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


The Chicago Blackhawks’ hockey operations department has been talking a lot about the Duncan Keith trade before moving him to the Edmonton Oilers.

There were talks about whether he would waive his no-move clause, what his overall value might be to another team, how much of his cap they might have to keep and more. What the Blackhawks haven’t said much about is the possibility of Keith retiring before his contract expires.

The organization thought Keith loved hockey too much to retire. In fact, the veteran defender had said that once this contract is over, he might want to sign another one.

So when the Oilers acquired Keith last July, it was in hopes that he would also fulfill the final two years of his 13-year contract.

It may still be true. Keith last week looked like a 38-year-old who had been invigorated by a long playoff streak and was growing closer to his son, Colton, who has been able to visit Edmonton several times this season. Unlike 40-year-old goalkeeper Mike Smith, Keith didn’t seem like someone who planned to hang up his skates any time soon, especially not until his current contract expired after next season.

The Oilers want to know for sure, though. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman was the first to report that the Oilers had asked Keith and Smith to let them know around July 1 if they planned to play next season. This gives them some time to plan ahead of the draft and the start of free agency.

The Oilers value Keith’s Hall of Fame credentials and his leadership traits, especially the way he mentored young defenseman Evan Bouchard. They also appreciate his skills on the ice. No one is forcing him out. This conversation will not come either.

“I’m not asking anyone to retire,” Oilers general manager Ken Holland said Athleticism.

So, it’s entirely up to the defender whether he wants to play out his 39-year-old season and complete his long contract. All signs point to Keith’s return.

But what if he doesn’t? The Oilers and Blackhawks are no doubt preparing for this just in case.

The million dollar question, or in this case, the multi-million dollar question is how much the Blackhawks and/or Oilers might owe if he retired. Let’s start by dispelling the notion that the Oilers could receive a $3.4 million cap credit if Keith retires.

“No, there is no ‘cap credit’ concept for current teams that may lose a retired player,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email Tuesday.

The NHL’s CBA wording can be complicated, and that’s where the gap seems to be with whether a team in the Oilers’ position could receive additional cap space. There are mentions of “cap advantage” in the ACA, but these refer to a team benefiting from the way the contract has been structured. The Oilers were told at the time of Keith’s acquisition that they would only get Keith’s cap and at no time would they receive additional cap credit if the defenseman retired.

The upside to them if Keith stopped playing would be that they would be released from his full cap — $5,538,462 — and have no cap recovery penalties next season or in future years. They also reportedly only paid $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 second pair, killed penalties and got time on the second power-play unit in the second half of the season. Although he struggled to defend against the rush – something that came to a head on the Colorado series – he played his roles admirably throughout the season. Keith finished the regular season with a 52 Corsi percentage and a 57.8 (52-38) five-for-five goal share.

However, a $5.5 million cap 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 just 15 players, per PuckPedia, though one is LTIR-bound defenseman Oscar Klefbom.

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

There’s not a lot of money available to maintain, let alone improve, a team that has reached the conference finals. Keith’s cap trick would be helpful.

As for the Blackhawks, Keith’s retirement would be totally unwelcome. They would be liable for a clawback penalty for the cap space they saved in the first 11 years of Keith’s contract. They are expected $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 drop would have crippled the Blackhawks and their roster plans. Now it’s a little more manageable because they’re rebuilding and GM Kyle Davidson was already planning to spend below the cap for the next few years. Having to repay such a large sum for the 2022-23 season would limit his ability to accept contracts in exchange for prospects or draft picks.

The NHL is running out of contracts like Keith’s. The league began limiting contract extensions to a maximum of eight years during the last CBA. Only five longer contracts remain. They were signed before the entry into force of the 2013 agreement.

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

(Photo: Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today)

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