Blackhawks Offseason Report: Free Agency Begins

 

While some teams came out offering insane contracts on the first day of free agency(see: Dave Bolland), Stan Bowman was busy working his magic to make deals that made sense for the team. The first day of free agency has become an interesting element of the salary cap era. It has transformed into a time for players to collect huge paydays that leave most fans and experts scratching their heads. The Bolland deal was not the only unbelievable deal today. An aging Ryan Miller picked up a 3 year deal worth $6 million per year. Matt Niskanen, a player who has never been a top-pair defenseman, signed a seven year deal with Washington with a cap hit of $5.75 million. The Avalanche passed on Paul Stastny who signed a 4 year/$7 million cap hit deal with St. Louis, but they felt that 3 years with a cap hit of $5.3 million to Jarome Iginla was completely fine. Finally, the Calgary Flames made another odd move by signing Deryk Engelland to a 3 year deal with a cap hit of $2.9 million. Engelland has never made over $1 million in a single season.

This brings us back to the Chicago Blackhawks and Stan Bowman. The more time passes, the more I appreciate everything that Bowman does with the Chicago roster. Bowman was able to unload Brandon Bollig’s atrocious contract on the aforementioned Flames. Further, he was able to sign all three RFA’s (Raanta, Smith, and Morin) before the draft. In essence, Bowman moved out the two worst players on the roster from last season in Bollig (traded) and Michal Handzus (released) and will be able to replace them with younger, better skilled players within the organization. Bowman has already indicated that Morin will have an increased role, and Teuvo Teravainen may be a force in the next year or two.

It is pretty well known that Teravainen will be given a shot at the second-line center when he is ready. The Hawks do not want to rush his growth though, and rumors before the draft involved the Hawks trading a big name player like Patrick Sharp or Brent Seabrook for a top center in the likes of Ryan Kesler or Jason Spezza. Kesler was traded to Anaheim during the draft and Spezza was traded to division rival Dallas earlier today. This left the Hawks few options to fill the 2C position until Teravainen is ready.

Bowman made sure this void wasn’t vacant for too long. The Hawks signed Brad Richards to a 1 year, $2 million deal. Richards is 34 and is not the same player he used to be, but he registered 51 points last year with a CorsiFor% of 54.1%. He will never garner any attention for the Selke, but the Hawks will be able to shelter his zone starts to make sure he isn’t playing a huge defensive role. A second line of Saad, Kane, and Richards may be the missing connection the Hawks were looking for last playoffs.

It comes somewhat as a surprise that Richards chose Chicago as a destination. Richards was recently bought out by the New York Rangers following their loss in the Stanley Cup Final, and it was thought that he may be able to get a multiple year deal worth 3-4 million per year (especially with some of the contracts given out today), but Richards indicated that he was willing to take less money to come to Chicago. In a press conference today, Richards said he knew fitting on the team would mean taking a smaller deal to fit under the cap but was happy to make it happen after talking with Bowman and Joel Quenneville last night.

It is clear that Richards will serve as stopgap until Teravainen is ready to take over as the second-line center, but this move makes sense on many levels. As Jen LC from Second City Hockey pointed out on Twitter, a one year deal for Richards means that Teravainen can develop for one more year, and it won’t interfere with the Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews extensions. Richards could be a true second line center, something the Hawks haven’t had in years, while not hurting the cap situation long-term.

Bowman made one other move today by re-signing Peter Regin to a one year deal worth $650,000. Regin did not play much after being acquired at the trade deadline this past season, but he was a very serviceable and responsible depth forward for Chicago. A line composed of Smith, Kruger, and Regin could be a very promising fourth line compared to the rest of the league. Smith and Kruger would conceivably be third line players on virtually any other team.

Bowman has shown that he can make great deals for free agents without succumbing to the pressure to overpay players. Put simply, Bowman signed a second line center and a depth forward for a combined $2.6 million, $300,000 less than what Deryk Engelland will be making in Calgary. Unfortunately, the Hawks cap situation was so tight that today’s signings put the Hawks over the cap. According to capgeek.com, the Blackhawks have $71,216,795 committed to the cap, which is set at $69,000,000. They need to figure out how to free up $2,216,795 in cap space without decreasing the roster size before the start of next season. An easy way to do this would be to trade Versteeg (cap hit of $2.2 million) and Johnny Oduya (cap hit of $3.375 million), but filling those voids and staying under the cap will be tight. In essence, if they trade Versteeg and Oduya, they will need to fill two roster spots for around $3.3 million ($1.65 million per player). This shouldn’t be too hard of a task, but finding a trade partner for Versteeg will be near impossible given his play and contract. Trading Oduya makes a lot of sense as Hjalmarsson is the more dominant of the two and it appears a defenseman is on the move after the Hawks signed Kyle Cumiskey late tonight (contract details have not been released). Oduya has been a good shutdown player, and is capable of taking on the opponent’s top line so Bowman should have no problem moving him. The cap situation could open the door for a bigger trade involving Sharp or Seabrook though. Given that Morin and Saad have proven they can contribute and score in the NHL, Sharp may be the more expendable player. Trading Sharp would give the Hawks over $3.6 million in cap space for two roster spots (about $1.8 million per spot). I still doubt Bowman trades a top player like Sharp or Seabrook unless the return is absolutely worth it, especially with the addition of Cumiskey on defense.

All in all, Bowman has once again proven why he is a top GM in the league. He strays away from long-term contracts that end up overpaying for an aging veteran. Most unrestricted free agents are past their peak, and I’m almost positive Bowman recognizes that. By signing Richards and Regin to one year deals, he has set himself up well for the 2014-15 season as well as the 2015-16 season. The Hawks are busy working on Toews and Kane extensions already and seem to have a great plan set for the next few seasons. The key to contending for the Cup year after year is building a core, surrounding the core with young, skilled players, and constantly improving. The Blackhawks have the core and the young players. Bowman has improved the team this offseason while continuing to work wonders with the cap. A trade is imminent in the next month or so, but, as we should all know by now, Bowman and the Blackhawks will almost assuredly make the right move.

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