Stan Bowman can't seem to go anywhere these days without being asked about the Blackhawks' cap conundrum.
And spending a couple days in a downtown hotel at a convention filled with rabid Hawks fans is hardly the place to get away from such questions.
But it's not like Bowman hasn't been through the process before.
Back in the summer of 2010, a lack of planning left the Stanley Cup champs searching for a way to subtract $18 million from the roster and still compete the following season.
The result was the Hawks barely made the playoffs, backing into the final postseason spot on the last day of the regular season, followed by an opening-round defeat at the hands of Vancouver in overtime of the seventh game.
The Hawks had poured so much into so few that there was precious little cap space left to make a legitimate attempt at repeating.
In 2012, there was yet another opening-round defeat, this time to Phoenix, a series in which the Hawks couldn't handle the Coyotes' physical play or the brilliance of goaltender Mike Smith. The Hawks lost in six games, the first five going to overtime.
With time to rebuild and grow, the Hawks had enough young players contributing to the core as they won again in 2013, and came within a bounce of repeating in 2014.
Now, the Hawks are a million or two over the cap for next season, with names like Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya being shopped as the Hawks try to manage the situation and remain a major threat to win again in a Western Conference that has only gotten better since the end of the season.
Anaheim, St. Louis, Minnesota and Dallas all improved, while the Hawks are looking to subtract again.
It's crucial that they get contributions from young players joining the lineup next season if they're to survive in the West and make another run at the Stanley Cup, and there are several -- like Teuvo Teravainen, Jeremy Morin, Klas Dahlbeck and Adam Clendening -- ready to make the jump to the NHL and become an important part of the team.
Still, the Hawks have to get under the cap and continue planning for the future, and 2014-15 is the least of their problems. One deal and the Hawks are under the cap. If it's the right deal, they will even have some room to improve at the trade deadline.
"We certainly have to be ready to go by October," Bowman said at the Chicago Hilton and Towers as the convention kicked off. "A lot of things change between now and then. You have to display some patience."
That is not a virtue frequently displayed by the faithful, who have horrible memories of the summer of 2010 when the Hawks sliced half a roster off a Cup-winning squad.
"Like I said all along, we have some ideas of what we're going to do," Bowman said. "A lot of things happen once camps open, both for us and for other teams, in terms of players maybe you expect to meet expectations that don't quite do it.
"Certain teams (start) looking around trying to find players. I always think you're in a good position when you have a lot of established players. I think that's better than the other way around."
The real test is for 2015-16 and beyond, and this is something the Hawks have been talking about for a couple years already. They didn't just wake up and realize Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews needed new contracts.
The good news is they have several elite NHL players. The bad news is those players eat up a majority of the cap. And while that can be maddening for fans, it's a much better situation than having a dearth of great players and paying mediocrity to reach the cap floor and miss the playoffs.
So as they look ahead, let's assume for optimistic purposes that the cap goes up $10 million next summer, which some NHL types believe is a real possibility. Most, however, think it will jump another $7 million.
Either way, the Hawks will have no choice but to make some tough and unpopular decisions going forward.
With a cap of perhaps $76 million in 2015-16, the Hawks are at $66 million with 15 players signed, and that doesn't include restricted free agents Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger and Nick Leddy next summer, not to mention unrestricted free agents Brad Richards, Michal Rozsival and Oduya.
Brent Seabrook will be unrestricted the following year -- in the summer of 2016 -- so the process never stops, the planning is constant, and the search for ways to move players and still improve is unrelenting.
It's the cost of doing business in the NHL, where having extraordinary players is an expensive proposition.
In that regard, there are far worse problems to have.
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