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Why Crawford, Hjalmarsson are worth Chicago's investment

Corey Crawford was selected in the second round (52nd overall) by Chicago in the 2003 draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Corey Crawford was selected in the second round (52nd overall) by Chicago in the 2003 draft. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Timing is everything – just ask Corey Crawford. The Stanley Cup-winning netminder recently signed a six-year contract extension worth $36 million, keeping him in the Chi-Town crease until he’s 35 years old. A lot of folks are saying Crawford got too much. They obviously don’t watch the stock market.

Because that’s what NHL free agency has become in the salary cap era and those who divine it – and those with a bit of luck on their side – come out on top.

On the surface, Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino certainly weren’t worth the combined 16 years and $67 million Buffalo shelled out for the pair in 2011, but they had the good fortune of signing at a time when the franchise and its new owner, Terry Pegula, was looking to make a splash and send a message that the Sabres were no longer small-market players.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Nazem Kadri and Cody Franson of the Maple Leafs are finding out what bad timing can mean for contract negotiations. Though Toronto management has claimed cap considerations aren’t a factor in the talks with the two restricted free agents, it’s hard not to look at the artificially low $64.3 million salary cap ceiling for next season and ignore it as a barrier. Had Kadri and Franson been under contract for one more year, they could have negotiated much more easily, since it’s fairly understood the cap is going to zoom up back to market rates for 2014-15. The simple answer is for the pair to sign bridge contracts for this season, in the neighborhood of $2.5 million each. That’s a raise for both, with Kadri earning $1.7 million and Franson $1.2 million last year, though it is, admittedly, insulting based on their recent output. It’s particularly galling for Franson, since he’s already coming off a one-year deal, but in this case, lack of term helps him.

Assuming Kadri is once again Toronto’s best offensive center and Franson one of its best defenseman, both can load up next summer on term and dollar amount.

Now here’s the part where I can guess those numbers and you can shoot them down – five years, $25 million each? I don’t actually know, because the arithmetic is going to change drastically once the cap goes up. That takes us back to Crawford and Chicago.

Is he really worth more than Mike Smith in Phoenix (who got $34 million over six years)? Objectively, it’s tough to say, but Crawford has a Cup and also the good fortune of wealthy ownership – the Coyotes didn’t even have proper owners when Smith signed in July. Again, timing is everything. If Crawford was a UFA this summer, there’s no way the Hawks could have given him $6 million per, but on an extension it’s easy.

Looking ahead to 2014-15, Chicago has its vaunted core of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook and now Crawford locked up. The Hawks have already committed about $59.7 million in salary cap space, including Niklas Hjalmarsson, and though we don’t know what the cap will be, let’s conservatively call it $70 million (don’t forget, there are six outdoor games this season to line the league’s coffers).

Up front, you need to re-sign the Stitchface Hero, Andrew Shaw. That’s a couple million there, but otherwise you have some very nice fixed-cost options. Super prospect Teuvo Teravainen told me in Lake Placid that he would be playing one more year in Finland before coming over to the North America and his salary is locked in at $925,000. Hobey Baker winner Drew LeBlanc is set to earn $575,000, which means a very skilled player in your bottom six for cheap. Other prospects close to making the jump who make less than a mil include Brandon Pirri and Phillip Danault, or you re-sign Brandon Bollig for similar money.

And if Antti Raanta doesn’t re-sign as Crawford’s backup once Nikolai Khabibulin’s one-year pact is done, there’s always Mac Carruth, who just won a Western League title with Portland and again, makes less than a million.

All in all, the Blackhawks look like they’ve figured out the system pretty well now, even with so many unknowns in the future.

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Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.

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