Is this Chicago’s last push as an elite NHL team?

Elliotte Friedman takes an in depth look at the resurgence of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Chicago sports scene.

Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman is a fortunate man. His team has won two Stanley Cups and is currently contending for its third in a span of just six years. He has two of the finest forwards in all of hockey, a talented supporting cast and a group of top defencemen most of his rivals would sell organs to acquire.

He also faces deep challenges. Any great team fights against the salary cap, a gravitational force that necessitates the sacrifice of good players along the way for cheaper alternatives. A weak Canadian dollar and new contracts for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will make this year’s fight with the cap particularly difficult, as will some unforced errors on Bowman’s part.

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Bowman has faced problems similar to this before. In the aftermath of the team’s 2010 Stanley Cup win, he was forced to part with key building blocks Antti Niemi, Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd; Brian Campbell and Troy Brouwer were pushed out a year later as part of the same process. But Bowman quickly retooled and ever since then, the Hawks have been a contender.

This time the process may be more difficult. Not only are members of the core at risk, but Bowman probably doesn’t have two years to get things sorted the way he did last time around. Marian Hossa is already 36 (and with a long, back-diving contract is something of a ticking time bomb), Patrick Sharp is 33, Duncan Keith turns 32 in July and even Brent Seabrook is 30.

The Blackhawks already have $66.2 million committed to just 14 regulars next season, a list which doesn’t include unrestricted free agents like defenceman Johnny Oduya and centre Brad Richards or key restricted free agents like Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger. That gives Bowman approximately $5 million in cap space to get his team’s RFAs signed, plug the holes left by departing veterans and fill out a roster of 23 bodies.

What Bowman needs to figure out is how to strip money from the roster without damaging its core function. If he can do that, the Hawks will continue to be a threat for at least the next few years. If he can’t, the team will take a step back, and this time it may have a more permanent impact.

Fortunately, there is some fat to trim on the roster. Unfortunately, that fat is there because under Bowman’s watch the Blackhawks haven’t always been judicious with their funds.

Bryan Bickell is a good example. He ranked 10th among Blackhawks forwards in total ice time during the regular season, which are essentially fourth-line minutes. He doesn’t have a goal in the playoffs. His salary cap hit is $4 million, and while he adds desirable size to a small team he is an extravagance Chicago cannot afford.

Corey Crawford is the next obvious player to look at, because while he’s a capable goalie he’s also replaceable internally – and at a fraction of the cost. Crawford’s .924 regular season save percentage was eclipsed by both backup Scott Darling (9-4-0, .936 SP) and third-stringer Antti Raanta (7-4-1, .936 SP). In fact, Darling even supplanted a struggling Crawford as Chicago’s starter in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Darling and Raanta have a combined cap hit of $1.34 million next year, less than one-quarter of Crawford’s hefty $6 million contract.

Even Sharp might prove expendable. The 33-year-old is getting into those years where performance typically starts to sharply drop. He had a difficult campaign this year, dropping from 34 goals in 2013-14 to just 16. Moving him this summer would clear $5.9 million from the books for the next two seasons and finding a secondary scoring winger is generally an easy task in the NHL.

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Between Crawford, Bickell and Sharp, there’s almost $16 million tied up in three players who Chicago could, most likely, adequately replace at a fraction of the price. Moving Crawford would be the riskiest gamble, but many NHL teams have gotten by with cheap goaltending. The Blackhawks need look no further than their current opponent; Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen has been great this post-season and has a cap-friendly figure of just $1.15 million.

The difficulty for Bowman will be finding the will to move those players. He’s won with all of them and he signed them to those deals in the first place. Even if he is willing to part with them, finding suitors may not be easy. Not only will nobody want to do Chicago any favours, the modest growth of the cap (currently expected to come in at $71 million) is going to force a lot of teams to make hard decisions of their own.

If the Blackhawks can’t move their luxury items, the axe will fall a lot deeper into the roster and impact their ability to stay competitive. Seabrook, a year away from free agency, might be a cap victim. So too might Saad, a 22-year-old power forward who will be a tempting offer sheet target for rival teams if Chicago can’t get its house in order. Losses like those would seriously damage the Blackhawks – and perhaps critically weaken the team.

These calculations likely played into why the Blackhawks attacked so aggressively at the trade deadline. Right now, they are clearly an elite NHL team so it made sense to push hard for another Stanley Cup.

But it’s going to take careful handling of their cap situation to make sure that description still fits next October.

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