Chicago Blackhawks G.M. Stan Bowman has never been shy about giving out contract extensions to players he believes in, and he did it again on Thursday as he signed Jan Rutta to a one-year deal.
The contract is the latest one handed out to a young Blackhawks defenseman, as Bowman also re-signed Erik Gustafsson earlier this month.
With Rutta now back in the fold, the Blackhawks have 18 NHL players under contract for next season, including seven defensemen, three goaltenders, and eight forwards. Those 18 contracts account for nearly $69 million in salary cap hits, giving the Blackhawks around $6 million to play with under the current cap ceiling of $75 million.
That number is manageable for Bowman and company, but the contracts being handed out beg one simple question: why?
$2.25 million is not a large amount of money to pay for an NHL defenseman, but it represents a $1.3 million raise from this season for Rutta. Is a soon-to-be 28-year-old player who has scored six goals and dished out 13 assists in his NHL career worth over double his salary after less than one full year on the job?
The answer, frankly, is no. Rutta showed some incredible flashes of skill early in the season, but as the year has worn on he has begun to break down with injuries and with poor play, and it’s hard to argue that he is a must-start player on a nightly basis for the Blackhawks.
The contract that Bowman gave him indicates that he feels he can be a top-four defenseman next season, but that is a dangerous leap of faith to take for a team that is so hard-pressed against the salary cap on a yearly basis.
To be fair to Bowman, there are young and cheap options in the system, including Henri Jokiharju, to plug some of the holes in the roster, but giving out an extra $500,000 or so to both Rutta and Gustafsson seems like a silly way for the front office to paint itself into a corner when it comes to making outside additions to the roster.
An extra couple-hundred thousand here and there is exactly what got Bowman and the Blackhawks into their current predicament. The Brent Seabrook contract is a sterling example of that, and the propensity to give out a bit of extra money is something Bowman also did with center Marcus Kruger and even with players like Artem Anisimov and, yes, even Jonathan Toews.
Those contract practices make players want to skate with the Blackhawks, but they also limit the team’s options in the offseason, and the confidence that Bowman is showing in the team’s current defensive corps is, in a word, misplaced.
This team is not one piece away from contending. Their current defense isn’t good enough even if a healthy Corey Crawford plays 65 or 70 games next season. There is plenty of work to be done, and it seems as though Bowman is dead-set on just bringing everybody back instead of operating as if there is a structural problem with the team that needs to be addressed.
Things could change rapidly if Bowman deals away a big-ticket player like Seabrook or Anisimov, but as things stand now, it’s unclear that the G.M. grasps the enormity of the challenge that likely faces him to make the Blackhawks competitive again next season.