The date and opponent for the Blackhawks' 2015-16 regular-season opener was announced Wednesday, revealing exactly how much time general manager Stan Bowman has to retool the roster to conform to the NHL's salary cap.
Between now and Oct. 7 when the Hawks will raise the '15 Stanley Cup championship banner to the United Center rafters before facing the Rangers, Bowman will make trades, sign some free agents and let others walk, scratch, claw and do whatever it takes to get below the $71.4 million cap limit.
The process already has begun as Bowman has engaged in trade talks for several players, with sources indicating veteran wingers Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell are among those in play. It is possible the Hawks will make a slew of moves this weekend during the NHL draft in Sunrise, Fla., in an effort to acquire picks while shedding salary. Bowman said Wednesday "there was a lot of discussion with other managers about what they're trying to do" during Tuesday's general manager's meeting in Las Vegas.
"It's still early," Bowman said. "Those things typically heat up as you get closer and closer to the draft. I would characterize it as a typical time of year. There's a lot of talk among all the GMs, most of which doesn't really go anywhere. Sometimes things will play out and you can make a deal. It's your job to keep in touch with everybody and find out what they're looking to do."
It's clear what the Hawks are looking to do. They currently have 15 players signed for next season with cap hits totaling around $65 million. Not included among those players are restricted free agents Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger, who are expected to get significant raises after playing big roles in the Hawks' run to the Cup.
One source said the three teams most interested in Sharp, who has been a mainstay in the lineup for the last decade and finished with 16 goals and 27 assists in '14-15, are the Stars, Penguins and Panthers. In a potential deal with the Stars, the source said the Hawks are interested in acquiring 25-year-old gritty winger Antoine Roussel, who carries a cap hit of $2 million.
Sharp, 33, carries an annual cap hit of $5.9 million and there's little doubt he is Bowman's main target to trade with the return most likely to be a draft pick or two.
Bickell, who had 14 goals and 14 assists last season, has a cap hit of $4 million. Another source said Bickell's status remains in doubt and his return to the Hawks depends on which other players Bowman can trade in the coming days. The source put Bickell's departure at "50-50."
The 29-year-old has a limited no-trade clause in his contract; the Hawks have a list of eight teams they can ship Bickell without his permission. If they strike a deal with a team not on the list, they must clear it with Bickell first.
Perhaps helping pave the way in trades involving Sharp and Bickell has been their success with the Hawks in recent seasons. Between them, they have won five Cups, including Sharp's three.
"Some teams are looking for players to step in and help (them) immediately take that next step as an organization, others are rebuilding and others are looking for experience and winning," Bowman said. "We've had a lot of players who have been around a winning environment ... (and) people understand it's nice to bring in players who have been part of (that). There are still a lot more discussions I'm sure we'll have, but things are going along well."
As far as Saad and Kruger, Bowman would not reveal the status of talks with either player but did reiterate the Hawks want them back.
"My comments from right after the season are true — we like both players, we want to bring them back," Bowman said.