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How Much Did Dale Tallon Hurt Chicago Last Summer?

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The other day I mentioned the "Winner's Curse" paradox. This is the problem that occurs in auctions where the person who wins the auction is very likely the guy who has most overestimated the value of the thing being purchased compared to the other bidders.

Last summer the Chicago Blackhawks were declared the big "winners" of free agency. But one year later that summer spending spree is shaping up as a franchise crippling event--one that will lower the ceiling on an other wise outstanding collection of young talent. Last season the Blackhawks were not only one of the very best teams in the NHL teams, they were also one of the very youngest. All things being equal they should improve as part of the maturation process--even without adding any new talent.

The true test of a GM sitting on a gold mine of talent is not not screw it up (Mike Milbury = fail as NYI GM) and to find the key complimentary pieces that patch roster holes. This summer Chicago GM Tallon essentially swapped out Marian Hossa for Martin Havlat, unlike Eric Duhatschek I count that as a modest upgrade given Hossa's health record and outstanding penalty kill skills. (Oh course he also had to throw $1.2 million at the gift-with-purchase Tomas Kopecky too.)

But the decisions that will haunt the Blackhawks for years were made last summer, when the team handed out $5.6 to G Christobal Huet and $7.1 million per year to Brian Campbell. That's nearly $13 million in cap space allotted to a not-really-elite netminder and a defensemen who is skilled only at one end of the ice. Throw in the fact that Chicago already had an underperforming Stanley Cup goalie under contract and things only look worse.

Fast forward to the Free Agent Frenzy of 2009 and you can see that if Chicago had been content to wait out the final year of Nikolai Khabibulin's contract, they could have landed an average goalie (Martin Biron) for far less than what they are paying Huet ($5.6 million) now. In fact, the goalie market is ended up being flooded with the return of Ray Emery and the arrival of "The Monster" from Sweden. There are only 30 starting jobs and more than 30 aspiring starters. In fact the goalie tandem of the Philadelphia Flyers (a playoff team) are still without jobs.

Now let's move forward in time to next summer. Let's say that NHL revenues hold steady next season--if revenue growth is flat the salary cap will fall by nearly $3 million next season. Why? Because the NHLPA invoked the 5% kicker. The kicker is essentially an assumption revenue will be growing and that teams can spend that revenue growth in the sames season that it is generated. So the 2009-2010 cap number assumes revenue growth of 5% but most people consider this assumption VERY unlikely. What if it falls as many expect? What if it falls by 5%? Well then the cap is going to drop not just $3 million but perhaps as much as $4-6 million. If the upper limit of the cap drops by $4 million it will be at about $54 next summer.

The Blackhawks have already allocated $13 of their $54 payroll to two players who are good but not elite. Furthermore, that bevy of young talent will begin hitting their RFA years and see significant increases in pay. Here are the numbers that should cause GM Dale Tallon to wake up in a cold sweat at night. At this very moment the Chicago Blackhawks have already committed to spending $42 million for the 2010-2011 season and yet the cap may fall to $54 million--which gives the Blackhawks a budget space of roughly $12 million.

To retain their RFA matching rights, the Chicago Blackhawks must make qualifying offers equal to the players previous salary. If you add up Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Andrew Ladd that totals $10.25 million in you include bonus clauses. All four of those players are in line for a raise of some sort--especially Duncan Keith. The Blackhawks also will have 4 bottom end roster spots to fill (one 4th line forwards, one 3rd pairing defensemen and 2 bench slots)--at the very minimum those slots will cost $0.5 million each--for a grand total of $2 million more.

So let's add up the ugly numbers. If NHL revenues decline by say 4% this season, the cap will likely end up around $54 million. The Blackhawks are already committed to spend $42 million on existing contracts. That leaves them just $12 in cap space and every dime of that $12 will be consumed simply making qualifying offers to their young players and filling out the bottom of their roster at the NHL league minimum.There is no money for raises to budding young NHL superstars. Warning: budget crisis dead ahead!

Now certainly there are ways to move fat contracts, but if rival NHL GMs play hard ball they will likely extract a pound of flesh in the form of cheap young players or 1st round draft picks. Winning in the Free Agent Frenzy in 2008 is going to result in a painful summer of 2010 baring an economic miracle (or another Bob Gainey get-out-jail-free card).

I'm sure Dale Tallon will find a way to make one of those ugly contracts go away, but it will likely cost him assets to do so. The rush to become a contender in the summer of 2008 is going to lower the ceiling on a potential dynasty of young talent because of impatience at the top--and that's a shame for Blackhawks fans everywhere.