Chicago has painted themselves into a corner. They started painting, it was a nice pantone green. Once they were through with the walls and the ceiling they moved onto the floor. Painting away, loving life. When suddenly, there they were, stuck in the corner of the room with an ever disappearing area of dry land on which to sit.
Stan Bowman is holding the brush, and everyone is hoping he knows what he’s doing.
I shouldn’t act so dire. This is, after all, a team that has won two Stanley Cups in the last five years, and is icing a core of Patrick Kane, Corey Crawford, Johnathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Patrick Sharp. It’s a fantastic group of players that has been just about as successful as any group since Gretzky and a bunch of kids on a bus.
But they’re about to run into an issue that talent won’t be able to get them past – the dreaded cap.
Today, the upper limit of an NHL’s team salary is set at $69 million. Looking over Chicago’s lineup on Cap Geek we see that they’re in OK shape heading into 2014-15. Yes, they’re a hair over right now (sitting above 71 million), but a couple shrewd moves or one small trade can rectify that. Where things get interesting (or frightening, depending on your rooting interest), is in 2015-16. That’s when Kane and Toew’s new, $10.5 million dollar per year extensions kick in. So what can Bowman do to balance the books?
He’ll have a few options. Some are far less painful than others. If you were to inject him with a dose of truth serum he’d probably confess that as great as Marian Hossa has been over the past few years he’s now 35, and that annual cap hit of $5.275 million until 2020-21 could be a major issue if and when Hossa begins his decline. Even if Chicago made the difficult decision to trade the long-time star, who would be interested to take him on? That contract is far longer in term than comparable deals being handed out to aging superstars (Iginla comes to mind as a recent example). They would have to add a significant asset (or assets) to Marian in order to entice a suitor – and that could be counterproductive.
In an ideal world they would find a new team for Kris Versteeg and the $2.2 million he’s owed in 2015-16. But the savings there would be limited – not nearly enough to make room for their core to remain intact.
There has been some discussion around the idea of trading Brent Seabrook. He’s an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016 and would clear almost $6 million in cap space. Of course the monetary savings would need to be weighed against the on-ice cost. Losing Brent would mean that only Keith and Hjalmarsson are under contract past next year. Corey Crawford is a GOOD, but certainly not great NHL goaltender, having a steady defensive group in front of him has been one of Chicago’s primary strengths. Dealing Seabrook is an option, but probably not the optimal one.
Trading any one of Keith, Toews, and Kane is a non-starter. All three players are at the pinnacle of their powers and should remain that way for multiple seasons to come. There is an argument to be made that Corey Crawford is somewhat overpaid at $6 million per season. However, when looking at his age, resume, and the going rate for a quality starting tender on the open seas he may not be THAT far above market value.
Through process of elimination there is only one other route for the team to consider – trading Patrick Sharp.
I’ll give myself the caveat that they certainly don’t have to trade him. There are other ways to make the numbers work. Perhaps the cap skyrockets to $80 million quicker than most expect, or they gut the entirety of their roster and use ELCs and veterans on close to minimum deals to fill out their bottom six. There are other options, but dealing Sharp may be the only one that truly makes sense.
The 32 year old is coming off of his best season as a professional, posting 34 goals, 44 assists, and 313 shots in 82 games. He finished ninth in the league for goals and 12th in points. There were stretches of games last year where he may have been the most dangerous player in the NHL. At times in his career he’s been considered the defacto “sixth man” in the windy city – a supporting actor in a movie with two or three big name stars. 2013-14 was different. It was his year.
So why trade him?
There are a few factors working in Bowman’s favour if he goes down the road of dealing Sharp. Firstly, there is his contract. He’s locked up through to the end of 2016-17 at $5.9 million per year. It’s an enticing structure for teams with interest, since it keeps him under control for the remainder of his prime years at a dollar figure that isn’t disruptive to the rest of the roster. Few players capable of top 10 scoring totals are available on the market at south of $6 million.
Secondly, his value will never be higher. As stated above, his numbers last year will likely represent career highs. It’s hard to envision a scenario where his value climbs any higher than it is today. If the Blackhawks wait a season to begin talks they’ll be taking the risk that Sharp is either injured, or begins his decline. Additionally, he’ll turn 33 in December – an age when General Managers will, rightfully, begin to worry about the looming decline.
Thirdly, he’d command a heft collection of assets in return. It would be a combination of NHL ready players, draft picks, and prospects. This would help build the surrounding pieces around Toews and Kane, allowing the Blackhawks to contend over the next three to five years. Pittsburgh has been a recent case study of the folly in allowing your depth players to erode. While losing Sharp would hurt their high end talent, it may also be a rising tide that rises future boats across the roster.
Lastly, Chicago would be dealing from a position of strength. Moving out one of Seabrook or Crawford may solve their cap issue, but it immediately creates a new, possibly even worse situation to correct. They finished second in the NHL for goals per game, behind only Anaheim. Scoring has not been, and likely will not be a problem for this club. Sharp is a fantastic complimentary piece to have, but with players like Kane, Toews, Hossa, Richards, Saad, and Shaw, they’ll find a way to produce.
A lot remains to be seen. As of now all of this remains speculation from the bleachers during a hot summer weeknight when there isn’t much to write about in the NHL. But, if a trade involving Sharp does come to fruition it will represent a massive blow to his fantasy hockey owners. Much like Neal (although perhaps not to the same extreme), a large part of Sharp’s value his derived from his surroundings. I doubt that his points, powerplay production, or plus minus would match his Chicago totals if he were in another uniform, especially if it’s a bubble playoff team.
Whenever you’re painting a room it’s important that you start the venture with a firm plan, and that everything you do fits in with that plan. If you’re sitting with Patrick Sharp on your roster it might be time to start considering what exactly your contingency strategy is, lest you wind up with wet paint on your feet.
Darren Kennedy is a contributor for Mckeen’s and Dobber Hockey. You can find him on twitter @fantasyhockeydk, or on his couch watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix.