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Blackhawks Cap Crunch Will Force Trades

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The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup this summer I recall reading a number of comments about how unfair it was that Dale Tallon wasn't getting sufficient credit for assembling this team. Well if Dale Tallon deserves credit for the Cup win, he certainly deserves the blame for the fire sale that is about to happen. The harsh reality is that Tallon set in motion both the construction and destruction of the current Chicago roster. He made a number of good choices (draft picks), bad choices (bloated free agent contracts) and mistakes (screwed up qualifying RFAs). Now Chicago is going to have to pay the piper. (click here to read my previous comments on Tallon's performance.)

Let's review the facts and assess the damage. The NHLPA invoked the 5% kicker on the salary cap. In essence this assumes that NHL revenues will grow by 5% and if it doesn't the players risk losing their money which is held in escrow during the season. Invoking the kicker puts next season's cap at $59.6 in cap dollars. Most NHL clubs can carry a cap expense of almost $60 million next year--but not Chicago. Why not? Bonus money.

When Jonathan Toews won the MVP that triggered a bonus clause that pays him an additional $1.3 million. Other Chicago players also had bonus clauses vest and that put the team over the cap ceiling to the tune of nearly $4 million. That $4 million in excess bonus money will be subtracted from the 2010-11 cap for Chicago, which means the Blackhawks can only carry a $56 million cap hit next year.

During the summer NHL teams are allowed to exceed their cap ceiling by 10% so they can make moves--so Chicago could have as much as $62 million on the books, but they must get back down to $56 million in the regular season. Right now Chicago has a hard commitment of $58.5 million to 15 NHL roster players (a team MUST carry at least 20 roster players). Chicago has 5 Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) to sign (Ladd, Skille, Eager, Hjalmarsson and Niemi).

Now here is where it gets tricky. NHL clubs must make Qualifying Offers (QOs) to all RFAS to retain their rights, if they fail to qualify to do so the players become unrestricted free agents. The qualifying offers must at least match last season's salary, if a player made less than $1 million then the qualifying offer must include a minimum raise (either 5% or 10%). Now here's the key part: Right now the Blackhawks are so hard up against the cap that they probably can't even deliver their qualifying offers to their RFA players. The deadline for making those qualifying offers is fast approaching which means that Chicago will be almost certainly have to move one of their $3 million cap players in the next few days.

Many people have pointed out that Chicago could go the route of burying Huet's $5.6 million cap hit in the minors this next season. They can go this route, but his cap hit only comes off the books AFTER training camp. So dropping Huet to the minors could be an effective method of getting the Blackhawks back under the cap ceiling before the start of the regular season--but it is not a tactic that can buy them room to deliver their qualifying offers.

Now some people will complain that the cap "caused" the pre-mature dismantling of a Stanley Cup contender. The truth is that every GM must make choices the future. Dale Tallon tried to speed up the contending process by throwing excessive money at players. He signed free agents Brian Campbell ($7.3 million) and Huet ($5.6 million) to huge deals and he paid checking line players guys like Bolland $3 million and Kopecky $1.2 million. Tallon also signed UFA Marian Hossa to a rich deal. All of those decisions by Tallon meant that there would not be enough money to maintain the team's depth as they young players began signing their 2nd and 3rd NHL contracts. Tallon's foolish contracts helped Chicago in the near term at the cost of foreshortening the club's window of contention in the long run. You could argue that winning the Cup was worth sacrificing team depth--but don't blame the cap for that consequence--it was a strategic choice, not some unpredictable edict forced upon the team. They rolled the dice, won their Cup and now have to slash the team's depth--and you should credit or blame Dale Tallon for both outcomes.