As the Chicago Blackhawks get set to open their pre-season schedule Tuesday, GM Stan Bowman is facing a $5.275-million question: what will become of Marian Hossa and his cap hit?
It’s a storyline that has been at the forefront in Chicago since it was announced in June by Hossa that the he would be sidelined for the entire 2017-18 season due to a progressive skin disorder. And while there was and remains concern about Hossa’s health away from the rink, it’s been impossible to avoid conversations about what it means for the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation.
The belief was, of course, that Hossa’s deal would simply be shuffled to the long-term injured reserve and, conveniently, it would result in some breathing room under the cap for a Chicago team that is up against the spending limit for what feels like the umpteenth time. But that was met with some blowback, some viewing Hossa’s ailment as the Blackhawks finding a way to exploit LTIR, get Hossa’s deal off the books at a time when his actual salary is set to dip from $4 million to $1 million and manufacture some cap space in the process.
In an effort to ensure the whole thing was above board, though, the NHL did make clear that it would be evaluating Hossa’s situation and determining whether he could be placed on LTIR at all. That said, commissioner Gary Bettman indicated in June that he had no reason to believe there was anything devious happening when it came to Hossa’s health, and, in the months since, it hasn’t appeared for a moment as though Chicago will have anything to worry about when it comes to Hossa’s contract. So, it seems safe to suggest his contract will be shifted to LTIR when the 2017-18 NHL season begins.
And that would be a sigh of relief for the Blackhawks. With the right roster shuffling, Hossa’s contract on LTIR could mean as much or slightly more than $5 million in additional cap space with which Bowman and Co. can work, and that’s significant. Not only is it necessary to become compliant — currently, Chicago is about $35,000 over the upper limit — but it can also allow the Blackhawks to make some additions to a roster that, quite frankly, will need it if they want to compete in a Central Division primed to be as tough as any other this season.
Should he get it, though, how does Bowman spend the money? Well, he’s not about to tip his hand.
“I think that’s something you don’t game-plan too much,” Bowman said as the Blackhawks’ training camp got underway. “You want to see how it unfolds over the next few weeks and see how our team takes shape. On that one, we’re probably going to take a wait-and-see approach…It’s something that we’ve had a lot of experience dealing with. We’ll manage that as we go along.”
That said, one of the clear areas of need in Chicago is the blueline, particularly following the summer trade of Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes. Even in getting Connor Murphy in return, losing Hjalmarsson, a fixture of the blueline on three Stanley Cup-winning teams, is a major blow and opens up a hole that will likely need multiple parts to fill.
A few options have presented themselves in Chicago, though. Gustav Forsling was mentioned by name by coach Joel Quenneville as one player the Blackhawks are hoping makes some progress this season. Jan Rutta, a free agent signing out of the Czech League, is another. Other potential fill-ins include Luc Snuggerud, Erik Gustafsson and Ville Pokka. Possibly the most viable option to take on an important role this season, though, is a rearguard not even under contract: Cody Franson.
Franson, 30, spent the past two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres, scoring seven goals and 36 points in 127 games and logging an average of slightly less than 18 minutes per night. However, after a summer without a firm offer, Franson was brought aboard by the Blackhawks ahead of training camp on a professional tryout agreement with the chance to prove he can earn his spot. And while neither Bowman or Quenneville would go ahead and say Franson has any better chance to make the club than other rearguards, it’s clear Quenneville can at least see the value in potentially bringing Franson in for the campaign.
“He’s got a lot of the attributes you look for in a defenseman,” Quenneville said. “He’s big, he’s mobile, he can shoot the puck and he’s got some experience. It’s a good opportunity for him to show his stuff here in the pre-season games and scrimmages. He gives us some size and something nice to look at.”
And as if bringing in Franson wasn’t an attractive enough option for the Blackhawks, the value of having a ready-made NHL defender was increased when it was revealed 39-year-old defenseman Michal Rozsival had failed his medical and could potentially be sidelined for the better part of the season, leaving Chicago shorthanded further on the blueline, but with the potential to add another small amount of salary wiggle room.
Inking Franson won’t exactly eat up all of the Blackhawks’ potentially newfound cap space, however, which would leave Bowman with a few options.
One method of action, or inaction, would be to stand pat and make do with the lineup, allowing the young guys to continue to compete for bottom-six spots while the established veterans hold down their top-six roles. Bowman doesn’t appear opposed to that scenario, either, suggesting several times that he and Quenneville want to see what they have. Conversely, Bowman could go in an entirely different direction, scouring the trade market for an addition that beefs up his roster in some way, shape or form. But the middle ground, and likely the cheapest route, would be to add another player from the PTO ranks, most likely one of John Mitchell or Drew Miller. Both are in camp after playing bottom-six roles on league bottom-feeders last season.
The only thing that’s for certain, though, is that no matter what the Blackhawks do if or when Hossa officially hits the shelf, there’s no replacing a veteran of his caliber, particularly not one who provides both offensive firepower and sound defensive play. Using the money wisely, however, can help ensure the loss of Hossa doesn’t see Chicago take another step back after last season’s disappointing first-round exit.
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