When the National Hockey League shut down for an entire season in 2004-05, that dark winter was predicated on the pursuit of cost certainty. The result was a hard salary cap, unlike any mechanism that exists in other professional sports where loopholes loom and luxury taxes prevail, often to the duress of franchises within those industries.
While the NHL system might be the envy of competitive leagues, it can and does create comprehensive revisions in team rosters, and nowhere have the hardships of the hard cap been more evident than in Chicago, where the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years last June, but were forced to shed popular and productive players, thus creating certain misconceptions, not to mention pockets of panic, among fans.
Listen up. The NHL salary cap is harder than the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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In a perfect world, all members of the Blackhawks presently being fitted for well-earned rings would return for 2010-11. But such a scenario would mean a payroll in excess of $70 million, a fiscal impossibility given the NHL salary cap for next season that does not even allow $60 million. So, general manager Stan Bowman, as he warned, had to respond via trades and departures, a penalty legislated by a simple fact: the Blackhawks enjoyed a surfeit of depth that facilitated their championship run.
“But that gig is over, and all I ask is that our fans realize we have retained our core, while adding a number of good, young players,” Bowman explained. “Some of them were good enough to be in the NHL last year, but couldn’t crack our lineup. Those players will come to camp next month hungry. We will have several guys who don’t have rings and want them. I think our fans will be pleased, maybe pleasantly surprised.”
Considering what this regime has achieved in such a short time, one should probably grant it the benefit of the doubt. These are not your father’s -- or his father’s --Blackhawks, who did not have a hard cap but operated according to a budget that tended to be a moving target, occasionally influenced by extra curricular events including whether a player’s agent was deemed appropriate negotiating material. Bowman does not operate that way.
When he insists with every representative that every dollar matters, he is believable, in part because of that ominous salary cap. But moreover, the entire executive branch of the Blackhawks has created an atmosphere that is attractive. Players want to come to Chicago and don’t want to leave Chicago. This is no small factor as it pertains to the current situation.
“When I got this job last summer, my first two calls were to Pat Brisson, who handles Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and to Ross Gurney, who represents Duncan Keith,” said Bowman. “I wanted to get those three key players into long term contracts as soon as possible. Everybody was on board, and still it took a couple months. To show you what kind of a kid Toews is, he didn’t want his deal to be a distraction to the season or to others. It was partly his idea to have all three sign together, which they did in December.”
Obviously, had Kane, Toews and Keith known the future and waited until June, they would have commanded more money. But by being pro-active with three stars who didn’t want to go anywhere anyway, management secured their services for multiple years. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks achieved a Stanley Cup with the three of them being paid less than $4 million total in flat salaries last season. Amazing, but true.
“That is an anomaly,” Bowman said. “I can’t think of another team where the best players are so young and still working under rookie contracts like Patrick and Jonathan. With them under league-implemented entry level maximums, that meant we could pay a third line forward or fifth defenseman $3 million each. That enabled us to have depth, a lot of good players, too many to keep now that the Patrick, Jonathan and Dunc start their new deals next season for about $17 million total.”
Question: What about the performance bonuses Kane and Toews received, thus reducing the Blackhawks’ actual cap by about $4 million next season?
Bowman: “In 99 percent of entry-level contracts, players don’t achieve honors such as the Conn Smythe trophy Toews won as MVP of the playoffs. Those bonus clauses are generic, or almost boilerplate, for rookies drafted that high. But only in rookie contracts, not contracts thereafter. We knew it was possible they would reach them, but we figured if we had a guy who won the Conn Smythe, we had a chance at our ultimate objective, the Stanley Cup. We could have allowed for that possibility in October by trading players we’ve just traded to create cap space, like Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg. But would we have won the Cup without them? We took a gamble.”
And the gamble paid off in a parade. But now, those performance bonuses still count, so the average annual value of Kane and Toews in 2009-2010 far exceeds their salaries. Last year is over, so the Blackhawks incur the hit this year. There is no way around it, unless of course, you employ players who aren’t as special as Kane and Toews.
And if you are offended that Bowman didn’t share his innermost thoughts throughout this turbulent summer process, get over it. He’s new but he’s not naïve. Did he say he might be done redecorating before he really was done? Absolutely. But no general manager worth his briefcase telegraphs his master plan. Beware of the business mogul who tells you everything he’s doing, for he might not know what he is doing.
“Meanwhile, for all that’s happened, a lot of other teams would kill to have our group of players,” he said. “And don’t forget how young Kane and Toews and some of our other key guys are. They are only going to get better, one would think.”
|The Blackhawks decided to keep their blue line intact by re-signing Niklas Hjalmarsson, who Bowman says has "tremendous upside." |
Bowman’s task was complicated when the San Jose Sharks extended an offer sheet to Niklas Hjalmarsson, a talented defenseman who was in line for a nice raise from the Blackhawks. But not $14 million for four years, which they matched to keep him. Politely, Bowman stresses he harbors no ill-feeling toward the Sharks, but suggests the maneuver “raised the price of playing poker” throughout the NHL. Also, Bowman states the offer sheet rendered keeping goalie Antti Niemi more difficult.
Question: Why didn’t the Blackhawks keep the goalie who helped them win the Stanley Cup and let Hjalmarsson go?
Bowman: “To replace Hjalmarsson, we would have had to sign another defenseman. A comparable one would have meant a comparable salary. We felt we would be better off with a veteran who we really like, Marty Turco, and Nik instead of Antti and a defenseman other than Nik, who has tremendous upside. We could have signed Antti and traded him. We explored that but couldn’t find a taker. He’ll get a job. He’s a great guy and a good goalie. But if you sign him, then can’t trade him, you’re stuck. Unless you trade somebody else.”
By resisting temptation to deal Patrick Sharp, Bowman has enabled the Blackhawks to start 2010-11 with centers for the makings of three lines, plus their top four defensemen to protect Turco, who took a $4 million pay cut to come to Chicago, where he can’t wait to put on his mask.
If you’re wondering whatever happened to the most important position in sports, you are not alone. But mull this: two inexperienced goalies who weren’t even No. 1 last October—Niemi and Michael Leighton of the Philadelphia Flyers—participated in the Stanley Cup final, while richer and more famous lodge brothers such as Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo ($10 million next year) had a bye, along with New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur and Evgeni Nabokov, who has left San Jose for his native Russia.
“I can’t explain the present market for goalies, other than these things are cyclical,” said Bowman. “The year after Anaheim won the Cup, teams felt they had to get tougher. Our style which won for us was three strong lines and a defense that moved the puck. It’s a difficult proposition. All season we’re monitoring things so closely because you have to. If you want to acquire a player who is making more than you’re going to be able to take off the books next season, the league won’t allow that either.
"You saw Jack Skille going back and forth to Rockford. It was all salary cap. And I don’t want to be an alarmist, but next year is another chapter. We have to sign Brent Seabrook. Troy Brouwer scored 22 goals this year for $1 million. The changes won’t be to this year’s extent, but we will be faced with some decisions. Thing is, this happens to every team, every year.”
And this year, only the Blackhawks won the last game. Take a deep breath for some historical perspective. In the spring of 1972, Bobby Hull left Chicago for Winnipeg of the World Hockey Association. Fans here were absolutely distraught. The greatest scorer in team annals, the finest left wing ever, the goodwill ambassador for the sport... gone. There was no hope for the Blackhawks. But the players Hull left behind didn’t like hearing they were garbage, adrenaline reached feverish levels, Ralph Backstrom was brought in just before the trading deadline and voilà.
The 1972-73 Blackhawks, who were supposed to be dead and buried, went to the Stanley Cup final.