, at some point during the upcoming circus trip, that they have agreed to long-term deals with their two young stars, Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews. As Pierre LaBrun postulates on ESPN.com, any fair market contracts for these two would almost certainly mean there isn’t enough cap space in Chicago for Duncan Keith.
Keith is the rock of the Hawks’ blue line, and must be retained. But considering what other top defenseman are making (Kaberle is at $4.25M, Zdeno Chara is at $7.5M, Brian Campbell is at $7.14M), Keith is going to get a substantial raise from his current salary of $1.9M.
Assuming Keith’s cap number jumps to fair market value, which should be in the neighborhood of $5M in the current economy, the Blackhawks unfortunately have too much money on their books to afford him. So how can the Hawks come up with enough cap space to keep Toews, Kane and Keith? I did some research, and the solution is simple.
Buy out Brian Campbell’s contract.
My homework on the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NHLPA and the NHL left me with an optimistic view of how the Hawks could easily afford to keep their home-grown core intact. Keith isn’t the only player that is going to need a raise, and unloading Campbell could serve as the first domino to facilitate the rest of the roster being set.
Based on the current CBA, there is a formula by which the annual salary cap hit for a player is determined if their contract is bought out before it expires. I’m going to try to break down the CBA’s policy on contract buyouts to a Cliff Notes version for the sake of discussing how the Hawks buying out Campbell could help them afford the rest of their roster.
If a player is older than 26, then the player is entitled to 60 percent of the remaining dollar value of their contract. However, the CBA allows a club to stretch that 60 percent out over twice the remaining duration of the existing contract.
Campbell is due $42.84 million over the next six years ($7.14 million per). So, in Campbell’s case, his new “contract” for the Hawks’ cap purposes would become $25.71 million over the next 12 seasons (or $2.14 million per season).
In buying out Campbell, the Hawks would lose a good power play quarterback and one of the fastest skating blue liners in the league. But they would save $5M annually.
Circling back to our discussion about Keith’s relative value in this market, the $5M the Hawks would save would basically become Keith’s contract.
Something the Hawks have undoubtedly already dealt with internally is that Campbell’s contract is concrete; no other team is going to trade for that size of a cap number without unloading dead weight of their own. So an internal restructuring of their salaries is needed, which makes buying Campbell out a realistic option.
The negatives of buying out a contract as long as Campbell’s are obvious: the Hawks lose a good player and have to pay someone who isn’t on their roster for 12 years. But the global impact of taking Campbell off the books could reach beyond just Keith.
After the 2009-10 season, there are more players looking for new paper than just the headliners. Toews, Kane and Keith could be joined as restricted free agents by Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jordan Hendry.
From this group, Hjalmarsson stands out as a priority to re-sign. It would be prudent for the Hawks to give him a long-term deal with Keith this summer, locking up a player that Scotty Bowman has projected as one of the top defensemen in the league.
Locking up Keith and Hjalmarsson is impossible with Campbell’s contract on the books. If Campbell’s no longer with the team, it’s at least within a reasonable imagination that both could be retained.
Another unfortunate reality is that there are deals coming up in subsequent years that will require the Hawks to spend a significant amount of money again. Brent Seabrook is a restricted free agent in the summer of 2011, and he’ll require a nice raise just like Hjalmarsson and Keith will.
When Seabrook is looking for a new deal, though, Brent Sopel’s $2.3M cap number will be off the books, affording the Hawks additional flexibility. Other contracts that expire after the 2010-11 season include Dustin Byfuglien and Troy Brouwer.
With Cam Barker under contract for the next two years for less than half Campbell’s cap number, and prospects like Shawn LaLonde and Dylan Olsen coming up through the system, eventually Campbell’s roster spot would be needed for a cheaper, younger player as well.
Though Barker, like Campbell, leaves a lot to be desired on the ice, his heavy shot from the point makes Campbell’s niche on the roster less exclusive. Considering that former-defenseman Byfuglien has seen time at the point on the power play recently further dillutes the Hawks’ need for Campbell’s ability to lead a rush.
Stan Bowman inherited a minor league system full of solid prospects. Players like LaLonde, Olsen, Akim Aliu, Jake Dowell and Kyle Beach could all find their names on lockers at the United Center in the next couple years, and they’ll arrive with significantly lower cap numbers than some veterans that are currently on the roster.
By buying out Campbell’s contract, Stan Bowman would release $5M of pressure between the young Hawks and the salary cap, enabling him to use Dale Tallon as a crutch for eating over $2M but opening the space needed to keep a great young core together for more than one run at a Stanley Cup.