By Thomas Gibbons
The NHL draft and free agency to quickly follow will be here before you know it. It’s an exciting time for every NHL fan to see their future and their present day moves. Last season, the Blackhawks did not have the best free agent class which included Chris Kunitz, Brandon Manning, and Cam Ward. Kunitz appeared in 56 games and was minimally effective. Manning was eventually benched and shipped off to Edmonton. Ward played well and maybe better than expected. But this was not the free agent class fans or media were expecting given the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons. Stan Bowman decided to stick the course and rolled the dice hoping Corey Crawford would bring them back to the postseason. It did not work as Joel Quenneville was fired, Crawford ended back on injured reserve last season with another concussion, and the Blackhawks could not pull it together to earn a wild card spot.
Brighter days are ahead though. Bowman has over $20 million in cap space this summer and the opportunity to create more. This is a position the Blackhawks have not been in for quite some time. It’s a big opportunity for the Blackhawks to advance their re-tool and sign young players who will be apart of their young core.
Let’s dig into the latest on the Blackhawks and their possible free agent targets.
According to Elliotte Frideman of Sportsnet, the Blackhawks are showing interest in Kevin Hayes.
From Frideman’s latest 31 thoughts post: “Word from the Worlds is there’s a lot of due diligence being done on Kevin Hayes. Colorado, Philadelphia and, most interestingly, Chicago among them.”
We know the Blackhawks originally drafted Hayes in 2010 but he signed with the New York Rangers in 2014. There is no clear cut reason why Hayes did not sign with the Blackhawks. It could have been contract numbers, a guaranteed roster spot, or how they dealt with his brother Jimmy Hayes. But the Blackhawks being interested him is not a huge surprise. They need help at center and his price range is affordable. Currently, Evolve Hockey projects Hayes at 5.87M annually. His contract could be a mirror image of what Brock Nelson got from the Islanders, 6 years at $6 M AAV. They are just one year apart in age and their stats are relatively similar, especially last season.
Center is an obvious need for the Blackhawks, hence the continued focus on drafting one in a few weeks. But if the Blackhawks decide to go a different route, like defensemen Bowen Byram, their need for a center will be even greater. And Hayes fits their roster makeup and their cap.
There is a lot to like about Hayes. First, he is coming off his best season in the league, tallying 55 points in the regular season between the New York Rangers and the Winnipeg Jets. His face-off percentage improved, 50.1 and was just short of his career high. His Corsi is not the greatest, 48% over five seasons, but there is a lot more to look at in his game. He would be the third line center the Blackhawks need. Artem Anisimov has been a trade candidate from some time now and I would expect the Blackhawks to do their due diligence on moving the veteran. Having Hayes bolsters the Blackhawks up the middle and having him play along with Brandon Saad, Drake Caggiula, and even Dominik Kubalik would be a very nice third line.
A lot more rumors and moves will kick in once the Stanley Cup Final finishes but Hayes, along with Ryan Dzingel, are certainly names to keep an eye on.
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner is a restricted free agent and negotiations are currently non-existent.
“The two sides have had exchanges, but I’m not talking about contract offers or negotiations, just back and forths,” said TSN hockey insider Darren Dreger during Leafs Lunch on TSN 1050. “I’d be surprised if the agent, Darren Ferris, doesn’t connect with (Leafs general manager) Kyle Dubas and the Leafs management crew in Buffalo this week during the (NHL Scouting) Combine, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up on that.”
Mitch Marner put up 96 points this past season, 26 goals and 68 assists. Unreal numbers for a 22 year-old. His play with John Tavares was remarkable. But there is one problem. The Maple Leafs are in a bit of a cap crunch. Tavares and Matthews are on the books until 2024 and making $11 million a year. Patrick Marleau is making $6.25 M next season at 39 years old and they resigned William Nylander last season. They are going to have to get creative if they want to keep Matthews, Tavares, Nylander, and Marner together.
This is where the Blackhawks come in. If Marner and the Maple Leafs do not advance in talks then he will have no choice than to do a free agent tour. His demands are those of elite players, $11 million a season. Is he worth that? You can make the case. And while long term deals like that hurt the overall cap, you cannot deny adding a talent like him and the impact he could have.
The Blackhawks chances of bringing back Artemi Panarin decreased with Quenneville getting the job in Florida. There is no doubt they will be chasing the big names on the market. Marner is the next best thing and the Blackhawks would be foolish not to get involved on a 22 year-old star.