One team to watch prior to Monday's trade deadline is the Chicago Blackhawks.
The defending Stanley Cup champions are fighting for their playoff lives in ninth place of the Western Conference, but Chicago's salary-cap situation next season could very much dictate plans.
The Blackhawks have about $1.2 million (all currencies U.S.) in cap space this year (they can create upwards of $2 million with some minor moves), but are facing another summer of purging salary if reports of an extension for defenceman Brent Seabrook are true. Seabrook, who can become a restricted free agent on July 1, is reportedly closing in on a five-year deal that would average $6 million per season.
If so, that would commit the Blackhawks to about $48 million in 2011-12 for just 10 players, including more than $22 million on four defencemen (Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson).
Chicago has had buyer's remorse since signing Campbell to a eight-year deal ($7.14 million cap hit) in July 2008. By turning Campbell into assets that do not derail the 2011 push, general manager Stan Bowman could at the same time get a head start on the summer. (Campbell's no-trade clause allows him to designate eight teams that he would agree to join).
Bowman's other consideration is a bounty of draft picks this June, and a rebuilt farm system that is on the verge of delivering a flight of players to the NHL club.
Chicago owns three second-round picks and two third-round selections on top of its own first-round choice -- six picks in roughly the top-75. Some of those picks should be disposable because the Hawks have been able to rebuild their farm system over the last year, mostly through trades designed to shed salary.
Homegrown young forwards Bryan Bickell (25 years old) and Jake Dowell (26) are playing regularly in the NHL, same goes for wingers Michael Frolik (24) and Viktor Stalberg (25), who were acquired in trades.
Three well-regarded prospects (defencemen Nick Leddy and Ivan Vishnevskiy, forward Jeremy Morin) also came in deals over the last year, while two former first-round picks (power forward Kyle Beach and shutdown defenceman Dylan Olsen) are seasoning in the American Hockey League.
Add it all up, and Bowman has options.
He can move prospects and picks for roster help without subtracting from his existing group, or he could move Campbell, perhaps packaged with future assets, to ease cap hell this summer.
One scenario that could make sense involves the Florida Panthers. Former Hawks GM Dale Tallon, who holds the same post with Florida, signed Campbell's mega-deal, and needs some defencemen to log minutes until Dmitry Kulikov and 2010 first-round pick Erik Gudbranson are ready for prime time.
Tallon is conducting a fire sale, but could have trouble moving his best player.
Goaltender Tomas Vokoun, an unrestricted free agent this summer, has a $5.7 million cap hit. Not many teams can afford to add such an expensive piece without sending salary back to Florida, and few playoff-contending teams are looking for No. 1 goalies.
Swapping Campbell for Vokoun in a larger trade would upgrade Chicago's goaltending -- rookie Corey Crawford has been solid, but veteran Marty Turco has struggled -- while clearing cap space for 2011-12.
Given Tallon's familiarity with his former team, there are undoubtedly some players with whom he'd like to reunite. Already this month, the teams have come together on a trade that brought Frolik to Chicago, and sent winger Jack Skille (a Tallon draft pick) to Florida.
The Panthers may not have the financial wherewithal to take on the remaining $35.7 million of Campbell's deal, but there have been rumours they are shopping forwards David Booth ($4.25 million cap hit, four years and $17.25 million remaining) and Stephen Weiss ($3.1 million hit, two years and $6.2 million remaining), which could make the expenditure less daunting.