What it means for Blackhawks, Oilers' cap situations if Duncan Keith retires

What it means for Blackhawks, Oilers’ cap situations if Duncan Keith retires

The Chicago Blackhawks hockey operations department talked a lot about trading Duncan Keith before moving him to the Edmonton Oilers.

There were discussions about whether he’d waive his no-movement clause, what his overall value might be to another team, how much of his cap hit they might have to retain and more. What the Blackhawks didn’t converse much about was the possibility of Keith retiring before his contract expired.

The organization thought Keith loved hockey too much to retire. In fact, the veteran defenseman had said when he was done with that contract, he might want to sign another one.

So when the Oilers acquired Keith last July, it was with the expectation of him fulfilling the final two years of his 13-year contract, too.

That may still be true. Keith sounded last week like a 38-year-old who had been invigorated by a long playoff run and being closer to his son, Colton, who was able to visit Edmonton several times this season. Unlike 40-year-old goaltender Mike Smith, Keith didn’t seem like someone who plans to hang up his skates soon, especially not before his current contract ends after next season.

The Oilers want to know for sure, though. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was the first to report the Oilers have asked Keith and Smith to let them know around July 1 whether they plan to play next season. That gives them a little time to plan ahead of the draft and the start of free agency.

The Oilers appreciate Keith’s Hall of Fame credentials and his leadership traits, particularly the way he mentored young blueliner Evan Bouchard. They value his on-ice skills, too. No one is forcing him out the door. That conversation won’t be coming either.

“I don’t ask anyone to retire,” Oilers GM Ken Holland told The Athletic.

So, it’s completely the defenseman’s choice whether he wants to play his age-39 season and finish out his lengthy deal. All signs point to Keith returning.

But what if he doesn’t? The Oilers and Blackhawks are undoubtedly preparing for that just in case.

The million-dollar question, or in this case, the multimillion-dollar question is how much could the Blackhawks and/or Oilers owe if he retired. Let’s begin by dispelling the idea the Oilers could be given a $3.4 million cap credit if Keith retired.

“No, there is no concept of a ‘cap credit’ for current teams that may lose a player to retirement,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email Tuesday.

The NHL’s CBA wording can be complicated, and that’s where the discrepancy seems to be with whether a team in the Oilers’ position might receive additional cap space. There are mentions of “cap advantage” in the CBA, but those are referring to a team benefiting from how the contract was structured. The Oilers were told at the time of acquiring Keith that they would gain only Keith’s cap hit and not receive an additional cap credit at any point if the blueliner retired.

The upside for them if Keith stopped playing would be that they’d be free of his complete cap hit — $5,538,462 — and have zero cap recapture penalty next season or in the coming years. They also would have paid just $2.1 million in salary for a player they valued much more. Next season his salary drops to $1.5 million.

The Oilers brass thinks highly of Keith, who played mostly on the second pairing, killed penalties and got time on the second power-play unit in the back half of the season. Though he had his troubles defending off the rush — something that came to a head in the Colorado series — he performed admirably in his roles throughout the season. Keith finished the regular season with a 52 Corsi for percentage and a 57.8 goal share (52-38) at five-on-five.

However, a $5.5 million cap hit is a big ticket for Keith at this point in his career. Having that money to spend elsewhere could surely help the Oilers, especially given their cap constraints. The Oilers have $8 million in cap space with commitments to only 15 players, per PuckPedia, although one is LTIR-pegged defenseman Oscar Klefbom.

They’re interested in re-signing pending UFAs Evander Kane and Brett Kulak. They might need a new starting goalie depending on Smith’s status. They also have three RFA forwards in Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, and Ryan McLeod that need new contracts or must be replaced. The former two wingers will cost the most if they’re retained. Puljujarvi and Yamamoto are expected to get salaries of roughly $3 million on short-term deals.

There isn’t much money available to maintain, let alone improve on, a team that reached the conference final. Keith’s cap hit would come in handy.

As for the Blackhawks, Keith’s retirement would be entirely unwelcome. They would be on the hook for a recapture penalty for the cap space they saved during the first 11 years of Keith’s contract. They would owe $7,476,918 over the next two seasons. They would have $5,538,462 deducted from their cap space for the 2022-23 season and $1,938,456 for the 2023-24 season.

In the past, especially during their Stanley Cup runs, such an unexpected cap decrease would have crippled the Blackhawks and their roster plans. Now, it’s a bit more manageable because they’re in a rebuild and general manager Kyle Davidson was already planning to spend under the cap for the next few years. Having to repay such a large sum for the 2022-23 season would limit his ability to take on any contracts in exchange for prospects or draft picks.

The NHL is starting to run out of contracts like Keith’s. The league began limiting contract extensions to a maximum of eight years in the last CBA. There are only five contracts remaining that are longer. They were signed before the 2013 agreement came into effect.

Sidney Crosby has three years remaining on his 12-year deal. Shea Weber has four years left on a 14-year deal. Jonathan Quick and Jordan Staal each have one year remaining on 10-year contracts.

(Picture: Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today)

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