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Picking over the Blackhawks (and Flyers) cap carcass

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Dustin Byfuglien: Blocking out the Sun.
Dustin Byfuglien: Blocking out the Sun.

First, some actual Islanders media coverage: As discussed yesterday, Chris Botta reports at FanHouse that someone with the Mets initiated a feasibility study for an Isles arena next door; Newsday gets a source who refutes it, and around and round we go. Meanwhile -- AGENT-SPEAK CAVEAT -- captain Doug Weight's agent tells USA Today that Weight is in talks with the team to return. Now to the regular post...

It's not merely the vulture-like nature of the news cycle that has prompted so many Blackhawks roster-devouring stories so soon after their Stanley Cup win. They really do have unavoidable cap issues, and the planning for digging out from under them really does begin now. The draft is 11 days away, when teams are in a roster-framing frame of mind, and free agency begins just a week after that. (Leave it to Earl Sleek at Battle of Cali to capture the dilemma in cartoon form, complete with current events parallel motif.)

As early as the beginning of the 2009-10 season, it was popular around here to use the Islanders voluptuous cap space as cause to covet our neighbor's goods. Yet much to our chagrin, the Hawks stood pat at the trade deadline and went for it without even buying Martin Biron -- and it paid off ... dammit.

Still, now that the Hawks cannot play another game without first making painful cuts, we can resume hoping those cuts -- and to a lesser extent, the Flyers' cuts -- might fall to the butcher shop floor, where we'll eagerly lap them up. Of course, that involves convincing them to take scraps in return, something even a team in their situation might balk at.

The Good News: The Hawks, even if they bury Christobal Huet and Brent Sopel in the minors, will have to shed a talent or two.

The Bad News: 29 other clubs know this, too. While many of those teams are cap-tight themselves, the Hawks should have multiple bidders to leverage against each other. They can definitely get creative, and assemble an army of league-minimum replacements eager to join a Stanley Cup winner.

Ground Rules

Some facts and projections to keep in mind before you play fantasy GM:

  • The cap is expected to go up to around $58 million -- although as Larry Brooks helpfully points out when he's not complaining about the CBA being unfair, that only happens if the union does indeed enact their escalator clause. They're expected to, but if they don't, the cap might be more like $56 million.
  • That's bad news for the Hawks, because as James Mirtle (among many) points out, they already have $$57.6 million in 2010-11 committed to only 14 players.
  • But that's not all: Because the Hawks used the "bonus cushion" and young stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane did indeed achieve their bonuses, the Hawks this season actually went over the cap. The move is legal, but it also means their cap room next year is diminished by the amount they went over using the bonus cushion. Mirtle pegs their real cap ceiling for 2010-11 at something like $54.5 million.
  • Now, "Big deal," you say. "They can just bury Huet's $5.6 million hit." Well sure, they can (and should) do that. But you must remember that with each player buried, that's one more roster player who needs replacing. They could replace Huet with a minimum-wage goalie, but they'd also have to buy some quality in goal -- either by giving Antti Niemi (an RFA) a sizable raise or by bringing in another free agent.

Summary: if they sent Huet and Brent Sopel to the AHL, they'd trim about $8 million from that $57.6 million leaving them at $49.6 million, which leaves them ... about $5 million to buy two goalies, four defensemen and four forwards. Minimum. Make no mistake: There will be blood. And it will not -- cannot -- be restricted to that of Huet and Sopel.

Personally, as a fan of NHL trades and general roster chaos, I hope this motivates some team to get really creative with an offer. Brian Campbell is a really nice player on a really bad contract. But a team with lots of cap room (and cash. There must be cash.) could agree to take $7.14 million of cap pain off the Hawks hands in exchange for ... well, nothing. The Hawks are in such a fix and Campbell's contract is so ridiculous (EDIT: I neglected to mention this, but as Hawks blogger Forklift points out in comments, he even has a limited NTC where he can exclude 21 other teams), I'd start my offer with a 5th-round pick and haggle up to, say, a minimum wage defenseman.

Ask yourself this: Would you trade Bruno Gervais in exchange for committing $7.14 million dollar per season for the next six seasons to Campbell -- until the still-mobile Campbell is 37? If you hesitated even for a moment, you understand just how crazy that contract is for a 40-point defenseman who doesn't play the PK.

But Campbell's big hit is the deal that's really restricting the Hawks right now. It's their highest salary by far and one of their longest deals. So if they could get rid of him and keep most of the rest of their team ... wouldn't they do it for almost nothing?

Start Feasting, You Vultures

Now, I don't expect a Gervais-for-Campbell deal to happen. I'm really not sure anyone outside of Dale Tallon, who signed that contract in the first place, would plunge on Campbell for that rate and term. But the point is Chicago has to do something, yet they may also have options in multiple bidders.

So the question is: If you're the Islanders looking at their roster, whom do you target? Who do you think is: 1) worth their current deal, 2) someone you can get without giving up much, and 3) someone the Hawks will vote off the island?

You can add to this question the Flyers, who have less of a cap issue, but still need a goalie and might have to shed one of their big-money scorers. I don't picture them sending Jeff Carter our way (and one of their problems is they have multiple centers who don't want to play wing, so that doesn't help the center-happy Isles), but you can still play around with their roster.

The Free Targets

The UFA's

Figure these guys will all be gone, because they are UFAs who will want raises for being on Cup finalists, and both Cup finalists can't afford to pay premiums for bottom-six/pair players:

John Madden (old)

Adam Burish (useless)

Kim Johnsson (hurt)

Nick Boynton (crazy, but possibly too much so)

Arron Asham (interesting ... reformed and refined?)

Lukas Krajicek (hmm ... I need convincing)

Danny Syvret (uh, no)


There are also some RFA's that either team could walk away from if they get to uppity with their demands:

Ryan Parent (I dunno, the Flyers sure found no use for him in April, May and June)

Brayden Coburn (he should be re-signed)

Daniel Carcillo (likewise, and hell no regardless)

Andrew Ladd (plausible)

Ben Eager (nah...)

Jack Skille (skilled but enigmatic)

Niklas Hjalmarsson (interesting, but seems like one the Hawks could retain)

The Money-Makers

And this leaves us with the names that have come up over and over this past season -- the core of $3 million-plus Hawks, of which one or two seem destined to move:

Patrick Sharp $3.9 million, 2 more years

2009-10 - Patrick Sharp 82 25 41 66 24 28 4 2 .002 .009 266 9.4

Dave Bolland $3.375 million, 4 more years

2009-10 - Dave Bolland 39 6 10 16 5 28 1 0 .092 .019
52 11.5

Kris Versteeg $3.083 million, 2 more years

2009-10 - Kris Versteeg 79 20 24 44 8 35 4 3 .003 -2.30 184 10.9

Dustin Byfuglien $3 million, 1 more year (becomes an RFA next summer)

2009-10 - Dustin Byfuglien 82 17 17 34 -7 94 6 0 -.011 -.081 211 8.1

Part of me thinks the Hawks wouldn't deal Buff after that playoff -- he provides rare size, and he's the cheapest of the lot, anyway. The other part of me thinks this is a great time to sell high on him, as he still carries the "inconsistent" label and he depends on good linemates to control play and feed the puck to the net. Frankly, I'd happily add any of the above to the Islanders. Sharp would be great if he could fill in on RW; Buff would be an instant size boost (and hopefully still evolving player) on LW. Bolland is the proverbial "tough to play against," while Versteeg's decision-making makes me worry, but his skill is evident.

What would I give up? You'll laugh, but the Hawks need cheap help. So after they rejected my offers of "Bobby Hughes and a 5th," I'd move up to a Islanders RFA who has some scoring touch but cannot command much money: That means Jeff Tambellini -- that's right, Tambellini -- but not Rob Schremp or Sean Bergenheim. Otherwise, Jesse Joensuu if they want him to replace Buff, maybe Rhett Rakhshani if they insist. The important thing is they need cheap players who can subsist without dragging down their better linemates; I honestly think Tambellini could do that.

However, since that's low-balling them and they're likely to find someone else who's just a tad more generous, well, so be it. This isn't a charity, and they're the ones who got themselves into this mess (for a very nice reward) in the first place...

... But realistically, NHL GMs seldom outright screw their peers. They feel compelled to offer some level of fair value, lest they be in need somewhere down the line. So you can offer them others if you like (Bergenheim, Schremp, or Blake Comeau), but beyond those guys there simply aren't any cheap and touchable Islanders who would passably fit the Hawks needs. In the end, there probably isn't a match here. But we can dream.