CHICAGO -- Now that Stan Bowman's offseason plan for the Chicago Blackhawks is nearly complete, fans have turned their attention to the next order of business: signing star forward Patrick Sharp to a contract extension.
Bowman, Chicago's vice president and general manager, is thinking along the same lines, though his timeline for getting a deal done probably isn't as urgent as the fans. Bowman, who couldn't start negotiating with Sharp's camp until July 1, was in the same position regarding star defenseman Brent Seabrook last year.
That one wasn't resolved until late in the season, and Sharp's new deal could take just as long -- or it could be announced quicker. Neither side is giving much indication about far along talks are at this point, and there's also a chance no deal is reached and Sharp hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent next July.
Sharp, however, said he isn't concerned.
"I really don't have much to say about it, to be honest with you," said Sharp, who's entering the final year of his current contract – which has a salary-cap hit of $3.9 million according to capgeek.com. "I've stated that I want to stay here. Hopefully the organization wants me to stay, and besides that I'm not really going to focus on it. I'm just going to try and be the best player I can be and be a good teammate and let those things kind of sort themselves out."
Despite a knee injury that limited Sharp to 74 games and hampered his mobility down the stretch and into the playoffs, he finished last season with career highs in goals (34) and points (71) – which tied him with Anaheim Ducks forward Bobby Ryan and Dallas Stars center Mike Ribeiro in scoring.
Ryan, 24, posted the exact same numbers while Ribeiro had fewer goals (19) and more assists (52). In terms of salary comparison, Ryan has four more years left on the five-year deal he signed at the start of the 2010 season that, according to capgeek.com, carries a cap hit of $5.1 million a year.
Ribeiro, 31, has two years left on a five-year deal that pays him $5 million annually.
The Hawks will likely have to shell out a similar amount to keep Sharp in the fold, but thanks to several moves this offseason – including the trade of pricey defenseman Brian Campbell -- they're in a much better situation financially and should be able to afford him.
Thus it will be up to Bowman and Chicago's management team to decide whether Sharp belongs in the "core group" of stars that are currently locked into long-term deals.
"You can't have a core group of 20 guys," Bowman said this weekend at the team's fourth annual fan convention in the Chicago Hilton. "It just doesn't work that way in the sport of hockey -- or in other sports, for that matter. We try to identify the guys that are instrumental in being here in the short term and the long term. We've done that. We've locked those players up and that's kind of the nature of sports."
I've stated that I want to stay here. Hopefully the organization wants me to stay, and besides that I'm not really going to focus on it. I'm just going to try and be the best player I can be and let those things sort themselves out. - Patrick Sharp
The fact that other players had to leave in order for Sharp to possibly join the core group was pointed out to him at this weekend's convention, but he quickly countered that this is not the first time it's happened . During Chicago's 2010 Stanley Cup season, Bowman inked stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith to long-term contracts and then had to deal off a large portion of the roster after the season to make room under the cap for 2010-11.
"I think the last time (people) said that, they said the same thing about Kane, Toews and Duncan Keith," Sharp said. "I can't control what people are thinking or saying. Even the contract stuff – that's out of my hands."
Also out of his hands will be where he plays. Hawks coach Joel Quenneville often juggles his lines on a game-to-game basis and utilizes one of Sharp's biggest attributes, his flexibility. Sharp can play all three positions up front, but his ability to handle center could be huge for Chicago next season.
There are some who feel Sharp would be best used as a winger, but it's also hard to argue with the success Chicago has had playing Sharp in the middle. He played mostly center during the Hawks' Cup run and thrived, finishing those playoffs tied with Dustin Byfuglien as the team's top scorer with 11 goals and 22 points in 22 games.
Sharp also played his share of center last season on the second line between Marian Hossa and various forwards of Quenneville's choosing. This season, Chicago may still be short on NHL-caliber centers, so Sharp could wind up there again – especially if youngster Marcus Kruger needs time to develop in the minors.
"I'm fine with that," Sharp said of playing in the middle. "I think from the last six years I haven't really played one position more than another – left wing, right wing, center and even defense on the power play. I think it's an asset. You prepare to play all positions. I really don't care which, as long as I'm on a line that's working. If I can contribute on that line, then I'm happy."
Sharp's offense, however, really seemed to click playing wing on the top line with Toews at center and Kane on the other wing. Quenneville used that line combination for an extended stretch in the second half of the season, including the top power-play unit, and the Hawks went on a run that ultimately got them into the heated race for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Either way, Sharp is looking to improve on his individual numbers in 2011-12, saying the extended rest he's gotten should help. In fact, he's already feeling the itch to get back on the ice with two months left before training camp.
"Every year I've played in the NHL, I've improved from year to year and certainly I feel I can do it again this year," Sharp said. "I feel like I'm just getting started and want to continue to produce on offense and also playing in all situations, like I have in the past."
He also hasn't lost his sense of humor. When asked about the revelation this week of Kane's wrist fracture, which will require surgery on Tuesday, Sharp didn't let a chance to razz one of his favorite targets.
"Hopefully he can't shoot the puck and he can just pass it and I'm playing with him," Sharp said, smiling. "He can make some nice passes to me."
Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent