The Chicago Blackhawks have now set the bar high for teams looking to retain their cornerstone players. Chicago signed forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to $10.5 million per year contracts, locking up both through the 2022-23 season. This amounts to $21 million spent on two players for the next nine years. The $10.5 million cap hit will not go into effect until the 2015-16 season, so the Blackhawks remain a mere $2.21 million over the cap for the 2014-15 season. This turns 2014-15 into an “all in” season for the Chicago Blackhawks. This is likely the final time that the current core of players will be on the same roster, as they have eight players either hitting RFA or UFA status next year.
The immediate concern for the Blackhawks is getting themselves under the $69 million salary cap for the 2014-15 season. Looking at their roster on CapGeek, one attractive option would be to move Kris Versteeg (this would free up $2.2 million). Unfortunately for Chicago, Versteeg is coming off a career low in terms of offensive numbers (12 G 24A, 36 points). In the regular season, he put up a respectable 54.2 CF% / +0.6 RelCF%, but that plummeted to 41.7 CF% / -10.3 RelCF% during the playoffs. The Blackhawks are going to have a hard time finding a team that will want to take on Versteeg’s $2.2 million cap hit for relatively average production. Their best hope is that a team trying to reach the cap floor takes a chance on Versteeg having a rebound season.
There are some trade options on the blue line as well, with Michal Rozsival ($2.2 million) and Johnny Oduya (3.375 million) both hitting UFA status next season. Oduya would be the more attractive trade option, as his $3.375 million would give the Blackhawks a little more wiggle room at the trade deadline this season and going into next year. Oduya is a mobile, defensive defenseman who still has a lot of game left in the tank. He put up 3 goals and 13 assists last season (compared to Rozsival’s 1 goal, 7 assists). The best case scenario would be for the Blackhawks to move either Rozsival or Oduya in a package deal with Versteeg. An extra $4.4-5.7 million in cap space will put the Blackhawks in a better position to retain some of their core players.
While the Chicago Blackhawks now scramble to deal with their cap issues, the rest of the NHL now finds itself with a new bar to meet with their star players. Kane and Sharp are not the leagues leading scorers, but they make up for that in their ability to make plays and as leaders in the locker room. There are other soon to be UFAs who also possess these qualities and put up bigger numbers. The Tampa Bay Lightning will have to sign Steven Stamkos to a new deal in 2016. Even in an injury shortened season, Stamkos managed to put up 40 points (compared to 69 and 68 for Kane and Toews). Stamkos currently carries a $7.5 million cap hit. The Kane / Toews deal has now given him the leverage to demand at least $10.5 million.
In 2018, the New York Islanders will have to pay Jonathan Tavares. He took a cap friendly $5.5 million hometown discount the last time around. He too will want a healthy raise. While the Lightning have not been afraid to spend (they are the fourth highest spending team entering the 2014-15 season, with a little over $1.1 million in cap space left), the Islanders have always been a team struggling to reach the cap floor (they currently have $14.9 million in cap space).
This $21 million dollar per year deal follows a trend that always seems to recycle in the NHL following a lockout. In the immediate season(s) after, teams calm down on the spending. Then salaries begin to inflate, teams overpay star players, and then we have a lockout, and salaries get rolled back (or players get bought out). Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews deserve to get paid well, but these large contracts tend to touch off a race for each star player to outdo the next, until you get Ilya Kovalchuk signing a 10 year / $100 million deal.
Despite the increase in salaries, the cap seems to be doing its job. We have not had a repeat Stanley Cup winner since the 1997/1998 Detroit Red Wings. The Chicago Blackhawks have locked up two very talented players, but now they are faced with cutting salary elsewhere and breaking up a successful core of players. 2014-15 has to be the year for the Blackhawks, otherwise they may not have the supporting cast in place for another run in the 2015-16 season.