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Blackhawks facing some tough choices as free agency opens

Updated: August 2, 2014 6:21AM



In a perfect world, at 11:01 a.m. Tuesday, the Blackhawks would sign Paul Stastny to a long-term contract worth about $7 million per season. Then they’d turn around and sign Mikhail Grabovski, too. Then, heck, why not throw in Olli Jokinen? That would put an end to that whole center concern.

OK, so maybe that’s only a perfect world in Chicago, where the pockets are deep and the Hawks are a coveted destination. In the real world of the NHL, the hard salary cap prohibits the big-money teams from snatching up all the best free agents. If the Hawks want to be players as free agency opens Tuesday, they’ll have to be much craftier than that.

‘‘It’s a puzzle to put together and try to make all the numbers work,’’ general manager Stan Bowman said. ‘‘You’re going to have some tough decisions. We’ll deal with it and move ahead.’’

The question is, how? As it stands, the Hawks are about $710,000 below the $69 million salary cap and have 21 players under contract. That doesn’t include Teuvo Teravainen, Stephen Johns, Adam Clendening or any other young players who might make a push for a roster spot out of training camp.

So the Hawks have to decide if they’re going to shed a little salary and try to improve from within or dump a lot of salary and try to improve from without.

‘‘We’ve got some ideas,’’ the ever-cryptic Bowman said. ‘‘At this point, nothing concrete. We have several different possibilities that we’re going to pursue. . . . They’re not all going to happen, but we’ll see where it goes.’’

The free-agent pool isn’t a great one. There are a few top players (Stastny, Thomas Vanek, Jarome Iginla), a couple of solid defensemen (Matt Niskanen and Christian Ehrhoff) and some intriguing goalies (Martin Brodeur, Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller). The rest are largely role players, which might be all the Hawks need to plug the few gaps in their lineup.

Maybe 39-year-old Saku Koivu can hold down the fort at second-line center until Teravainen is ready. Or maybe 34-year-old Brad Richards will take a cheap one-year deal to chase another championship and try to redeem himself after stumbling and being bought out by the New York Rangers.

The idea of trading for Ryan Kesler or Jason Spezza was tantalizing but ultimately infeasible.

‘‘I think there are a lot of teams in a situation where you have players you could make deals for, but you have to make the money work,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘We’re probably no different than most teams in that regard.’’

Where the Hawks are different is in 2015-16, when the imminent contract extensions for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane kick in. The two are expected to get matching contracts that will make them the highest-paid players in the league.

The salary cap is expected to go way up next summer, thanks to the NHL’s massive new Canadian TV deal, but Bowman still has to plan for a combined cap hit of between $20 million and $22 million in 2015-16, which will factor in to any decision the Hawks make in the next few weeks.

Bowman said he had no qualms about paying his two biggest stars what the market demands, no matter the effect it has on his payroll.

‘‘I look at it as an incredible thing,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ve got these two great players who are going to be in Chicago. Regardless of what the number is, there are 29 other teams that would be happy to be in our spot.’’

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MarkLazerus



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