For all the focus on the on-ice product the Chicago Blackhawks have put together in this shortened season, there has been an equal amount of fascination on the part of fans about who the Hawks have on their roster at any given time.
Whether it’s wringing their hands over the assignments and recalls of Brandon Bollig, or questioning why exactly Daniel Carcillo keeps getting top six minutes for the team, Hawks loyalists have had plenty to chew on over the course of this season, and when the campaign concludes, that debate will inevitably ratchet up.
That’s because the Blackhawks have a couple of soon-to-be free agents that will be demanding their share of a shrinking pie. The league’s salary cap, set at $70.2 million, will be going down to $64.3 million next season, and that means some decisions will need to be made about the makeup of the team’s roster.
Leading the way among the free agents-to be is defenseman Nick Leddy, who will require a decent sized pay hike from the $1.1 million he is making this year to stay with the team. In addition, the team will either have to re-sign goaltender Ray Emery (who will fetch a nice sum if he’s able to hit the open market) and Marcus Kruger as well.
Perhaps the two most intriguing free agents on the roster are Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell. The two forwards are both in the final year of contracts that are paying them less than a million dollars, and with the success they have had this year, they will both require serious raises.
The question, then, is which of the two players should GM Stan Bowman re-sign? Judging by their statistics from this season, it’s a dead heat. Bickell has eight goals and 12 assists in 39 games this season, and Stalberg has seven tallies to go along with 12 assists of his own. Both are playing a similar amount of time (Bickell 12:41 per game, Stalberg 14:08 per game), and the only difference between the two happens to be their shots on goal, with Stalberg far outpacing Bickell in that category.
Even with the statistical similarities between the two, what ultimately should decide their fate is not their play, but rather the depth of the Hawks’ system. Bickell and Stalberg are both very good players, but with the pay raises that both are due, it would be in the best interests of the team to cut both of them loose.
With big bodied guys like Kyle Beach and Jimmy Hayes in the system to replace Bickell, and with scoring wingers like Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin able to step in for Stalberg, this team isn’t exactly hurting for players in those areas.
In goal and on the defensive side of things on the other hand, capital needs to be expended to keep certain guys like Leddy in the fold. Dylan Olsen and Adam Clendening will be useful on the blue line at some point for the Hawks, but with Niklas Hjalmarsson likely hitting the free agent market after next season, Leddy will be looked at to step up into a second line role permanently with the club, so his contract situation should be resolved immediately.
Stalberg and Bickell leaving may not be the most palatable outcome to Hawks fans, but with the salary cap coming down by nearly $6 million, sacrifices will have to be made, and talented depth guys like those two are, simply put, expendable.