How does Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman continue to do it? It helps that he's a managerial genius who has been blessed with the perfect storm.
Now that Artemi Panarin has been signed to a two-year bridge contract that will pay him $6 million each of the next two seasons, now is as good a time as any to start the annual hand-wringing about how the Chicago Blackhawks are going to get under the salary cap for next season.
The Blackhawks and GM Stan Bowman will certainly get their comeuppance this summer when they realize they only have somewhere between $6.3 million and $8.3 million in cap space and nine restricted and unrestricted free agents to re-sign or replace. Yeah, for sure that’s going to happen.
Or not. Actually, at this point nobody should worry about Bowman’s ability to put together a Stanley Cup-caliber roster, either next season or for the foreseeable future. Certainly the majority of GMs in the NHL, who would be tempted to give their first-born for half of Bowman’s ‘problems’ certainly aren’t.
There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that Bowman is a hockey managerial genius who has managed the hell out of the salary cap in his tenure in Chicago. Second, he’s blessed with some of the most talented players in the world as his core and it is locked up for a long, long time. And third, the Blackhawks are a desired destination, as evidenced by the team-friendly deal that Panarin signed. Had Panarin become a restricted free agent, there’s no doubt he would have been targeted for a huge offer sheet, even in a league where its teams collude to prevent that from happening. A lot of teams have traded the picks they'd need to sign Panarin to an offer sheet and another good number are too close to the cap, so you're probably talking about only eight teams. But all it would take is one of them. Panarin knew that and still took a deal with less term and less money.
Bowman had something figured out quite some time ago. And that is that it’s good business to keep your superstar players locked down in long-term deals that keep them happy and well paid and not worry about how he’s going to find a third-line center. In this case, that list includes Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, (likely) Panarin, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford. And that’s it. The rest of them are replaceable parts that would be nice to have around, but also expendable if they don’t fit under the cap.
That’s why the Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups in the next seven seasons and will be contenders to win more of them into the next decade. It’s also why we’ve seen a conga line of really good players from Dustin Byfuglien to Andrew Ladd to Teuvo Teravainen to Andrew Shaw leave Chicago, most of whom Bowman deals to other teams for cheap, young, useful players who can continue the cycle and become expendable themselves.
So there’s a good chance the Blackhawks will have to sacrifice a player such as Marcus Kruger in the off-season, perhaps giving up a future player or draft pick to entice a team to pick up his $3.1 million cap hit. Pfft. Bowman does that kind of thing in his sleep these days and the Blackhawks keep rolling along. Is this team flawed? Well, any team that drops three games before New Year’s Eve to the Winnipeg Jets has its issues, but there’s not a team in the league – save the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild these days – that doesn’t have its shortcomings. And as mentioned before, there are probably about two dozen GMs in the league who would love to have Bowman’s roster problems.
Bowman has put off the inevitable for two years with this contract. With the bonuses he received last season and is sure to hit again in 2016-17, Panarin actually takes up $3.5 million is cap space, so an increase of just $2.5 million is a steal. By the time the Blackhawks are faced with the prospect of signing him as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020, Kane, Toews, Seabrook and Keith will still be firmly ensconced in their contracts, while Marian Hossa and Artem Anisimov will be entering the final years of their deals. Panarin’s deal coincides with the expiration of deals with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford, who will be 33 and 35 respectively, and likely be declining assets.
By virtue of the fact that they will still have their core players, the Hawks will likely still be in a position to contend then. The cast of characters around them will change, perhaps a couple of times before then, but the core will still be able to keep this team in the hunt. Who knows? By then, perhaps Alex DeBrincat will be scoring 40 goals a year and Nick Schmaltz will be setting him up for them. And some guy nobody has ever heard of playing in the KHL will come over and be a revelation. And they'll also pick up useful veteran players who see Chicago as a legitimate hope to get their names on a Stanley Cup.
This will all end for the Blackhawks some day, just as reality seems to be finally staring the Detroit Red Wings in the face this season. You can’t mortgage the future and have that few high draft picks without it catching up to you at some point. But thanks to Bowman and the culture he has created in Chicago, that day is a long way off.