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Challenge begins after Kane, Toews deals

7/10/2014

Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman achieved Wednesday what he had been planning out for years and secured Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to lengthy contract extensions.

Unfortunately for Bowman, his job doesn't get any easier from here on out.

Signing Kane and Toews for eight more years assured the Blackhawks of two superstars through the 2022-23 season. Add in what the Blackhawks have already done in signing Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell and Teuvo Teravainen through 2017, Niklas Hjalmarsson through 2019, Corey Crawford through 2020, Marian Hossa through 2021 and Duncan Keith through 2023, and the Blackhawks have nine strong pieces in place for their quest to win multiple Stanley Cups.

But as the Blackhawks have learned over the past five years, their elite players must be surrounded by quality depth and the right role players for them to hoist the Stanley Cup. They had that in 2010 and 2013 and succeeded. They didn't have that in 2011, 2012 and 2014, and they failed.

Bowman must now figure out how to keep the Blackhawks a perennial Stanley Cup contender while balancing a tight checkbook.

Kane and Toews could have gotten more money on the open market and could have squeezed more out of the Blackhawks, but their cap hits are still significant at a total of $21 million a season. The Blackhawks are already at $65,757,628 in salary cap payroll with 15 players signed for the 2015-16 season and around $52,707,628 with nine players signed for the 2016-17 season, according to capgeek.com. Even with the cap expected to increase in the coming years from where it's at now at $69 million, the Blackhawks won't have much financial wiggle room in the future.

Bowman's first task after completing the contracts for Kane and Toews is getting the Blackhawks cap-compliant for the upcoming season. The Blackhawks are around $1.3 million over cap, which would be more if Teravainen was included on the roster. Bowman has to trade at least one player to get under the cap.

Bowman's next goal will be re-signing Brandon Saad to an extension. Saad is set to become a restricted free agent after the 2014-15 season. Based on him being 21 and how he's developed so far, he could demand anywhere from $4 million to $6 million. The Blackhawks would like to knock that deal out before July 1, 2015, just in case another team would attempt to steal him away with a high-priced offer sheet.

Let's say Saad agrees to somewhere around $4.5 million to $5 million a season for two to four years. The Blackhawks would strengthen their core again, but that would leave even less money for the remainder of the roster. At some point, the Blackhawks will have to let some of their prized possessions go. Between Brent Seabrook, Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy and Andrew Shaw, all players who worked their way up through the organization, the Blackhawks will eventually have to part with some of them because of cap restraints over the next two seasons. Down the line, they'll likely face the same difficult decisions with Sharp and Bickell. Not everyone will be able to retire as Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks do appear to be in a strong place with their prospect system. Teravainen is considered to be the real deal. Defensemen Adam Clendening, Stephen Johns and Klas Dahlbeck are all close to being NHL-ready. Forward Joakim Nordstrom surprised many and showed he could play in the NHL last season. Forwards Mark McNeill and Alex Broadhurst could also be around the corner based on their first pro seasons.

The Blackhawks are also hopeful Phillip Danault, Garret Ross and Ryan Hartman can get closer to the NHL in the next few seasons. Unlike the past few seasons where they have been able to let NHL-ready prospects such as Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Hayes, Dylan Olsen and Ryan Stanton depart for other teams, the Blackhawks will need similar players to remain in the organization and contribute at the NHL level.

The Blackhawks have benefited from drafting well in recent years. Bowman drafted top-6 forwards in Teravainen with the No. 18 overall pick in 2012 and in Saad with the No. 43 overall pick in 2011. They got draft steals in centers Shaw and Kruger with fifth-round picks. If they could somehow sign Kevin Hayes before the Aug. 15 deadline, that would be another late first-round pick who could be in the NHL in the next few years. Bowman will later need draft picks such as Tyler Motte, Vincent Hinostroza, Carl Dahlstrom, Nick Schmaltz and Robin Norell to continue to progress and be ready in the next three to six years to step in and be supporting players to Kane and Toews.

Bowman can be credited for putting the Blackhawks in a favorable position going forward with who he has signed and drafted, but he hasn't been without his missteps in recent seasons. Re-signing Michal Handzus after the Stanley Cup run, re-signing Michal Rozsival to a two-year deal, trading for Kris Versteeg this past season and signing Brandon Bollig to a contract extension are likely decisions Bowman would like to have back. Bickell's play next season will also determine whether Bowman made the right call on a four-year, $16 million extension on him after the 2013 season.

The Blackhawks won't be able to afford many mistakes in the future. They just won't have the cap space to fix them. They'll likely be up against the cap every year and won't have the luxury of attempting to add someone such as Ryan Kesler to a long-term deal this summer or obtaining a key player at the trade deadline. What they have in the NHL and AHL will be Bowman's main resources.

Bowman knows his legacy will ultimately be determined by how many more Stanley Cup banners are raised at the United Center. With the ink now dry on the extensions for Kane and Toews, Bowman's work begins now.