Free agency is now just a little more than a month away and many teams are already looking ahead to when it opens up. There will be several prominent players set to hit the open market in late July while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign as well. The Chicago Blackhawks are one of those teams with numerous RFA’s of note, but fortunately few UFA’s to concern themselves with.
Key Restricted Free Agents
F Brandon Hagel – Oftentimes when late-round draft picks produce big numbers later in their junior careers, it is more of a function of experience and maturity than an indicator of NHL ability. It seemed that way with Hagel, who recorded 102 points in his final season in the WHL, but played just one game with the Blackhawks in his first pro season in 2019-20. It doesn’t look that way anymore. Hagel recorded 24 points in 52 games with Chicago as a rookie this year, finishing fifth on the team in scoring. The 22-year-old earned increasingly more ice time and special teams responsibilities as he never slowed down. Hagel looks a like a two-way forward with 20-goal and 40-point upside and that is after only one year. Chicago would be smart to lock him into a multi-year extension before his stock can rise any higher.
F Pius Suter – Another European import, another home run. Just a year after Dominik Kubalik earned Calder Trophy votes as a 24-year-old in his first season in North America, Suter made a major impact in his debut as well. He may not be the same caliber of player as Kubalik, but with 14 goals and 27 points in 55 games he is assuredly an NHL caliber player. The Blackhawks need the depth at center too, where Suter was able to line up without issue. He may have been new to the league, but Suter did not play like a rookie, logging big minutes and finishing fourth in scoring. Chicago has nailed another free agency addition and won’t let this one season be the end of it. However, Suter’s age and arbitration rights give him far more leverage in negotiations than Hagel, a 10.2(c) limited RFA.
D Nikita Zadorov – Unlike Hagel and Suter, Zadorov is not an easy extension. He has a long, up-and-down history, failed to meet expectations in his first season in Chicago, and comes at a much higher price tag. He is also eligible for salary arbitration and has the NHL experience to make it a complicated case. Do the Blackhawks offer Zadorov a qualifying offer? Do they protect him in the Expansion Draft? Do they comply with an arbitration decision? These are all difficult questions when it comes to a player that is hard to peg. Zadorov has considerable experience, great size and checking ability, and plays the position competently enough to eat minutes. However, he also contributes little offensively, is a turnover liability, and is seemingly in decline already at 26. There is no easy answer when it comes to Zadorov, especially in light of the team’s salary cap issues, but Chicago likely will not want to lose him for nothing. By adding Riley Stillman this season, they do have a fallback plan if Zadorov departs, but they would likely prefer that to be on their own terms via trade. If the Blackhawks go through the effort to protect Zadorov from expansion and to negotiate a new contract, they need to be prepared to keep him if a suitable trade offer does not appear.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents
F Vinnie Hinostroza – It didn’t work out in Florida for Hinostroza, who signed a one-year with the Panthers last off-season but played a minor role in just nine games with the team before he was traded. Fortunately, he was dealt back to a team that he was familiar with in Chicago and his performance changed immediately. After a scoreless season in Florida, Hinostroza recorded four goals and 12 points in 17 games down the stretch, far and away the best per-game production of his NHL career. Hinostroza was active on the ice, meshed well with his teammates, and looked like a natural fit back with the Blackhawks. Although he excelled in Chicago, overall it was still a down year for Hinostroza, which could mean he is willing to re-sign at a low price. Yet, over the previous three years, one of which was with the Blackhawks, Hinostroza scored at a close to 40-point full-season pace and his play down the stretch implies he might be able to replicate those numbers if he stays with the team. There should be mutual interest in getting a deal done.
Projected Cap Space
Given their salary cap situation, it is good that the Blackhawks’ impact free agents are almost all RFA’s, where the team holds the leverage, and not UFA’s, where the player holds the leverage. Chicago has over $75MM already tied up in 24 contract, per CapFriendly. That number is not exactly a realistic estimate as many of those deals are waiver-exempt entry-level contracts and the combined $10.775MM of Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw will be placed on Long-Term Injured Reserve, as neither will play again. However, that still leaves the Blackhawks with less than $17MM in cap space with the aforementioned Gaudette, Hagel, Kampf, Nylander, Suter, and Zadorov all in need of new contracts. That averages out to under $2.8MM per RFA starter, which is likely an unrealistic benchmark. The Seattle Kraken may lighten the RFA load for Chicago, but with Hinostroza also in need of a new deal and the Blackhawks ideally looking to add an impact two-way forward to assist with penalty killing, things are looking tight for the Blackhawks.