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Mike Babcock Patiently Waits for Salary Cap to Break Up the Blackhawks

May 19, 2009 – 2:10 PM
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Adam Gretz

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After jumping out to a 1-0 series lead in the Western Conference Final, Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock held a press conference on Monday and fielded a variety of questions from the media. For the most part, it was your typical, run-of-the-mill press conference.

About half way through, a reporter started asking Babcock about how he once joked that he was ready for the salary cap to break up the young talent the Chicago Blackhawks have assembled over the years. In Babcock's mind, he wasn't joking.

From George James Malik of
I haven't joked. That's the facts. I can't wait. They got way too much skill. And so the only way we can eliminate their skill is by the salary cap getting involved here. So the more goals those young guys score... You may laugh, that's the truth. When you're on the outside looking in, you just keep in the regular season hoping that 32 is going to snipe one more and get another one, get another one, get another one. The salaries just creep up and they can't have all the players.
If this sounds familiar, it's because we've heard these same doomsday proclamations about other teams around the NHL, most recently, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their quest to keep Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of their core in tact. Earlier this season we had TSN's Gord Miller talk about how the Penguins must trade Malkin, while the Tribune Review's Rob Rossi floated the idea of putting Crosby on the market this offseason to see what type of interest he would generate (my guess: a lot).

So, should 'Hawks fans be worried about the future of their hockey team that, for the first time in nearly a decade, is actually relevant again? Not likely. According to NHL Numbers (grain of salt needed, as they themselves admit the numbers aren't 100 percent accurate) the Blackhawks have 11 players signed for next season, accounting for roughly $36 million in salary. Included in those numbers are the long-term contracts of Patrick Sharp, Brian Campbell, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Seabrook and Cristobal Huet. Looking at the current roster, the big names that must be taken care of are Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the youngest captain in the NHL. Both players are up for restricted free agency following the 2009-10 season, and keeping them is an absolute must.

In an effort to get a ballpark figure as to what it would take to sign them, here's a look at some other top players that recently received their first long-term contracts: Alex Ovechkin: 13-year, $124 million ($9.5 million per year), Crosby: five-year, $43.5 million ($8.7 million per year), Malkin: five-year, $43.5 million ($8.7 million per year), Anze Kopitar: seven-year, $47.6 million ($6.8 million per year), Paul Stastny: five-year, $33 million ($6.6 million per year), Mike Richards: 12-year, $69 million ($5.75 million per year)

It stands to reason that when Kane and Toews get their new deals they'll fall somewhere in between Richards' deal and the Crosby-Malkin duo. Definitely manageable for two young stars that have yet to hit their peak performance in the NHL. Of course, this concern coming from Babcock is kind of odd, seeing as how the Red Wings, thanks to the strong leadership of general manager Ken Holland, have managed to keep together the best core in the NHL with long-term contracts. Obviously, it can be done with a smart, sensible front office that knows what it's doing.

The argument that always gets brought up is the Tampa Bay Lightning and how their one-time core of Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis (and we can probably include Dan Boyle in that as well)took up too much cap space and ultimately led to the downfall of the 2003-04 Stanley Cup Champions. The problem? That's not what caused Tampa Bay's failures. What did Tampa Bay in wasn't the contracts of its big three, it was poor management in the front office, ranging from the fact it didn't actually spend to the league's cap, to the far more important issue of an overwhelmingly bad record in the NHL's entry draft. From 1999-2005, for example, the best players Tampa Bay produced in the draft were Nick Tarnasky, Paul Ranger and Evgeni Artyukhin. That's simply not good enough.

Frankly, I think sometimes we tend to make too much of the salary cap crunch. If you have a pair of elite players (Malkin-Crosby, Kane-Toews, Ovechkin-Backstrom) it's in your best interest to keep them at all costs. In other words: I think you're better off taking your chances with two elite players as opposed to four or five "good" players making the same amount of money. The teams that get into cap trouble aren't the ones that invest in top-tier talent, it's teams like the Rangers that invest in Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden.

If the Blackhawks play their cards right (make Kane and Toews a priority, draft well, etc. etc. etc.) they should be fine going forward, and Babcock and the Wings will have to beat them on the ice.
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