When NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly announced in early March that the salary cap was projected to go from $81.5 to $84-88.2 million for the 2020-21 season, it was a big deal because the average annual increase over the last five years had been $2.5 million. The league was potentially looking at a $6.7 million jump.
This would have been great news for the Blackhawks, who nearly reached the upper limit by the end of the regular season. But one week after the announcement, the NHL put its season on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it forced the league and NHL Players' Association to renegotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement deal.
The agreement: The ceiling will stay flat at $81.5 million for next season and remain that way until hockey-related revenue (HRR) reaches $3.33 million, and only increase by more than $1 million per year until HRR surpasses $4.8 million again. And that could take at least two or three years.
The good news is, the HRR could rebound quicker than normal because a new U.S. television deal is on the horizon and Seattle is entering the league next season. But in the short-term, the financial situation will be tight, and the Blackhawks will surely be impacted.
GM Stan Bowman said in his end-of-season media availability on Friday that the Blackhawks will have "a similar group next season." The reality is, they don't have much of a choice.
As of Friday, the Blackhawks have roughly $7.3 million in cap space for next season. Drake Caggiula, Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome are the most notable pending restricted free agents while Corey Crawford is the top unrestricted free agent.
It's difficult to see the Blackhawks re-signing all four — heck, even three of the four — to new contracts without moving money around. And that’s not even including the possibility of signing free agents in the offseason.
So Bowman, who was as busy a general manager as any last offseason, might have to explore uncomfortable ways to create cap flexibility.
"We do have some decisions to make, that’s true," Bowman said. "I think there's a group of teams that are in the same boat. The flat cap is a challenge, but at the same time, we have some ideas on what we’re going to do. That process is just starting right now.”
Bowman said he and his management group will use the next few weeks to map out a more in-depth plan, with the RFAs and UFAs being near the top of his priority list. Every stone is likely to be turned over, including buyouts, which Bowman admitted is "always a possibility" but concluded "we haven't made determinations" yet. Olli Maatta and Zack Smith are two candidates that come to mind that would provide the most cap relief.
Bowman barely put his phone down last offseason, wheeling and dealing all summer long. That won't be the case this time around, but that doesn't mean things will be easier. The Blackhawks will have some tough decisions to make because of the flat salary cap for years to come.
“It’s a reality of our game and this is where we’re at as a sport, and we’ll make it work,” 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 in the coming weeks."