Commentary

Is this best chance at Cup for Hawks?

Updated: May 22, 2010, 10:18 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- As much as you hear people talk about the Chicago Blackhawks contending for years to come, the team will never be this deep again for a quite a while.

No, the salary-cap clock will strike midnight this summer for the Hawks, just like it has for the Pittsburgh Penguins over the past few years when the likes of Rob Scuderi, Marian Hossa, Hal Gill and Ryan Malone left town for purely economical reasons.

The core will be here in Chicago for years, led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith; but after that, it's a real guessing game as to which faces will be discarded from the current squad in order to comply with the NHL's payroll limit next season.

The Hawks have 14 players under contract for next season at just over $57 million. The salary cap will be between $57 million and $58 million. Somehow, Chicago needs to fit several other players under there. Demoting Cristobal Huet and his $5.625 million salary to the minors isn't the cure-all solution. The emerging Antti Niemi, the vastly underrated Niklas Hjalmarsson and gritty forward Andrew Ladd are all restricted free agents. They need new deals, and Niemi and Hjalmarsson will get nice raises, which means more bodies will need to move.

How deep is this team right now? How many teams can put Hossa on a second line, Kris Versteeg on a third line and John Madden on a fourth line? Those are luxuries most teams can't afford under the salary cap. So, there will be a few casualties. The band won't totally be back together next season.

"Buff and I don't even know what you're talking about," star forward Patrick Sharp, sitting next to Dustin Byfuglien, said to a room full of laughter during their news conference Saturday.

"Not," Byfuglien added.

"That's the first we've heard about the salary cap," Sharp added before more laughter.

He jests, of course. It became a subject as soon as Toews, Kane and Keith all signed massive contract extensions in November and received big raises that kick in next season. At that point, it dawned on a few other Blackhawks that the math would not work for next year.

"It's been talked about," said Sharp, in a serious tone. "But we can worry about that weeks from now. You look at guys that have been in the league for a long time that have played for this opportunity, and we realize that it's right there for us. So we don't want to start thinking about where players will be next year. We've got to take advantage of what we have."

Sharp is right when he says his team's only focus is on the chance at hand. They are one win away from the Stanley Cup finals, and because of the uncertainty this summer with the roster, you just don't know when the Blackhawks will get this opportunity again. If you're Sharp, you're not 100 percent sure if you yourself will be back.

"You know, that sort of thing where you're thinking about who's going to be back next year, a lot of teams deal with that," said Keith, whose $72 million, 13-year deal begins next fall. "Every team has to face that. I think as players, for us the best thing to do is not to get caught up in that sort of thing and worry about it.

"Obviously, we like our teammates and we love playing together. There will be changes next year, as there will be with every team. But, you know, I think the focus right now is just understanding we have what we have right now, the opportunity that's there, giving it everything we have with the team we have right now."

The focus is exactly where it should be: on the here and now. Because you don't know with certainty when this chance will come again. The Blackhawks are five wins away from ending a 49-year Stanley Cup drought.

The opportunity is as good as it's going to get.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.