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McKenzie: Hawks need to clear space before deals announced

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Bob McKenzie
11/20/2009 1:06:31 PM
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Decisions, decisions.

It's what the Chicago Blackhawks are dealing with now that they are on the verge of signing Pat Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith to long-term contract extensions.

Because while most of the work has been done to finalize five-year agreements for both Kane and Toews -- worth more than $6 million per year apiece  -- and a 13-year whopper for Keith -- worth a little less than $6 million per year -- sources suggest the primary reason they haven't been formalized and announced is because the Hawks need to make things right with the NHL salary cap police.

Sources tell TSN that Chicago needs to do a little financial reorganization in order to get the "tagging" room necessary to proceed with the extensions for their three young stars. Tagging room is effectively available salary cap space for next season.

Tagging room is calculated by totaling the dollar values of the contracts that will expire at the end of the season plus the club's available salary cap space that exists today. Whatever that figure is becomes the maximum amount a club may commit to contract extensions for next year.

For the Hawks, the ballpark figure appears to be around $18 million, although it's impossible to get an accurate number. The extensions for the Big Three may run closer to $19 million. So it's conceivable the Hawks need to trim some money to get the extensions officially completed.
 
Of course it's not as simple as all that. It never is in the salary cap world. A team may increase its tagging room by the amount of the Performance Bonus Cushion, or to the tune of another $4 million or thereabouts. So the Hawks may not be in dire straits here, but the point is it is, at the very least, tight. Very tight. And it may well be the Hawks are not in a position to extend their young stars without moving a body and getting some additional tagging room.

Don't get the wrong idea, though. The Hawks don't have to tear apart their roster this season to get these deals done. There may be some really painful roster/cap decisions to make in the summer, but for now it's more trimming than cutting that is required. And that is good news for a team that looks like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

This whole issue may be as easy, or difficult, as finding a way to move veteran defenceman Brent Sopel and his $2.33 million cap hit this year and next.

On a team with Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Cam Barker, Sopel is making far too much money for a depth defenceman. In the hockey sense, he's expendable. And sources tell TSN that is the player the Hawks are now trying hard to move.

But it may be easier said than done. Teams are loath to trade for term and if Sopel is a luxury the Hawks can't afford, it's the same for most other teams in the cap world.

Maybe there's a team out there with cap space and the budget to take Sopel if the Hawks sweeten the pot with high-end draft picks, the way San Jose did when they took Vladimir Malakhov's money off the then cap-troubled New Jersey Devils.

Or maybe the Hawks could put Sopel on waivers. If he were claimed, it would free up $2.33 million in tagging room. But it's hard to imagine a team putting in a claim at that price.

If Sopel cleared waivers, the Hawks could assign him to the minors. His salary for the remainder of  the season would come off the Hawks' cap total although Chicago would still be responsible for paying him. As for the tagging room for next year, Sopel in the minors now this year would give the Hawks a tagging room increase equal to the value of his remaining salary for this season, a shade over $1.7 million.

Would that be enough? It's hard to say. These calculations are complex and confusing, to be sure.

What we do know, though, is that once tagging room has been exhausted, if the club doesn't find a way to create more -- by dumping more longer term contracts -- it can be a restrictive nightmare.

Let's say the Hawks have sufficient tagging room to extend Kane, Toews and Keith but that there's no wiggle room beyond that. What it means is that the Hawks, if they needed to recall a player from the minors for any reason, could not call up any player who has a contract that goes into next season. That would be a CBA violation -- you can't overspend on tagging room -- and not permitted by the league.

Of course, if tagging room, or lack thereof, was a real problem that couldn't be overcome right now, the Hawks could, as long as the player agrees, put one of those extensions in a drawer and leave it there until the off-season and make it official in the summer.

But the marketing savvy Hawks want to make a big splash and announce they have locked up their three best young assets. So if I were a betting man, I would say Sopel's days in Chicago could very well be numbered.

But that's for the Hawks to decide. Maybe they can grind out the numbers now to make it all work without moving Sopel (though I kind of doubt it). Maybe they have an eye towards the summer and the many Cam Barker trade rumors we've heard for some time will come to fruition.

In any case, decisions, decisions...for a legit Cup contender.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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