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Photo Credit: Matt Marton / USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Enemy: The Do’s and Don’ts of Managing the Salary Cap

It may seem like a distant memory already, but we aren’t that far removed from the Chicago Blackhawks being a perennial Stanley Cup contender. It seems like yesterday they just beat Tampa Bay to win their third cup in six seasons, and many had them pegged as a cap era dynasty.

They fell just as quickly as they had risen, as suddenly a game 7 upset from St. Louis in 2016, a four game sweep at the hands of the Predators in 2017, and a complete drop off last season that saw them finish third last in the Western Conference.

When the Leafs were having their breakout season in 2016-17, a lot of people compared them to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2008-09 when they had their breakout year, and it makes sense. The Hawks were lead by their young stars in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, and Brent Seabrook, and some more experienced youth in Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith.

The Hawks only went up from there, as the next season they won their first Cup. The Leafs haven’t made as drastic of a progression, but they’ve still been progressing. Whether they go all the way, we’ve yet to find out, but they’ve put themselves in the position to do so.

But, the Blackhawks are good lesson in flying too close to sun. With the obvious caveat that they won three Cups, so I don’t think they’re complaining too much about where they are now, but it also could’ve been avoided.

Mar 18, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) is pushed in front of the net by Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook (7) at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

One of the reasons the Blackhawks maintained their dynasty is they were good at keeping their core together, and getting rid of the pieces that they weren’t apart of that core when their price was getting too high. One of the first things they did after their first cup win in 2010 was send Dustin Byfuglien to Atlanta for picks and prospects that could be developed into future players (although none of them really did anything). They sent Versteeg to Toronto for Viktor Stalberg and other assets, although Stalberg was a part of their next Cup run. They traded Ladd to Atlanta for Vishnevsky and a 2nd. They traded Troy Brouwer to Washington for a first round pick. They sent Brian Campbell to Florida for Rostislav Olesz. Not all of them great returns, but they got pieces back, and more importantly, they freed up cap space for their core of Toews, Kane, Keith, Sharp, Hossa, and Seabrook.

Same thing happened in 2013. Frolik went to Winnpeg, Bolland went to Toronto, Carcillo went to the Kings. But they also made their first mistake, and signed Bryan Bickell to a four year, $4 million AAV after a solid playoff run. In turn, that cap space couldn’t go to a player like Brandon Saad, who they had to trade. And then to get rid of Bickell’s contract, they had to give Carolina a good prospect in Teuvo Teravainen.

They also struggled in knowing when the clock was ticking on their core. Toews contract didn’t look like it’d be amazing when it was signed, and it looks even worse, and we’re only in year four of eight. Seabrook’s contract was a bad one when he signed it, and we’re only in year three of eight there. Keith and Hossa were signed to really long deals that back-dived and quickly went from being steals to looking really bad. They had to trade Hossa with some young players to get away from that cap hit, and the Keith contract doesn’t look to pretty at age 35 with five years left on it.

Oct 9, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Ron Hainsey (2) goes after the puck against the Chicago Blackhawks at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs beat the Blackhawks 4-3 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

It was bad decisions like that that forced their hand and made them deal Saad in 2015, and then made them deal Panarin and Hjalmarsson in 2017. It’s bad decisions like this that the Leafs need to try and avoid as their rookies are done their ELCs and are about to get a boatload of cash.

Identify your core: Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander. Maybe Liljegren if he pans out, but we can’t say for sure right now. Rielly and Kadri are a part of it for now, but if they want big bucks when their contracts are up, they’re guys that you don’t really look to keep around.

After that, the rest of the team are players you keep around until you need to trim off some fat, especially once the cap crunch happens. If Par Lindholm or Tyler Ennis want anything over a million dollars this year, let them walk. If Ron Hainsey hasn’t already retired, let him walk. Marincin wants a one way? Let him walk. It’d be great to keep Gardiner, but if he wants too much? Let him walk like JVR last summer.

Need more cap space? Bye bye Connor Brown and Zach Hyman. Kapanen and Johnsson want a bit too much money. See ya later. Dermott wants a lot of money off his ELC? It’ll be tough, but he might have to leave too.

And that’s why you draft and develop smart. We’ve seen it already with JVR, Bozak, and Komarov leaving this year, and in their place, Johnsson, Kapanen, and Brown get bigger roles (oh, and we have that Tavares guy too). Trade the players who can’t stick around for picks and prospects that you can groom into their replacements.

But, you have to stick to it too, even if when it comes the time that new pieces of the core join the fray, and some of your older pieces of the core start to wither away. Kadri will be 32 when his contract is up. He’s a part of the core now, but he’s not going to be worth as much as he wants at age 32. Zaitsev is probably a deal that they shouldn’t have signed. Hyman’s great, but he’ll be 29 at the end of his deal, and if they try to re-sign him, that won’t be a good contract.

Don’t be like Chicago or Detroit, and get too loyal to those depth pieces, because that’s how teams fall off. Trust the process, and stay committed to it.

When Dubas said “we can, and we will” when asked about keeping Tavares, Matthews, Nylander, and Marner, he wasn’t wrong, it isn’t that difficult for them to keep all of them. But, if they want to, and keep this team competitive, these are the only players that they should keep. Everyone else is a maybe.

So, when the cap crunch happens, you don’t trade Nylander for a defenseman or something to make cap room. You trade Brown or Hyman or Zaitsev or Marleau to make room for the big four. You let guys like Gardiner or JVR walk, as tough as it will be. And you find cheaper replacements to bring in and fill those roles. That’s how you try to maintain a dynasty.

That’s what the Blackhawks did, but that’s what they stopped doing, and the dynasty fell because of it.

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