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THN.com Blog: How will Hawks fly through cap mess?

Keeping all of Brian Campbell, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Cameron Barker and Patrick Sharp in Chicago next season will be a tough task for GM Dale Tallon. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Keeping all of Brian Campbell, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Cameron Barker and Patrick Sharp in Chicago next season will be a tough task for GM Dale Tallon. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Chicago Blackhawks have gone from amazing to a maze.

Last season’s feel-great story, the Hawks, under GM Dale Tallon, have constructed a salary cap labyrinth from which navigation could prove anywhere from tricky to heartbreaking.

Here’s the need to know:

Chicago figures to butt right up against the salary cap this season following the creative Marian Hossa signing and the embarrassing qualifying offer foul-ups that accelerated dollars due to Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker.

Toss in the curious contracts handed to Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet last season and the Hawks, according to numbers posted on capgeek.com, have already spent their $56.8 million, or darned close to it depending on creative accounting and bonus payments.

They could opt to defer to next season as much as 7.5 percent of bonus monies owed to players such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, assuming they hit their marks. And the Hawks may be forced to do so if they reach the ceiling in 2009-10.

But it isn’t this season the Hawks and their fans really need to worry about. It’s 2010-11, when Kane, Toews and Duncan Keith (not to mention Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager) all qualify for restricted free agency.

As things stand, Chicago has 12 players under contract for the season after next and have committed approximately $42 million in cap space (assuming Brett Sopel gets demoted or bought out). Conservatively, Kane, Toews and Keith should fetch $15 million combined in terms of cap hit beginning in 2010-11.

That pushes Chicago beyond this year’s cap number with only 15 players under contract. Even if they paid an additional seven players the league minimum, they’d still be up around $60 million, not including any deferred bonuses from this coming season.

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The kicker, of course, is everyone in the industry expects the cap to fall next season; estimates range from $50-to-$55 million.

If little changes between now and next summer, one or more of Kane, Toews and Keith could be highly attractive for an RFA poaching.

So what’s the solution?

a)    A series of trades involving middle-class players such as Patrick Sharp ($3.9 million) and Dustin Byfuglien ($3 million) to free up cash and get the cornerstones under long-term deals before next July 1.
b)    Trade one of the cornerstones.
c)    Demote Cristobal Huet.

None of the above is desirable, but the Huet transaction may be the most palatable. Campbell has a no-movement clause, so his $7.1 million isn’t going anywhere unless Tallon has blackmail photos of one of his 29 GM counterparts. In addition, Chicago’s other two netminders, Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi, are both under inexpensive one-way contracts, so there’s no savings to be had by keeping one in the American League.

Huet is still a bona fide NHL stopper, but could become the victim of cap mismanagement. It’s possible he could be traded, but also unlikely because of his hefty stipend ($5.625 million).

The real losers could be a Hawks organization that turned a huge corner last season only to find itself going the wrong direction on a one-way street.

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