After more than a decade of almost constantly pressing up against the salary cap, the Blackhawks now find themselves the envy of the NHL in terms of cap space.
Even better for the Hawks, this newfound flexibility comes at a time where cap space is more valuable than ever before.
The moves around the league ahead of Monday’s 2 p.m. CT trade deadline should reflect that changing dynamic and make clearer cap space’s true value in this new reality.
The flattened cap, which reportedly might remain flat for several more seasons beyond this one, took many general managers — who planned for the future assuming the cap would continue rising by at least $3 million annually — by surprise.
As a result, 15 teams had less than $5 million cap space — even including long-term injured reserve savings — as of Sunday afternoon, per CapFriendly. Conversely, only four teams (the lowly Devils, Kings, Red Wings and Senators) had more cap space than the Hawks’ roughly $20.2 million.
That imbalanced financial dynamic has significantly changed trades this year.
Talented but overpriced players, like the Sabres’ Taylor Hall and his $8 million cap hit or the Blues’ Mike Hoffman and his $4 million cap hit, have been more difficult than usual to move.
Even moderately-priced depth players have fetched much lower-than-usual returns. For example, the Red Wings received only a fourth-round pick from the Avalanche for Patrik Nemeth, even after retaining 50% of his $3 million cap hit.
For the Hawks, that means someone like Calvin de Haan — who will likely be exposed in the expansion draft and who probably isn’t part of the Hawks’ long-term plans, but would normally interest a contender hoping to add a reliable second- or third-pairing defenseman rental — isn’t worth moving. His slightly excessive $4.5 million cap hit negates almost all of his value.
On the other hand, taking on a cap hit to free up cap space for another team has become a lucrative business.
The Hawks on Thursday got Henrik Borgstrom almost solely by taking Brett Connolly’s $3.5 million cap hit off the Panthers’ hands. Arguably the three best players in the five-player deal all went the same direction — to Chicago — in the exchange.
And two three-way trades over the weekend provided intriguingly specific demonstrations of the cap space-to-asset translation.
To help the Lightning fit in ex-Blue Jackets defenseman David Savard, the Wings received a fourth-round draft pick solely by absorbing 25% (about $1.1 million) of Savard’s cap hit. To help the Maple Leafs fit in ex-Jackets forward Nick Foligno, the Sharks also received a fourth-round pick for absorbing 25% (about $1.4 million) of Foligno’s cap hit.
Monday’s possible frenzy of trades will create a larger sample size with which to assess how much each million, each draft pick and each tier of NHL player is worth in the confusing flat-cap world.
But that new Wings/Sharks precedent seems to be great news for the Hawks.
Even after taking on Connolly, Hawks GM Stan Bowman still has plenty of space to absorb another bad contract or two. Considering how killing just $1-$1.5 million of cap space seems to now equate to a mid-round pick, Bowman might be able to demand a first-round pick or acclaimed prospect if he assumes a legitimately awful contract like the Canucks’ Loui Eriksson ($6 million cap hit) or Islanders’ Andrew Ladd ($5.5 million) on Monday or this summer.
“For where we are right now, it’s exciting to be on this side,” Bowman said last week. “If we have another couple assets to add to [our current] mix, then we’d be a team in the coming years that would have more things at our disposal to help us, whether it’s help us on the ice or help us [trade for new players].”