The offseason has arrived with roughly half of the league missing the playoffs and several more having since been eliminated. It’s time to examine what those teams need to accomplish over the coming months. Next up is a look at Chicago.
The Blackhawks were one of the early-season surprises this season. Despite losing Jonathan Toews for the season (the hope is that he returns next year) and a very unproven goaltending trio (which appears likely to remain next season), they were in the playoff race for most of the year before falling out late. Considering they weren’t expected by many to be in postseason contention heading into the season, being in the race as long as they were is a small victory but GM Stan Bowman will need to take some more strides towards improving the roster for 2021-22. On top of that, some important decisions need to be made regarding a pair of players who are on the fringes of the core.
Utilize LTIR Flexibility
While there is some uncertainly with Toews’ availability for the start of next season, there isn’t any with Brent Seabrook ($6.875MM) and Andrew Shaw ($3.9MM). Both players have effectively retired, announcing they won’t be able to play again due to their respective injuries, a hip issue for Seabrook and lingering concussion trouble for Shaw. This past season, they were among several Blackhawks on LTIR and Bowman will have that option once again.
On the one hand, it’s possible that both go there in the summer, giving them some room to spend in free agency but Bowman has been hesitant to go that route in the past. Whether they do it early or closer to the start of the season though, they have the ability to add a player or two, either adding to their roster or adding a future asset or two for taking on a contract as they did with Brett Connolly near the trade deadline. With the team having to proceed as if Toews will be available, this will likely be their biggest source of cap space this summer.
Avoid Arbitration With Zadorov
The flat salary cap has already created some restrictions on the ‘middle-class’ earners in the league and that’s likely to be the case for a while. Accordingly, that has increased the pressure for teams to work out early contracts with some of their pending restricted free agents that have arbitration eligibility where they fear the award would be too low to walk away from but too high to fit in their salary structure. Chicago has one of those players in defenseman Nikita Zadorov.
The 26-year-old was acquired last fall from Colorado as part of the trade that saw Brandon Saad head to the Avalanche and provided his usual brand of physical play, albeit with some shaky play at times in his own end and limited offensive upside. However, he logged over 19 minutes a night and at 6’6, few blueliners can match his size. The 16th pick in 2013 has shown enough flashes to warrant keeping around but only at the right price tag. After signing a one-year, $3.2MM contract upon being acquired, that number now represents his qualifying offer. But he also has arbitration eligibility where his 411 career NHL contests could push an award higher than Chicago is willing to pay.
There have been mutual expressions of interest in getting something done between the Blackhawks and Zadorov but this also feels like a situation where the team isn’t going to give the blueliner a chance to get it to a hearing and risk a reward that they don’t want to pay; the minimum award to qualify for walkaway rights was $4.539MM and it’s unlikely Zadorov would go above that in a hearing. Accordingly, that makes July 26th the date to watch for as that’s the deadline to tender a qualifying offer.
When the Blackhawks acquired Dylan Strome from Arizona back in 2018, he made an immediate impact and it looked like he was quickly becoming a core player for the future. His numbers dipped in 2019-20 but he did well enough to earn a two-year, $6MM bridge contract, getting a longer look in the process.
Unfortunately, that longer look did not go well. Strome struggled offensively, did not adjust well to playing on the wing at times, and when it mattered most down the stretch when they were trying to stay alive in the playoff hunt, he was a healthy scratch. Forget about him being a core player for years to come. Is he even part of the plans for next season now?
Strome feels like a viable change of scenery candidate this summer. Toews could be back as will Kirby Dach and those two should reclaim their spots down the middle while Pius Suter held his own in his rookie season. Knowing that Strome isn’t particularly comfortable on the wing, he could be the odd man out. However, with a $3.6MM salary, that’s a bit pricey for someone that could be viewed as a potential reclamation project which will limit his market. Bowman will have to decide if taking a lesser return is worth it or if they’re better off holding on to him to see if he rebounds in a contract year.
Clear Forward Logjam
One thing that Bowman has done in recent years is improve their depth up front. He has hit on recent international additions in Suter, Dominik Kubalik, and Philipp Kurashev. Prospects Mackenzie Entwistle (trade), Brandon Hagel, Reese Johnson, and Mike Hardman (undrafted free agent signings) have shown some upside and all saw NHL action this season. Even if none of them turn into stars, cost-controllable depth is great to have.
But they seem to quickly be reaching the point where they may have a bit too much. Dach will be back next year, as will Alexander Nylander. Toews could be back. Trade deadline acquisitions Connolly (two years remaining) and Adam Gaudette (pending RFA) should still be around. Plus, for good measure, Henrik Borgstrom has a two-year, one-way deal while one of their top prospects Lukas Reichel just signed and could make the jump quickly.
A quick look at their depth chart yields around 20 forwards who could potentially be ready for NHL action to start next season without even factoring in who could potentially be brought in using their LTIR space. Yes, some of those are waiver-exempt and can start in the minors and there could be injuries in training camp but on the surface, it appears as if they have some expendable depth. With affordable NHL players being of increasing importance, Bowman may want to turn some of that depth into some future pieces in the form of draft picks or prospects to keep the system well-stocked.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. Contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.