It was something that colored their entire season, especially the post-season: the awareness that this team, as so carefully constructed this year, would not remain intact next season. On a local radio station on Monday morning, Patrick Sharp acknowledged that the team has been fully aware of it, especially as the season wound down, and that the final flight back to Chicago from Philadelphia was special because they were all aware it was the last time the team would be fully together, in private, for one last time.
The Hawks are not alone in juggling salary issues, however, and the vultures were circling the Blackhawks long before the post-season even began. There isn't a single team in the league not aware that the Hawks will need to clear some space off the books, and also that the Hawks are deep, deep, deep with talent, so any talent they do shed will be valued by other teams. That's right, even the guys regarded as "inconsistent".
You almost never see athletes turn down more money, and you don't exactly see very many walking into the head office and volunteering, "I'll take less money if it means we don't have to trade guys X, Y and Z."
The fact that looms large for the Blackhawks is that it's a handful of guys that tie up a large chunk of the salary cap, and even with the ways that those salaries hit against the cap (for example, some of the salaries are front-loaded, but hit the cap by average amount instead) doesn't help. Money is tight, the team can only spend so much, and at the end of the day, somebody will have to go. And for the Blackhawks team, even some of the "worst" guys on the team are beloved by fans, which means that somebody popular and talented is likely going to have to go, either just for straight-out finance issues, or more likely, to be bundled with a player the team simply wants to move.
At the end of the day, however, unless a player has a contract clause that dictates otherwise (ie., Brian Campbell's says that he can tell the team up to 8 other teams that he'd be willing to be traded to), players still under contract don't have much say in what happens to them.
And if you think that there aren't players who are unhappy at being traded away, even if it means more money in their pocket, then I'd like you to take a look at Jeremy Roenick crying after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Roenick was a victim of Bill Wirtz's infamous cheapness: despite everything that he brought to the team, when Roenick's contract came around for renewal, he was traded away. Since he eventually went on to play a few seasons in Philadelphia, Roenick sat on the fence throughout the Final series when asked which team he was backing. But when the waterworks started after game 6, it was clear: in his heart of hearts, whether or not he ever got the chance to hoist a Cup with Chicago, Roenick ultimately would've liked to have stayed a career Blackhawk. And even despite some of his infamous mouthing off during the lockout, he still remains a fan favorite for those who were watching the Hawks back between 1988–1996.
I'm no mathematician (I leave that to my brother, the actuary), nor would you ever, even a long shot, consider me calling your handicapping. But everybody with a keyboard and an interest in the Hawks has already started chiming in, so why not me? I started out with a poll over the last 24 hours of what other fans thought the Blackhawks would do as their deadlines loom, and it came out with some interesting results.
First, let's look at the table, and then I'll explain how I sorted this. (As there is a possibility of re-signing RFAs and then doing something else with them, I chose to leave the 'trade' and 'AHL' columns for responses on those players, where people voted for those options, so there is a % of interesting responses on those lines.)
|Niklas Hjalmarsson (R)||100||-||-||-|
|Antti Niemi (R)||95.2||2.4||2.4||-|
|Marian Hossa (11/U)||95.1||4.9||-||-|
|Tomas Kopecky (1/U)||94.9||5.1||-||-|
|Patrick Sharp (2/U)||92.9||7.1||-||-|
|Dave Bolland (3/U)||89.7||10.3||-||-|
|Troy Brouwer (1/R)||89.7||7.7||2.6||-|
|Dustin Byfuglien (1/R)||82.5||17.5||-||-|
|Andrew Ladd (R)||79.5||7.7||12.8||-|
|Brian Campbell (6/U)||59.0||38.5||-||2.6|
|Colin Fraser (R)||52.6||23.7||23.7||-|
|Kris Versteeg (2/R)||22.5||77.5||-||-|
|Brent Sopel (1/U)||23.1||38.5||17.9||20.5|
|Kim Johnsson (U)||-||-||100.0||-|
|John Madden (U)||22.5||-||77.5||-|
|Nick Boynton (U)||23.1||-||77||-|
|Adam Burish (U)||45.2||-||54.8||-|
|Ben Eager (R)||37.5||27.5||30||5|
|Jordan Hendry (R)||36.8||28.9||21.1||13.2|
|Bryan Bickell (R)||41||15.4||15.4||28.2|
|Cristobal Huet (2/U)||4.7||32.6||7||55.8|
(U) = Unrestricted Free Agent
(R) = Restricted Free Agent
Numbers before U or R means under contract, with # of years left on contract
Tops on the list: a full 100% of respondents said to re-sign Niklas Hjarlmarsson (RFA). The young Swede is talented and clearly poised on the cusp of becoming an outstanding defenseman. He was a bargain this past season, but look for the Blackhawks to want to tie him into multi-year but not cap-busting salary. We all love you, Hammer, so hope you stick around in Chicago for a while.
Next up in the "must keep" (re-sign) category is goalie Antti Niemi (RFA), clocking in at 95.2%. Blackhawks fans have watched the rotating door in the pipes for long enough, and they liked what they saw this year in the Finnish Fortress. He paid no mind to his naysayers, and just kept on doing his job. Obviously, the guy deserves a raise and is going to get it. His agent has been babbling on about maybe Niemi doesn't want to stay in Chicago, but I seriously doubt that. After all, Niemi chose Chicago over offers from teams like Detroit, the team showed unwavering faith in him throughout the season, and he won the Stanley Cup here his rookie year in the NHL. The fact is that he's still coming off his freshman year, and he did, at spots, show some inconsistencies; so nobody is going to commit him to a salary in the $4M+ range for multiple years at this stage in his career, unless they really desperately want to lure him away and have huge amounts of cap space. There's also a flood of goalies in the market this year - bigger names, higher salaries - looking to find a new team, so I would expect the Hawks to make him an offer around the $2.5-$3M mark and want to tie him in for somewhere between 2-4 years. Despite what his agent is yapping off about, I really hope to see Niemi around Chicago for the next few years, and clearly, so do a lot of other people.
The reason I say that (about Niemi not getting offered much over $3M) is due to Cristobal Huet (UFA/2 yrs still on contract), at the other end of the chart. The majority of folks (55.8%) think he should be sent down to the AHL for the last 2 years of his contract. That'd probably make him the most overpaid AHLer ever, but at least he would no longer impact the salary cap. However, his experience and mostly-decent goaltending (when he's not having a really, really off night) could make him attractive enough to a team that's got the room in the salary cap, and needs a decent goalie as a transition until one of their rookies is ready to take over full-time. There were 32.6% that suggested trading; he would likely be bundled with a tasty forward like Kris Versteeg. (more on that later)
Despite Marian Hossa's very large hit to the salary cap (over $5M/yr for the next 11 yrs), if there's one thing that Chicagoans admire, especially in sports, it's somebody who works their ass off for the team, and in the process, makes those around him better. Hossa may have been regarded as a bit of a mercenary coming into Chicago - after all, everybody knew his pursuit was one thing, the Stanley Cup, and he made a very calculated move choosing the Blackhawks. Hossa might not have had the scoring numbers he (or we) would've liked, but he scored when it mattered most (hello, game 5 vs Nashville) and his highly-talented play earned him a LOT of fans. Add to that his experience, and you will get a lot of bang for your buck out of Hossa for many years. Plus, I think that having won the Cup finally will take a lot of the emotional weight off his shoulders, and he is just going to keep getting better. And he's already an amazing player.
Fellow Slovakian Tomas Kopecky (UFA/1 yr left in contract) has also earned his share of respect in Chicago, and most (94.9%) think we need to keep him on the team. His current last year of contract is also not that expensive.
Patrick Sharp (UFA/2 yrs left in contact) has been a popular and solid member of the team for several years now, and while he may not be as award-winning as Jonathan Toews, he is without a doubt one of the stars of the team, and losing him would create a painful hole in the roster. He's been a good player for years, but has really shone this year. Most (92.9%) agree he needs to be kept.
Dave Bolland (UFA w/3 yrs left) and Troy Brower (RFA w/1 yr left) both come in at 89.7% for "keep"; both have been important parts of the team, especially late in the season and during the playoffs. Likewise, a lot of people (79.5%) would like to see Andrew Ladd (RFA) re-signed to the team; his skilled play has been noticeable, and he was certainly missed when his injured shoulder took him out of the lineup for a few games during the playoffs.
From here we venture into the "who can we afford to lose" category.
Dustin Byfuglien (RFA/1 yr left) redeemed his inconsistent regular season play with outstanding work during the playoffs. He gained a lot of popularity (82.5%), so it is not surprising to see a lot of people think we should hold onto him. The main question here is: which Buff will show up in next season - Big Buff that we saw in the playoffs, or will he revert to his previous regular-season play?
Kris Versteeg (RFA/2 yrs left) is the fans' choice for "player we should look to deal first", racking up a 77.5% tally for "trade" (more than twice the next closest choices, Brian Campbell and Brent Sopel). He was mostly-great in the playoffs, but he continued to show some of the same bad judgements that we saw from him during the regular season. And while his off-ice personality endears him with the fans, his on-ice play suggests otherwise.
Brian Campbell (UFA/6 yrs remaining) is another hard hit to the salary cap. Soupy has a lot of talent as a defenseman, and it was clear from the several weeks he was sidelined with an injury that the team can use his skill. Still, his $7+M salary cap is painful - especially considering players like Toews, Kane and Hossa are pulling down over $1M less - and that's probably why 38.5% suggested he might be more useful as a trade. Campbell's contract, however, restricts his trade usefulness; he can name up to 8 teams he'd be willing to trade to.
Colin Fraser (RFA) put in huge amounts of ice team last year for the team - 70 games - with respectable numbers. His lower salary would make him worth re-signing (52.6%).
Brent Sopel (UFA/1 yr left) put his body on the line - literally - for the team throughout the season, but it was his playoffs work that redeemed him in the eyes of many, selflessly throwing himself in front of the puck. However, he's also made some blunders, and he is regarded as one of the team's slower skaters - although a lot of players look slow in comparison to the fleet-footed Blackhawks, if you think about it. Fan feedback is nearly evenly split, with "trade" pulling out ahead at 38.5%.
Kim Johnsson's (UFA) time with the Hawks is done, period. We hardly knew ye.
Although John Madden (UFA) brought experience and talent to the team, 77.5% of people thought it was better to not re-sign him rather than take his salary into consideration. Even Madden himself said in post-season interviews that as much as he would like to return to the team next season, he didn't foresee it happening.
Veteran Nick Boynton (UFA) was acquired midseason from Anaheim. Although his salary isn't as bad a hit to the salary cap as some other D-men, the majority (77%) apparently think we can do better.
Adam Burish (UFA) has brought a lot of energy to the team, although ultimately, his numbers this season have dropped off a lot compared to his last two years with the team. Also in comparison, his 2008-09 playoff numbers were also better than his entire 2009-10 regular season stats, and his 2010 playoff stats were nearly flatlined. One would want to question what happened to his play this year, as he has has a consistently good record for most of his career. His change his stats, and some end-of-season mouth-offs might explain why 54.8% think it's time for Burish to move on to another team.
Rounding out the roster are the three RFAs, Ben Eager, Jordan Hendry and Bryan Bickell. Hendry (D) and Bickell have been bargain players for the team this year. Fan feedback suggests it might be better to keep them around than release or re-sign and regulate to the AHL. Eager has been solid, but since he would be getting a raise if re-signed, it might be reason enough for bring up somebody from Rockford instead (as in, hello, Kyle Beach).
At the end of the day, tough decisions will have to be made. Expect the Blackhawks to shed probably half a dozen, maybe more, from the current roster. Of those, I think they'll either bury Huet's salary in Rockford (they can certainly afford to, with the post-Stanley Cup-bounty) or if they're really lucky, trade him. Versteeg and/or Byfuglien probably won't be back next year; and chances are that most of the UFAs won't be either. Perhaps one of the higher-profile, higher-salary players may not be back, and if I had to guess, I would point to Campbell, simply because trading him would free up the greatest amount of salary with the least loss to the team - providing that any of the teams he would choose to name would be able to/interested in taking on his salary.
We know the team that won our hearts - and the Championship - won't be back intact in 2010-2011. But here's hoping the cuts aren't too painful.