The financial ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to some serious challenges for NHL teams going into the offseason. The salary cap is expected to stay in the $81.5 million range for the next few seasons, which has forced general managers to get creative with their roster construction.
And we're already seeing it.
The Toronto Maple Leafs shipped out former 2014 first-round pick Kasperi Kapanen and his $3.2 million cap hit to create flexibility. The St. Louis Blues did the same by trading goaltender Jake Allen and his $4.35 million cap hit as they prepare to make an offer for captain Alex Pietrangelo, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent. Heck, the Winnipeg Jets could reportedly make three-time 30-goal scorer Patrik Laine available, too.
The Blackhawks are in a predicament of their own. As of Thursday, they have roughly $6.4 million in cap space for next season after factoring in the $877,744 overage, with pending restricted free agents Drake Caggiula, Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome and unrestricted free agent Corey Crawford due new contracts.
Clearly, the Blackhawks need to move out some money. So how can they do that?
The most convenient option is the buyout route. Olli Maatta and Zack Smith are the only two players that would provide fairly significant cap relief for the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks would save $3.4 million in cap space for next season (and the year after that) if they bought out Maatta and another $2.16 million for next season if they did the same with Smith. That's a total of $5.56 million, which would put the Blackhawks at just under $12 million in total available cap space.
The ideal scenario is moving one or both in a trade to get their entire contracts off the books, but there likely isn’t a market for either unless sweeteners are involved, although you wonder if Maatta's breakout postseason could change things.
A desperate circumstance for the Blackhawks would be moving a player that’s going into the final year of his contract such as Brandon Saad, who has a $6 million cap hit. But would the Blackhawks really be better positioned to take the next step next season by subtracting a top-six forward from the lineup for a pure salary dump? And even so, which team would pay the full price to add a $6 million salary right now? Payroll across the board is being cut, not the other way around.
The Blackhawks must clear salaries to take care of their own guys, prepare for free agency and leave themselves some wiggle room for transactions during the season. But it won't be easy, and it will lead to some uncomfortable conversations behind the scenes.
“It’s a reality of our game and this is where we’re at as a sport, and we’ll make it work,” GM Stan Bowman said. “That’s our job, is to figure out how we can have some flexibility. So that's going to be part of it, as well as making sure we keep the players we need to keep. It’s a balancing act, and it's something that we’ve put a lot of thought into already and we’re going to keep working through."