A great thing happened for the long-suffering fans of the Chicago Blackhawks last season. After years of futility brought about by poor management and a chintzy owner, the Hawks after capitalizing on several high draft choices and a few astute trades and free agent signings, qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Not only did they qualify for the playoffs but they made a lot of noise while there. The Hawks made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals where they lost to a playoff tested crew from Detroit.
Hawks GM Dale Tallon was confronted with a couple of different options as he sought to construct the 2009/2010 version of the Hawks into Stanley Cup Champions. One option was to simply tinker with the roster adding depth or role players and count on the continued maturation of young stars like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith to get the Hawks over the hump and into the Finals. The other option was to be aggressive and use the money from Nikolai Khabibulin’s expiring contract to add a big piece to the roster; one that could single-handedly help push the Hawks over the Wings as the preeminent team in the Western Conference. Tallon chose the latter option.
On the first day of free agency, Tallon launched the first significant and possibly most surprising salvo by signing former Red Wing forward Marian Hossa to a monster 12-year contract worth $62.8 million. Not only did the Hawks acquire one of the best two-way players in the game and a perennial 35 – 40 goal-a-year scorer but they stole him away from their biggest rival, the Red Wings. Tallon obviously felt that adding a player like Hossa to the mix of young talent would make them a tougher team in the playoffs. With Hossa being able to ease into a complementary role and allow Toews and Kane to be at the forefront, I think Tallon will be proven right.
The real genius of this signing isn’t just in the addition of a great player; it’s in the terms of the contract. At 30 years of age, Hossa probably has a good 6 – 8 years left in his NHL career. The first 7 years of his new deal are at a salary of $7.9 million each year. The last 5 total a combined $7.5 million. That brings the Average Annual Salary (AAS) and thus the cap hit down to $5.23 million per season. If Hossa retires 7 years into his deal, he still will have pocketed $55.3 million while accounting for only a $5.23 million annual cap hit. The Hawks would be off the hook for the remaining money, $7.5 million, and the $5.23 annual cap hit for the balance of the five years left on his contract. Hossa gets his money while the Hawks save over $2.6 million annually on their cap for the first 7 years.
There is one severe problem however. The Hawks will have over $31.8 million committed against next years cap for 4 forwards, 3 defensemen and 1 goalie. Most people around the NHL are projecting hockey related revenues to either hold with last year or even decrease which would mean the salary cap would either stay roughly the same as this year’s or perhaps decrease. Assuming the cap stays roughly the same that leaves Tallon with only about $25 million to build the rest of his roster.
Here is a list of the Hawks players who will be headed into Restricted Free Agency and their 2009/2010 salaries:
Patrick Kane ($3.725 million)
Jonathan Toews ($2.8 million)
Andrew Ladd ($1.55 million)
Jack Skille ($1.275 million)
Duncan Keith ($1.475 million)
Just to qualify each of those players would commit almost $11 million and still leave them 4 forwards, 2 defensemen and a goalie short of a full roster. More than likely, the agents for Kane, Toews and definitely Keith will be looking for significant raises for their clients. The Hawks would be hard pressed to match if a team like the Kings came in and used their cap space to offer a huge offer sheet to Kane or Keith. The bottom line is that Tallon is going to have a lot of work to do to retain his best, young talent next off-season.
While I applaud the aggressiveness of adding Hossa to the Hawks lineup and really think it makes them the team to beat going into next year in the Western Conference, signing Hossa could turn into a huge mistake if it ultimately costs the Hawks one of their premium young players next year. If that happens then I have to chalk this move up as a loss for the Hawks and a bad gamble by Tallon.