Salary cap headaches for talented, expensive teams

When the Chicago Blackhawks raise the banner to honor their

first Stanley Cup championship since 1961, Dustin Byfuglien won’t

be there to soak in the moment and celebrate with his

teammates.

The Blackhawks aren’t his teammates anymore.

On Saturday night, the man who scored the decisive goal in five

of the Blackhawks’ 16 postseason wins will be in Florida, wearing

the uniform of the Atlanta Thrashers – a team that finished 10th in

the Eastern Conference.

The Blackhawks knew while making their long-awaited run to the

title that win or lose, the chase would come at a cost.

And it did.

Byfuglien, along with several other key players, had to be sent

away or let go in the days following the championship because they

couldn’t all fit under the salary cap.

Sure the Blackhawks still have top forwards Patrick Kane and

Jonathan Toews, and because of that duo the club remains a

contender to win it all again. But secondary players such as

Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel,

Colin Fraser, and Andrew Ladd – who all made their mark in the

victory – are gone.

With a team salary cap number of $59.4 million for this season,

only so many players can stick around. That meant that even goalie

Antti Niemi, who earned all 16 wins in the playoffs with a 2.65

goals-against average, had to be let go after he was awarded a

$2.75 million salary in arbitration. He earned $826,875 in his

first full NHL season.

The raise was too much for the Blackhawks to take, so Niemi is

with the San Jose Sharks – the only team in the Western Conference

that finished with more points than Chicago. The Sharks were

eliminated by Niemi and the Blackhawks in a conference finals

sweep.

There hasn’t been a repeat NHL champion since the Detroit Red

Wings in 1997 and 1998. Now entering the sixth season of the

league’s salary cap era, dynasty-type teams might become even more

of a distant memory.

”We’re not in favor of or opposed to dynasty teams,” NHL

Commissioner Gary Bettman said. ”What the Blackhawks did, very

successfully, is they made a conscious decision last season to make

a series of moves to get themselves in a position to be

extraordinarily competitive. But they understood when they made

those moves there were cap consequences.

”The benefit of the system we have is all teams can be

competitive, can afford to be competitive. That to us is the most

important thing because obviously there are going to be differences

as to how well run teams are and how successful they are in putting

their teams together.”

Chicago waited nearly 50 years for the Cup to return. Surely the

Windy City and Blackhawks fans don’t want to hear how good it is

for the other 29 NHL cities to have a good chance to win at their

expense.

”Our fans, no matter what team they root for, know their team

has a shot to make the playoffs and maybe win it all which is

perhaps why in the last five seasons all but two clubs have made

the playoffs,” Bettman said.

The Blackhawks got over the hurt of seeing teammates leave and

they say they are more than ready to take another shot at what is

often called the toughest trophy to win.

”You get that hunger again pumping through your blood,” said

Duncan Keith, last season’s Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top

defenseman. ”We want to win every year. That’s the goal in our

organization. Detroit would be the best example. Over the last 10

years, they’ve been a solid team and you could make a legitimate

case that they would be Cup contenders every year. That’s what we

want to be like. We don’t want to be a one-year team and that’s

it.”

It’s not just the Blackhawks who found themselves in a

salary-cap nightmare. Just look at the New Jersey Devils, who spent

a good chunk of the summer trying to keep star forward Ilya

Kovalchuk.

After a third straight first-round playoff exit, the Devils

couldn’t afford to let Kovalchuk get away in free agency. New

Jersey traded several pieces to Atlanta to pry him away midseason

and wanted him to stay. Lengthy negotiations produced a landmark

17-year, $102 million deal that right away revealed salary cap

relief.

The NHL noticed that, too, and rejected the contract that

would’ve paid Kovalchuk only $550,000 in each of the final six

years – saying the deal was constructed to circumvent the salary

cap. The Devils and Kovalchuk’s camp reworked it and came out with

a legal 15-year contract worth $100 million.

Not only did it leave the Devils $3 million over the cap for the

season, and with hard decisions to make, New Jersey was then

stripped of a third-round draft pick this year and a first-rounder

in one of the next four seasons, and was fined $3 million by the

NHL.

The only consolation was that the fine won’t be charged against

the cap.

”I think it’s a little harsh,” said Devils star forward Zach

Parise, whose contract is up after this season. ”When you get

smacked with a penalty and you lose draft picks, you lose a

first-round pick, that’s big.

New Jersey temporarily got under the cap before Wednesday’s

deadline by placing defenseman Bryce Salvador (concussion) on

long-term injured reserve and designating defenseman Anssi Salmela

(knee) as an injured, non-roster player.

The Devils are carrying only 20 players on the roster that

allows for 23, and will need to make more decisions down the road.

Familiar names such as captain Jamie Langenbrunner, Dainius Zubrus,

Colin White, and Travis Zajac, could be on the move because of

their contracts.

”It’s a tough situation,” Zajac said. ”You’ve got friends on

the team that could get traded. It’s a business like anything else,

and it’s going to happen.

”I can’t worry about that.”