Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Commentary: Blackhawks' move stresses developmental system

The Chicago Blackhawks handed out a lot of money Wednesday afternoon -- $168 million, to be exact. That's just $7 million less than the United Center cost to build in 1994.

What it means is the two franchise's centerpieces -- Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane -- will be wearing Blackhawk sweaters through 2023. The two signed eight-year, $84 million extensions. Those will carry a $10.5 million annual cap hit -- an increase of $4.2 million each from the pair's current contracts.

They will automatically become the highest-paid players in hockey, eclipsing Alex Ovechkin ($9.538 million cap hit) and Evgeni Malkin ($9.5 million).

Without a doubt, the pair has earned it. They've been the face of the franchise's turnaround into being a perennial Stanley Cup contender -- and two-time Cup champion. They've done things no pair of Blackhawks has ever done, including Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Each has won a Conn Smythe trophy. Toews is the best two-way center in the game, Kane is an elite sniper, and they're both now locked up for their primes. When the deals expire in 2023, Toews will have just turned 35 and Kane will be about to hit that age.

What it means for the Blackhawks is that the core of two Stanley Cup champions will be together, keeping the Hawks as contenders for the foreseeable future. Not only are those two signed long-term, but so are Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjarmalsson and goaltender Corey Crawford. All are signed through 2019, when Hjarmalsson's contract expires. Crawford becomes a free agent the next year, Hossa in 2021 and Keith, Kane and Toews in 2023.

Keith is one of the best defensemen in the game, and Hjarmalsson is a very reliable top-pairing blueliner. Crawford is a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender. Hossa is an elite forward, although at age 35, his cap hit of $7.9 million could be an issue as he gets closer to 40.

The signings signal that the Blackhawks are committed to drafting and developing a talented core, building around it and locking it up -- which is essential to any team in the salary cap era. The Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins have won three Stanley Cups and made four Cup Final appearances since 2011 with the same approach.

What they also means is that there will be an extra emphasis on the team's developmental system. Those six players command a shade under $42 million toward the salary cap through 2019. The cap currently is $69 million. While it will likely go up, somewhere between half to two-thirds of the Hawks' cap space will be committed to six players for a span of several years. Because of that, the Blackhawks will not be able to be active in the free agent market and their depth players will likely come from within the system. It means a reliance on players on entry-level contracts to fill out key depth roles. When the Toews and Kane extensions kick in next year, the Blackhawks will have $3.2 million in cap space and currently have 15 players signed -- leaving an average of between the NHL's minimum salary of $525,000 and $648,000 for the remaining 5-8 roster spots (click here for the CapGeek rundown).

This is great news for us in Indianapolis.

With the Blackhawks committed to their core, it means an increasingly important role for the developmental system -- the AHL Rockford IceHogs and ECHL Indy Fuel. They will have to provide NHL-ready players able to step in and fill shoes in Chicago, and do so quickly, as the Blackhawks will have roster openings ready for call-ups to fill.

The Blackhawks have made it clear they plan to be committed to the Fuel, and will likely send somewhere between six and eight players to Indianapolis to play.

In other words, the Toews and Kane signings, put together with the Blackhawks' development strategy, increases the likelihood of us seeing a number of players right before our eyes in the Coliseum (and, with the great sightlines at the renovated Coliseum, they will be right before our eyes), and then seeing them fill key roles at the United Center in the near future.

By having an active AHL and ECHL affiliate -- and having them both very close to each other -- it allows the Blackhawks to develop players quickly, and do so for several different roles. Not only will they be able to spread ice time around amongst their prospects, they'll be able to get more players ice time on the power play and the penalty kill and play several different roles. That can speed up and accelerate development throughout the system and get players ready for the NHL.

One of the real advantages of the ECHL is the smaller roster size -- teams dress 16 skaters, two fewer than an NHL team. As a result, teams have three forward lines, and everyone has to play virtually every role -- checking and scoring, and most of the team is involved on the power play and penalty kill units.

In any salary-capped league, drafting and development are key. In hockey, it takes 20 players to be a successful team -- Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith and Hjarmalsson, the five players the Hawks have locked in -- comprise 1/4 of the forwards and 1/3 of the defensemen. I was driving back from a game in St. Louis this year, and Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was talking about his team's depth -- and essentially said the top two lines in a playoff series will cancel each other out. It's whose third line, whose fourth line is better that ends up deciding the series. Hitchcock was right -- and in the postseason, the Blackhawks' depth was a slight bit better than his team's.

When a team has a core of players that takes up a lot of cap room -- as the Blackhawks of the next few years do, or, in another sport, the Peyton Manning-era Colts -- those young, depth players have to be key contributors to allow the stars to make an impact.

The Blackhawks have opened the checkbook and signaled they intend to be a contender for the better part of the next decade. The Indy Fuel and Rockford IceHogs are going to have a major part in making that happen.

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