Photo Credit: Hockey’s Future

It is late December, and the Chicago Blackhawks are once again a force to be reckoned with. The team sits atop the Western Conference.

Once again, the Blackhawks are filling out much of their roster with entry-level contracts and bargain signings the club hopes can continue to give the team bang for their buck in the form of veteran defenseman Brian Campbell, Gustav Forsling, Trevor van Riemsdyk and young forwards Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza.

Today comes word of the Blackhawks locking up star winger Artemi Panarin to an extension.

This is a savvy move by general manager Stan Bowman. Panarin is one of the most dynamic young forwards in the game. He has avoided a sophomore slump in his second season since departing the KHL for Chicago, continuing a torrent scoring pace that landed him the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year last season. This bridge deal gives a salary cap-strapped team such as the Blackhawks a hometown discount. Panarin could easily fetch $7-8 million per season on the open market for far more than the two-year bridge deal that keeps him in Chicago.

Cap struggles are far too familiar for Blackhawks fans. The Blackhawks have spent to the cap ceiling since the 2010 season, their first of three Stanley Cups in the last seven years. A playoff roster could essentially be assembled from departed players – or “cap casualties” – that include Dustin Byfuglien, Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Andrew Ladd, Nick Leddy, and others.

If one dissects the roster, it is easy to see a team loaded with elite talent, and it’s complete understandable. The team has Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Corey Crawford on one club. However, this top-end talent is mostly a product of draft-and-develop and using disposable assets to make separate moves. The Blackhawks can’t use free agency as a tool to get themselves better because of how frequently they must internally reward talent.

Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Crawford were draft choices. Panarin was an undrafted, free-agent signing out of Russia. The team acquired Anisimov by trading former second-round pick Brandon Saad to Columbus in exchange for the Russian power forward. Saad was part of two Stanley Cups for the Blackhawks in 2013 and 2015, played on the team’s first line in their 2015 run with Toews and Hossa, and is recognized as one of the game’s most talented young stars, serving as a forward on Team North America’s under-23 World Cup of Hockey roster. He now has a cozy and lucrative long-term contract for red hot Columbus. Hossa and Campbell (now in his second stint) were given lucrative contracts before the 2009 and 2010 seasons in unrestricted free agency, respectively.

The home-grown depth doesn’t stop with their top-end talent. Key depth pieces such as Hartman, Forsling, van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger, and others were a by-product of using internal assets and drafting to the best of their abilities.

The NHL’s salary cap has been stricken by the drop in value of the Canadian dollar due to the price of oil. With the expansion draft looming this summer with the Vegas Golden Knights franchise beginning play in 2017-18 and a stagnating salary cap, it badly hurts teams such as the Blackhawks who are great at developing talent. The expansion draft will probably cause cap-strapped Chicago to lose a young, affordable player to the desert and force the team to look inside for answers to solve another hole.

Chicago is an Original Six franchise with the best attendance in the NHL since the beginning of the 2008-09 season. Even with that said and Panarin in the fold for the next two seasons at a bargain of $6 million, every dollar hurts cap ceiling teams that seem to have an endless supply of money because of the state of the salary cap.

The Blackhawks – like it or not – are going to be punished again for recognizing talent, properly developing the player, and rewarding a player’s success. At the very least, Kruger is a strong possibility to leave the club. He serves a key depth role for the Blackhawks by matching up with top lines of opponents and serving on the penalty kill. The Swede has been part of the last two Cup runs on the team playing this integral role. A $3 million-plus cap hit for a role player with limited offensive capabilities is a luxury Chicago can no longer afford in this day and age of hockey.

However, the Blackhawks will have to look internally (again) to fill the void of cap casualties. It is a vicious cycle, my friends, and it makes the Blackhawks’ unprecedented run in the salary cap era of hockey all the more impressive.