By Thomas Gibbons
Welcome to the Blackhawks offseason.
Too soon right? You are correct. The Blackhawks should be playing on Wednesday or Thursday. The NHL playoffs are some of the best weeks of the year along with March Madness, MLB Opening week, and the start of the NFL season.
But the Blackhawks have cleaned out their lockers on the final day of the season for a second straight season. Going home, empty-handed. Again.
Stan Bowman has a lot of work to do this summer in getting this team back to where it should be with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. A chance to hoist Lord Stanley for the fourth time with two of the best players to ever put on a Blackhawks sweater. It may be his last chance to build a squad that can go all the way before Kane, Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Corey Crawford become just average NHL players. Age does catch up to these athletes even with the hours and hours of training these guys do believe it or not. It’s a day no one wants to think about but it will happen.
This is not an ultimatum. This is not some wacky prediction. It’s the truth. Blackhawk fans have seen some of the best hockey in the NHL these past nine years and do not want it to end. The Blackhawks have the resources. The Blackhawks have the talent. The Blackhawks have cap space to retool and take this team to the top once again.
There are several questions that will need to be addressed this offseason before the Blackhawks open camp at the MB Ice Arena in September. Players will be shipped out, tough decisions will be made, and hopefully, star talent will be added to the roster. Let’s get into it.
The Blackhawks have an ample amount of cap space. What are they going to do with it?
Cap space is something the Blackhawks have not been blessed with in a very long time. At least this much. According to Scott Powers of the Athletic, he predicts the Blackhawks to have about $16 million in cap space before any trades or decisions on restricted free agents. That is plenty for a top six forward, like Artemi Panarin, and some more help on defense. Let’s look at the top free agents.
Forwards: Panarin, Ryan Dzingel, Matt Duchene, Matts Zuccarello, Jordan Eberle, Jeff Skinner, Kevin Hayes
Lot of star power on that list. Each one of these guys, from day 1, will be a major impact on any squad. They are goal-scorers and playmakers. But who should the Blackhawks be targeting?
Panarin and Dzingel should be at the top of the list. To start, we know what Panarin is. He’s extremely talented with a knack to sound the goal horn. He was set up to be Patrick Kane’s line mate for years to come.
Panarin scored 61 goals in two seasons with the Blackhawks, not to mention the countless assists to Kane. It was destiny. Whenever those two were on the ice, you knew because Chelsea Dagger was blaring through the United Center speakers. Then, the news hit two summers ago that Panarin was being shipped out of town.
Panarin was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Brandon Saad in a blockbuster deal. The Blackhawks were tight on money as it was and were not determined to give Panarin a record breaking deal. So they brought back Saad, a two way forward locked up through 2021 with a much cheaper cap hit than what they would have spent on Panarin.
At first, the trade news was devastating. A budding superstar right before our eyes would not remain with the Blackhawks. Was the trade good financially? Sure. It gave the Blackhawks cap flexibility and brought back one of their own guys who helped capture a Stanley Cup. Not to mention Saad’s success with Jonathan Toews. But to trade one of the top goal scorers in the league was destructive to the chemistry the Blackhawks had going for them.
All this and more is the reason to run after Panarin. You now have the money to give him $11 million plus a season and other pieces in place already where it will not hurt your entire roster. A top six consisting of Toews, Kane, Panarin, Saad, DeBrincat, and Strome is very dangerous on paper. There will be other bidders for Panarin unquestionably. But the Blackhawks are in a prime position to get back one of their own and have the leverage of reuniting with Kane and a big market city in Chicago to do it.
Onto Dzingel. First, he is a homegrown kid. From Wheaton, IL, there are always aspirations to play for your hometown team. This could be on the Blackhawks side. Or it may not. The Columbus Blue Jackets have already said that Dzingel is strictly a rental for them. And at 27, he is in the prime of his career and will do a free agent tour.
It took a bit of time for Dzingel to adjust to the NHL, only 17 goals in his first 111 games in the NHL, but has since been a proven goal scorer. He’s scored more than 20 goals each of his last three seasons and would be a perfect fit with the Blackhawks.
First, like Panarin, both are young, 27, and ready to enter the heart of their careers. One thing the Blackhawks are doing during their retooling is an attempt to get younger and let experience mold players. Dzingel is molded. He is ready to be on a winning team and be a top 3 forward for the next 5-6 years. Second, his price would be slightly lower than Panarin. It’s hard to say but I do not see him getting anywhere close to Panarin money based on total production. Dzingel is a goal scorer but not the passer like Panarin. He’ll get a nice deal no question but nothing close to other free agent counter-parts. That is why Dzingel would make even more sense. A cheaper player with the ability to soar past expectations.
As for the others listed, Skinner and Hayes are names that get you off the edge of your seat. The Sabers are going to do everything they can to keep Skinner for they did no trade for him a year ago. He’s going to be apart of their core along with Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Rasmus Dahlin, and Rasmus Ristolainen as long as they can keep him. I do not think the Sabers let him out of their reach. If they did, sure the Blackhawks can set up a meeting and I’d love to have him in a Blackhawks jersey. But he is a pipe dream at this point.
Hayes is not a pipe dream. If you are good on your Blackhawks draft trivia, Hayes was the Blackhawks first round pick back in 2010. But the sides never agreed to a deal, making him a free agent in August of 2014. He signed with the New York Rangers and his career has been average. But this is another young guy, 26, who fits the timeline and will be entering free agency with this season being his best since entering the league at 22. Between New York and Winnipeg this season, he has put up 54 points to date, 19 goals and 35 assists. He would be a great third line center on this Blackhawks team and his price is not as high as you may think.
It was reported last summer that Hayes was seeking a long term deal with an annual salary between $5.5 million and $6 according to the New York Post. With a career season, the price will likely rise. And if he were to be a third line center on the Blackhawks, going over this initial price is not smart. Hayes would be a great addition to the Blackhawks. And clearing more cap space say by trading Atrem Anisimov gives the Blackhawks even more flexibility to sign more players on their wish list.
$5.5 million would be my annual salary offer for Hayes and with Stan Bowman stating the Blackhawks will be more active this summer in years past, Hayes could be linked to Chicago.
Transitioning to defensemen. The Blackhawks are tied up with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook until the end of the 2023 season, then Keith is a free agent and Seabrook has one more year left. Outside of them, Connor Murphy is the longest tenured defensemen, under contract until 2022. But the Blackhawks cannot be big spenders like they could be on forwards.
The Blackhawks have done extensive work on young defensemen and have quite a bit of them in the system. Henri Jokiharju, Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell, Dennis Gilbert, and Nicolas Beaudin to name a few. Jokiharju should be full time in the NHL next season. As for the others, there time will be soon and the Blackhawks are not going to lock themselves into long term deals with veteran defensemen with players they believe are the future.
This is where it gets tough. Next season, the Blackhawks have Keith, Seabrook, Murphy, Erik Gustafsson, and Carl Dalhstrom on the books for next season. Add in Jokiharju and you have basically the same group as this season. But defense was the Blackhawks biggest problem and bringing back the same group would not be the answer, right? It’s true. The Blackhawks are in a tight spot because of Keith and Seabrook’s deal and the only way to improve this group is through a trade.
The Blackhawks spoke with the Carolina Hurricanes last summer about Justin Faulk but the report was they wanted Saad and Bowman closed the door. Trading for a young, effective, cost controlled defensemen is going to cost you and the Blackhawks should not be giving up their young talent especially with all the blue line prospects they have in the system. The hope is the group gets better in Colliton’s system and Jokiharju emerges as a top four defensemen. So do not look for the Blackhawks to break the bank on a defensemen, but maybe they bring in someone in on a short term basis because they do need help.
Part two of this series: Examining the current roster. Who’s safe? Who’s not? Any extensions being handed out? And how does that effect the cap space? Look for it on Windy City Chronicle.