Who would be the front-runner you ask? Your very own Detroit Red Wings, of course.
That's right, a team that had to go on a tear just to finish fifth in the conference will have the edge on the defending champion Hawks for the division crown next year, as Chicago will be in a world of financial trouble once the final horn sounds on this season. Detroit is the only team in the Central with the experience, talent and financial stability to contend with Chicago, which is going to have to clean house to get under the cap for next season.
The Blackhawks are indeed loaded with talent and have ridden their stars to (almost) glory this year, but the salary-cap era is going to wreak havoc in Chicago starting next year. As Drew over at Nightmare on Helm Street pointed out the other day, Chicago has a ton of money committed to roughly two thirds of a team. With $57 million already committed to 14 players next season, the Blackhawks will find themselves $1 million under the expected $58 million salary cap.
That's nine forwards and four defenseman (plus one goalie) on the books for next season. That would be great ... if you were fielding a four-on-four beer league team with no backup goalie. Chicago is currently three forwards and two defensemen short of a full team with no money to spend -- and that's with no backups.
This means Chicago is certainly going to have to move several players, and let others walk via free agency. Free agent defenseman Kim Johnsson and forward John Madden are making a combined $7.6 million this season. At those same salaries, just those two players would put Chicago at $65 million---$7 million over the cap. Goaltender Antti Niemi, who has carried the team throughout their Cup run, is making under $1 million and will certainly garner a raise.
Meanwhile, just across Lake Michigan, the Red Wings have taken care of their biggest offseason worries and are now looking to fill out the roster. Fresh off his 40th birthday, six-time Norris Trophy-winner Nicklas Lidstrom signed a one-year deal to stay with the Red Wings, and at a reduced cost. Lidstrom took a slight paycut to give the team flexibility to re-sign other free agents, namely Tomas Holmstrom, who already inked a new deal, and Todd Bertuzzi, who is expected to return.
With the Red Wings currently sitting at $52.3 million committed to 17 players, they will have plenty of cap space to fill out their bottom two lines. Detroit has several restricted free agents that general manager Ken Holland is expected to re-sign, including speedster Darren Helm and grinders Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller. Even at slight raises, Detroit can keep most of the team that went 16-3-2 in the final month and a half to make the playoffs. The Red Wings will also be bolstered by the return of former 20-goal scorer Jiri Hudler, who officially rejoined the team last month.
If the Blackhawks want any chance at making a run at Detroit next year, they're going to have to offload a lot of money in the offseason. The Hawks have several big contracts that expire after next season and are good candidates for trades. The biggest trade bait is backup goaltender Cristobal Huet, who lost his starting job in March to Niemi and is due $5.6 million next year.
Power forward Dustin Byfuglien has been a playoff hero this year, but his $3 million cap hit might force him out of town. Brent Seabrook, Brent Sopel and Tomas Kopecky all make more than $1 million and could be dealt to make room. Also creating problems are the heavily front-loaded deals of Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane, all of whom are due over $5 million for the next five seasons.
But even if they clear enough cap space, the Blackhawks still have to fill the spots of all the players they dump. That means top six forwards like Byfuglien (if moved) most likely will be replaced by role players that make less than $1 million. In today's parity-driven NHL, it is going to be a monumental task to defend the division, much less the Stanley Cup.
With Chicago struggling to stay under the cap, it will leave the Red Wings, who basically have their roster in place, in prime position to take back the Central Division they owned for most of the decade.This will be virtually the same Red Wings team that finished last season with 102 points, their tenth consecutive 100-point season. As for the rest of the division, the competition is fairly light. Nashville is always a pesky threat to contend but it never seems to be able to get over the hump, and St. Louis and Columbus both missed the playoffs this season after successful runs to the postseason in 2008-09.
After an "early" playoff exit in the second round, we were told the Red Wings were done. In reality, it looks like they are just getting started.