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How the Blackhawks benefit from burning entry-level contract years

Lukas Reichel

Lukas Reichel won’t have much leverage in contract negotiations with the Blackhawks this summer.

Ashley Landis/AP Photos

Lukas Reichel will receive another contract from the Blackhawks this summer, but it won't be a sizable one.

The biggest reason why the young German forward won't receive much of a raise over the $925,000 salary-cap hit carried by his now-expiring entry-level contract (per CapFriendly) is his disappointing play this season, and the Hawks are by no means pleased about that.

They would've much preferred it if he enjoyed the NHL breakout he expected this season, and they would've happily paid him appropriately for doing so.

Nevertheless, the fact Reichel's second contract will be so cheap represents one early indication that Hawks general manager Kyle Davidson's unconventional approach to handling entry-level contracts might work out smartly.

Back in 2021-22, Reichel's first year in North America, he mostly played in the AHL — averaging a point per game in 56 appearances with Rockford — but he also had three brief NHL call-ups. In April, during the final call-up, the Hawks kept him around long enough to finish the season with 11 NHL games played, burning the first of three years on his entry-level contract.

Had Reichel played fewer than 10 games, the year wouldn't have been burned and his entry-level contract would've slid a year. In that case, it would've ended not in 2024 but in 2025 — after next season.

"Once we’re looking at really spending to that cap and utilizing every dollar, he’s probably going to be in a different contract anyway, out of his entry level," Davidson said in April 2022.

That year-burning technique has been a pattern during Davidson's tenure. Instead of maximizing the number of years a player is on his entry-level deal and making less than $1 million, as most franchises have historically done, the Hawks prefer accelerating entry-level deals.

That means players have less experience and NHL production entering negotiations for their second contract, making those second contracts more affordable.

Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson.

Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson has a unique approach to entry-level contracts.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Hawks do that because, at the moment, they're not spending anywhere near the cap and not trying to be particularly efficient with cap space — because they're rebuilding and not trying to contend. In a few years, when they are trying to contend and need to be more creative with cap management, every dollar saved will matter.

In other words, they're willing to pay an extra dollar now to save a dollar later. They would rather pay someone, for example, $3 million in 2024-25 and $3 million in 2026-27 than pay someone $1 million in 2024-25 but $5 million in 2026-27.

In Reichel's case, if he receives just a one-year contract this summer — and he was so bad this season that does seem possible — this scenario won't end up mattering, because that would make him a restricted free agent again next summer.

Conversely, if the Hawks ink him to a two- or three-year contract this summer and then he finally finds his rhythm in the NHL next season, he'll miss out on the corresponding payday — a payday he would've gotten if his entry-level contract had slid. He'll be locked into another year or two at an extremely affordable cap hit, even though his market value would be substantially higher by that point in this hypothetical scenario.

How would things be different if the Hawks had slid his contract? To answer that question, examine the four notable rookies around the league — Ducks forward Mason McTavish, Blues forward Jake Neighbours, Sharks forward William Eklund and Devils forward Alexander Holtz — who were limited to exactly nine NHL games in 2021-22, ensuring their entry-level contracts did slide.

Holtz especially has followed a similar trajectory to Reichel since then, recording four points in 19 NHL games in 2022-23 and 28 points in 82 NHL games in 2023-24. If the former seventh overall pick enjoys a breakout next season, which seems plausible, he'll be a lot more expensive for the Devils to re-sign than he would be if his entry-level contract expired now.

Neighbours, who tallied 10 points in a half-season in 2022-23 and 38 points in a full season in 2023-24, could also make his second contract a lot pricier with a breakout 2024-25 season.

(Eklund, whose entry-level contract was slid again by the Sharks in 2022-23 and who recorded 45 points in 80 games as a rookie in 2023-24, and McTavish, a well-established top-six forward whose production plateaued at 43 and 42 points the last two seasons, are less comparable.)

Frank Nazar

Frank Nazar played the last three games of the season and is now a year into his contract.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Although Reichel is technically the only slide candidate the Hawks have handled this way under Davidson, they've functionally made similar decisions with Alex Vlasic, Wyatt Kaiser, Landon Slaggert and Frank Nazar coming out of college.

All four of those guys were signed in spring 2022, 2023 or 2024 to entry-level contracts that began immediately, burning their first contract years on the last month or so of the ongoing season. Vlasic played 15 games in spring 2022; Kaiser played nine games in spring 2023; Slaggert played 16 games and Nazar played three games this spring.

Those decisions will get all of them to their second contracts faster, following the same thought process the Hawks used with Reichel.

In Vlasic's case, one full NHL season turned out to be all he needed to prove his worth, but both he and the Hawks can feel satisfied about the six-year contract with a $4.6 million cap hit that he just signed. That's a hefty payday for him, for sure, but also a reasonable long-term rate for someone who looks like a budding franchise cornerstone.

After all, if his entry-level contract had another year left and he repeated his 2023-24 excellence in 2024-25, solidifying his status as an elite shutdown defenseman while also adding more sneaky offensive contributions (something his puck-moving skills make plausible), his second contract would've cost the Hawks even more.

Davidson might have another, similar decision to make next season with whomever the Hawks draft on this summer. Projected No. 1 pick Macklin Celebrini is the only 2024 prospect expected to be a full-time NHL player next season, but there would still be viable ways to burn a year if the Hawks landed someone like Artyom Levshunov, Cayden Lindstrom or Cole Eiserman instead.

As time goes on and the team slowly moves closer to contention, it will be interesting to see if Davidson's approach to handling entry-level contracts evolves.

Notes: The NHL draft lottery will be held Tuesday night. The Hawks enter it with a 13.5% chance of winning the No. 1 pick, a 14.1% chance of sticking with the No. 2 pick, a 30.7% chance of dropping to the No. 3 pick and a 41.7% chance of dropping to the No. 4 pick, which is as far as they can fall.

Meanwhile, the Lightning's first-round playoff loss to the Panthers ensured their first-round pick, which the Hawks own, will be either No. 19 or 20 overall.

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