Blackhawks’ Cap Space Crunch: Who Should Get the Tomahawk?


May 21, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman

Nick Leddy

(8) after scoring a goal during the first period of game two of the Western Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

As far as offseasons go, this one has been pretty darn interesting and pretty darn fruitful for our beloved Chicago Blackhawks.

To the delight of many Blackhawks fans, Hawks GM Stan Bowman looked to be definitively committing to the Indian youth this offseason after inking multi-years deals with young up-and-coming Blackhawks Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin, and Antti Raanta while parting ways with uneventful veterans Brandon Bollig and Michal Handzus. Bowman also used the Hawks first draft pick for center Nick Schmaltz, and was able to retain Hawks lower-line center Peter Regin on the cheap to speculatively serve as a bridge for Hawks star prospect Teuvo Teräväinen to get his NHL chops before taking over the position full-time, all amidst hoopla of signing one of several veteran centers on the market, Ryan Kesler being the front runner.

Then Bowman threw Chi-Town a curveball by snagging 34-year-old veteran center Brad Richards off the free agency from the New York Rangers for a cool $2 million.

The knee-jerk reaction by some Hawks fans (myself being one of them) was why grab another aged veteran center when you just let one hit the bricks? Then came the realization that Richards is a better player than Handzus by far (not to mention slightly younger, slightly), and given the price he was willing to don the red sweater for, Bowman would have been foolish not to grab Richards.

That aside however, Richard’s year-long contract puts the Blackhawks payroll over the less-than-expected cap of $69 million, especially with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews’ blockbuster contracts still on Bowman’s To Do List. Now the question is, which players on the roster have skated their last season for the Hawks, deserving or otherwise?

Most people’s gut reaction to such a speculation is Kris Versteeg (if I’m not speaking for most Hawks fans, I should be). Unfortunately Steeger’s 2010 nostalgia has long worn off, and his penchant for turnovers has left a bitter taste in many mouths, the question now is which mouths have the bitterest taste (PS – get your mind out of the gutter). Don’t get me wrong, Versteeg is still a very able forward, but on the Hawks this past season, he skated like he had too much to prove (which he did) and that didn’t bode well. Steeger could certainly fill plenty of niches on plenty of teams, the problem is, his stock is low at the moment, and he only takes just under a $2.5 million hit out of the cap, so for all intents and purposes he’s sticking around. Moving on…

Once again I must revisit the Blackhawks’ defense. The Hawks’ need for a second line center has dominated the headlines and have given and a backseat to their defensive woes, which they have. The Hawks’ defense ranked at the median of the NHL at the end of the regular season this past year, and that just isn’t going to cut it if they want to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup again anytime soon.

Another interesting veteran signing that happened on the back burner of the Brad Richards inking was the snagging of veteran defenseman Kyle Cumiskey, which comes on the regular season heels of the acquisition of David Rundblad.

Speculatively speaking, the additions of these twenty-some-year-old veteran-ish defensemen known for their skating ability and their offensive leanings beg a lot of hypotheticals. All Hawks fans know that the strength of the Blackhawks’ defense has resided in their defensive pairing, and all Hawks fans also know that young up-and-coming blue liner Nick Leddy has long gotten the short end of that stick with the rotational partner of thirty-somethings Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank throughout the bulk of his career as a Blackhawk.

If Leddy was going to be traded this offseason (as was many a speculation) it would have happened by now. Leds has lots of potential but enough raw meat left to keep him off the market at a profitable price. However, the one name in the Hawks’ defensive core that’s already been swirling around the trade rumor mills is Johnny Oduya.

Johnny Oduya (or Johnny, Oh I’d Do Ya, as it’s pronounced in Chi-Town after midnight) was a steal acquisition from the Winnepeg Jets a few years ago as an aged defenseman, but right now, his stock has never been higher. Oduya has formed an amazing synergy with Niklas Hjalmarsson this year; forming a shutdown defensive paring that turned many-a-head, the most significant being Team Sweden in the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Thus, now might be the best time to test the market waters with Odyua (who’s cap hit is just shy of $4 million), and if the signs are correct, Stan Bowman might already be thinking along these lines.

Look at it this way: The Blackhawks grabbed two young veteran defensemen this year in Cuniskey and Rundblad. Brookbank and Rozsival are on the back nine to 40 years old and not impressing anybody. Finally, the Hawks have two amazing defensemen on the Rockford IceHogs in Klas Dahlbeck and Adam Clendening, who are turning more than enough heads as defensemen in their own right, let alone as a defensive paring.

So here are my (and maybe Bowman’s) pie-in-the-sky premonitions: I see Oduya getting traded for solid draft picks/prospects, nothing more nothing less. Do I want to see Oduya go? Hell no! But is his trade stock higher than it’s ever going to be? Hell yes! Now here’s the second part…

Sans Oduya, Nick Leddy moves up to pair with Niklas Hjalmarsson to form the second defensive paring behind Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, albeit much to coach Joel Quenneville’s chargin, but this is the inevitable future of the Blackhawks’ defense whether Coach Q wants to admit it in house or in the unemployment line.

With Hjalmarsson and Leddy paired, the third defensive line is wide open for Dalhbeck and Clendening, who’s Rockford blue line chemistry will help ease their collective transition into the NHL. Failing that, Bowman has the security blanket of Runblad and Cumiskey to jump in and save the day with experience and consistency as the third defensive partners to at the very least hold down the fort till the younger D-men get a little less green. Feel that just there? That was your brain getting wrinkled…

Okay, obviously the bulk of the aforementioned is theoretical, if not fantastical, but with the signing of Brad Richards the second line center problem is solved for the immediate future; now’s the time to fix the Hawks’ defense for the long-term future.