Bowman has some tough choices ahead

June, 20, 2010
6/20/10
10:01
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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[+] EnlargeDuncan Keith
Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesDuncan Keith could become the first Blackhawk since Chris Chelios in 1996 to win the Norris Trophy.
Joel Quenneville and his Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks made headlines for two months this spring. Now, it’s general manager Stan Bowman’s turn.

A busy upcoming 10 days gets the offseason moving, and fast. It will be Bowman’s first chance to reshape the roster while keeping aspirations for a repeat alive. And boy, will he have his hands full.

First, though, is the capper to the 2009-10 season. The NHL will hold its annual awards banquet on Wednesday night in Las Vegas. Most years it’s an afterthought for Hawks fans, but not this time.

Duncan Keith is the favorite to win the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defenseman. If he does, it will mark the first time a Blackhawk has won the award since Chris Chelios in 1996. The Hawks will most certainly receive rock star treatment in Sin City as several others will be on hand -- including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Quenneville.

Then the page officially turns to the future when the NHL holds its draft on Friday in Los Angeles. There may be no better reminder of how a team fared the previous season than knowing their draft position. The woeful Edmonton Oilers pick first. The Hawks pick 30th. Enough said.

The Blackhawks will have eight total picks, including two in the second round and two in the seventh round but none in the fifth. Don’t discount those late picks. Dustin Byfuglien was an eighth-round pick in 2003, while energy guy Adam Burish was picked in the ninth round a year earlier.

Of course, anytime leading up to the draft -- and after -- the Hawks could be wheeling and dealing as by now the hockey world is well aware of the Hawks salary cap problems. With just 14 players signed for next year, the Hawks are basically at the ceiling of last year’s cap, and that doesn’t include Toews’ $1.3 million bonus for winning the Conn Smythe award as the Most Valuable Player of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Not surprisingly, league sources say interest in forwards Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg is high. Unless Bowman can pull off some Houdini-like maneuvers, at least one of them is probably gone.

Then the fun really begins as free-agency opens up on July 1. The Hawks have 10 free agents. Some outcomes for these 10 players are relatively easy to predict.

For example, more than likely John Madden will not be back. He made $2.75 million last season, which is a whopping amount for a player that finished the year on the fourth line. Plus, his leadership skills are not needed in the same way. He was brought to Chicago to show the way to the Cup. Now that he’s done it, the Hawks have a team full of leaders that can impart that knowledge to newcomers. Look for a team like Washington to come knocking on Madden’s door, asking him to do for them what he did for Chicago.

[+] EnlargeAntti Niemi
Barbara Johnston/US PresswireGoalie Antti Niemi helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup. But will he be back next season?
Of all the other Hawks free agents, Antti Niemi’s future could be the most interesting. Niemi is a 26-year-old restricted free agent. If he’s not under contract at this time next year, he will be unrestricted. Will the Blackhawks make a long term offer to Niemi before July 1 when other teams can do the same? Sources say that hasn’t happened yet but you better believe the two sides will discuss things before draft day.

Niemi’s case is interesting if for no other reason than trying to figure out what kind of a raise -- and for how long -- he deserves. He made $827,000 last year and helped the Hawks win the Stanley Cup. There are many goaltenders with more experience and less success making a whole lot more. Jonas Hiller of Anaheim is only two years older and just signed a four-year extension for 4.5 million per year. Niemi deserves at least that much, right? After all, he did outplay a certain goaltender in Vancouver set to make $10 million this upcoming year. Bottom line: the going rate for established netminders who aren’t the best in the league is in the $5 million range. See Cristobal Huet for further evidence.

The Hawks could simply say this is our guy, let’s give him a lengthy contract and spread out his hit against the salary cap. Maybe they offer him 10 years and $35-40 million. It’s a little less than the going rate per year but it’s 35-40 million dollars! A player that two years ago was in Finland and known by almost no one outside his family might jump at that. Or, the Blackhawks might play hardball and say he was fortunate to play behind the deepest team in the league in a great city and offer him a three- or four-year deal at $3-4 million. That probably won’t be enough for Niemi but you never know.

The monkey wrench in this whole process is if the Hawks don’t sign Niemi by July 1, then other teams can come knocking. If another team offers Niemi a contract, the Hawks will have first right of refusal. If the Hawks refuse to match the offer they would be compensated for losing him. Let’s say Niemi gets an offer for at least $3 million per season, then the Hawks would receive a first-, second- and third-round pick in return. Not bad. If he’s offered more than $4 million, add another first-round pick to the compensation package. Those are pretty steep numbers and considering a team might be able to get him after next year for nothing -- when he’ll be unrestricted -- it’s less likely there will be many bidders.

One thing is for sure: If Niemi signs a one-year deal, then he is as good as gone after next season. You don’t make a Stanley Cup winning goaltender prove himself again, leading into his unrestricted season, and not expect him to leave.

As for the other goaltender under contract, the Hawks could send Huet to the minors next season and pay him $5.6 million to play there. If that were to happen his salary would not count against the cap. If he hasn’t cleared waivers already, he will shortly, and the Hawks could buy him out. In that case, some of his remaining contract would then count against the salary cap and would hamper the Hawks moving forward. Best case scenario for all involved -- except maybe Rocky Wirtz -- is Huet plays in Europe. The Hawks would still have to pay him his full salary, but they could receive a minimal amount back from the team he plays for.

Restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson is in a similar situation as Niemi, although he’s several years younger. He made $666,000 and is a due for a decent raise. Another team, measuring the Hawks cap problems, could sneak in for an amount the Hawks don’t want to match.

Andrew Ladd made $1.6 million last year and could return for a similar amount or the Hawks might want to save on at least half that salary and let him go. He’s going to want a raise but there might not be much left in the cupboard for him.

Burish probably won’t be back with the Hawks either. A healthy scratch for some of the playoffs, he can find more playing time on another team. Burish might even try his hand as a third-line player. He was a key penalty-killer for the Hawks before they acquired Marian Hossa and Madden. In fact, he was one of the better ones on the Blackhawks roster.

These are just some of the issues facing Bowman and his staff as the offseason heats up. Change is coming. The only question left is, how much, and for whom?

Jesse Rogers | email

Chicago Cubs beat reporter
Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers the Chicago Cubs for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN Radio 1000.

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