Blackhawks

Blackhawks pull off stunner, trade Niklas Hjalmarsson to Coyotes

Blackhawks pull off stunner, trade Niklas Hjalmarsson to Coyotes

Niklas Hjalmarsson has been part of the Blackhawks’ renaissance since the rebuild began in the mid-2000s, a longtime steady presence on the blue line who has had some clutch moments in the Blackhawks’ three Stanley Cup runs. But on Friday, the player with one of the Blackhawks’ best contracts was sent packing.

Hjalmarsson was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Connor Murphy and center Laurent Dauphin on Friday morning. With Hjalmarsson, the Blackhawks give up a tremendous defenseman with a winning pedigree.

“Niklas’ contributions to the three Stanley Cup championship teams are well known but his dependability as a teammate, selfless attitude and the way he represented the Chicago Blackhawks on and off the ice are what made him such a beloved member of the organization,” said Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said in a statement. “He made his debut in Chicago in 2008 and quietly established himself as one of the toughest competitors in franchise history. We wish he and his family continued success.”

The 30-year-old defenseman has two years remaining on his current contract, which carries a $4.1 million cap hit. The 24-year-old Murphy has five years remaining on his current contract ($3.85 million cap hit). Dauphin is in the final year of his current entry-level contract ($745,000). According to CapFriendly, if Dauphin plays for the Rockford IceHogs this season, the Blackhawks can save $250,000 in cap space.

But this isn’t about money as much as the Blackhawks needing to get younger on defense. Murphy has played all four of his NHL seasons with the Coyotes. Last season he had two goals and 15 assists in 77 games.

Still, giving up Hjalmarsson is a tough one. Hjalmarsson has been a strong, steady presence for the Blackhawks. He once again led the team in blocked shots (181). Plenty of bumps, bruises and pain come with that job description but despite that, Hjalmarsson hasn’t missed much time. Since the 2012-13 season Hjalmarsson has missed just 12 games, and just four of those have been due to injury (suspected back injury last season).

The Blackhawks’ defense looked older and slower in their brief postseason run against the Nashville Predators, and they certainly have to start moving toward the future. But with Hjalmarsson playing at the level he has the past few seasons, his absence will hurt.

Why NHL will adjust policy and not disclose injuries in Phase 4

Why NHL will adjust policy and not disclose injuries in Phase 4

In an effort to protect the players, the NHL will not disclose injuries in Phase 4, deputy commissioner Bill Daly revealed in a Saturday afternoon video call with the league and player representatives.

"Medical privacy is important in this process," Daly said.

Normally, teams are allowed to share injury-related information but are not necessarily required to. The Blackhawks are one of the teams that have become more transparent in that area after changing their policy going into the 2018-19 season.

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In this situation, the NHL is prohibiting clubs from doing so to keep the process confidential and eliminate speculation between a hockey-related injury and positive COVID-19 test results. The NHL, instead, will release the overall number of players who test positive for COVID-19 over the course of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but will not disclose the names of those infected.

The policy is strictly for the rest of the 2019-20 season and not a new long-term policy, although it remains unclear how things will be handled for the 2020-21 campaign.

It's the right move but will obviously present challenges if a star player on a contender is suddenly not available for a series, especially once we get into the later rounds.

Why Blackhawks will face significant financial challenges for years to come

Why Blackhawks will face significant financial challenges for years to come

There's good news and bad news for the Blackhawks as the NHL and NHL Players' Association agreed to a new six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement extension that runs through the 2025-26 season and includes an escrow provision that could add one additional year to the deal.

The good news is, hockey is back and the Blackhawks have a shot at making a Stanley Cup run after the league generously included them in the 24-team Return to Play format. And if they get eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifying round, the Blackhawks will have a 12.5 percent chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick and drafting stud winger Alexis Lafraniere. Not a bad consolation.

The bad news? The upper limit of the salary cap will stay flat at $81.5 million for the 2020-21 season and remain that way until hockey-related revenue reaches $3.33 million, and only increase by more than $1 million per year until HRR surpasses $4.8 billion again, which could take several years.

For reference: One week before the league put its season on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly announced the salary cap for the 2020-21 campaign would be in between $84 and $88.2 million. Now it won't come close to the low end of that mark for at least three or four years, which is a tough pill to swallow because teams were preparing for the ceiling to reach a different level following a new U.S. television deal and the addition of Seattle as the 32nd team for the 2021-22 season.

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Only six other teams had fewer cap space available at the regular season's pause than the Blackhawks, who had $175,558 to spare. And their financial situation is about to get way more complicated.

Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome are among the most notable restricted free agents who are due fairly significant pay raises, along with Drake Caggiula on a smaller scale. And then there's Corey Crawford, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Blackhawks may have some difficult choices to make, but ones that won’t happen until the offseason.

“My conversations with them have been more checking in, see how they’re doing,” GM Stan Bowman said on June 11 of the pending RFAs and UFAs. “As far as future signings and contracts and whatnot, I’ve told their agents that at this point, it’s premature. There are too many uncertainties to know what the salary cap or what the format for the future will be. So we’re just going to wait until we have more information.

"In my conversations with other managers around the league, everyone’s taking the same approach. It’s really difficult to be signing contracts for the future when we haven’t even finished this season yet, and we don’t know what the next year’s going to look like. I imagine that’s all going to happen in the offseason, whenever that might be.”

While the Blackhawks are trying to navigate through their financial challenges for next season, equal attention must be placed on the future during these unprecedented circumstances.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are all scheduled to become UFAs at the end of the 2022-23 season, which is the same year Alex DeBrincat will be seeking a new deal as a pending RFA. Top prospects Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach, both of whom were slide candidates, played in more than nine NHL games this season, which means the first year of their entry-level contracts were burned and will be due new contracts following the 2021-22 campaign instead of the 2022-23 season. 

Here's another hurdle: Unlike in 2013, there will be no compliance buyouts handed out to provide cap relief for teams in desperate need of it. The Blackhawks would’ve certainly welcomed that.

Yes, it’s exciting that hockey is finally back. And yes, it’s exciting that the Blackhawks have a chance at making a Stanley Cup run, no matter how slim their odds may be.

But for the long-term future of the Blackhawks, it's more important than ever for the front office to precisely map out what the roster could look like for next season and beyond and break down how the puzzle pieces can financially fit under the salary cap for years to come.