Free agency is now less than a week away and teams are looking ahead to when it opens up. There will be several prominent players set to hit the open market in mid-July while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign as well. Next up is a look at the Chicago Blackhawks
Key Restricted Free Agents
F Dylan Strome – On the day of the draft, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that the Blackhawks were not expected to extend Strome a qualifying offer. Strome is eligible for a qualifying offer worth $3.6MM, and it looks like the rebuilding Blackhawks aren’t interested in retaining Strome at that number. But that doesn’t mean other teams won’t be interested in Strome on the open market. While Strome hasn’t lived up to the hype he once held as the third overall pick at the 2015 draft, it would be misleading to say he’s been anything other than a reasonably productive NHL player since arriving in Chicago. He had 22 goals and 48 points this season, and in only one of his four seasons as Blackhawk Strome has scored under a 50-point pace. Sure, Strome has had the benefit of sometimes sharing the ice with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, and his skating, while improved, is still holding back his game. But even with those caveats, Strome’s production combined with his age (he will be 25 for most of next season) makes him an extremely intriguing project signing for a team that wants a scoring center at a lower price than the more established options. Perhaps Strome could look to sign with a team that has a play-driving, superstar winger in order to have a mid-twenties career renaissance similar to the one his brother Ryan Strome had with the New York Rangers.
F Dominik Kubalik – Another non-tender candidate, Kubalik has regressed since his extremely impressive rookie season and endured a difficult 2021-22 campaign. He had 15 goals and 32 points this past season, a decline from the 25-goal, 56-point pace he played at last season, and the 30-goal, 46-point showing he produced as a rookie. Kubalik is due a $4MM qualifying offer, and it seems as though GM Kyle Davidson does not believe extending him that offer to retain his rights is in the best interest of the rebuilding Blackhawks. Like Strome, Kubalik is an interesting UFA option for many teams. He’s just two seasons removed from when he made the NHL’s All-Rookie team and was a Calder Trophy Finalist, and only one season removed from a healthy 25-goal, 50+ point offensive pace. Teams are always looking for big wingers who can score, and that’s exactly what Kubalik is. If teams can look past Kubalik’s difficult 2021-22, they could get the kind of valuable, relatively young player that is rarely made available on the open market.
D Caleb Jones – Unlike the other two RFA’s listed here, Jones, the brother of Seth Jones, is expected to re-sign with the Blackhawks this offseason, according to Scott Powers of The Athletic. Jones played a third-pairing role in Chicago to moderate success, ranking fifth among regular Blackhawks defensemen in time on ice per game. Jones was not a factor on either of the Blackhawks’ special teams units, but he does have a history as a regular penalty kill contributor from his time in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors. Jones isn’t the caliber of defenseman his brother is but expecting him to fit in as a long-term third-pairing defenseman wouldn’t be unreasonable. A short-term deal around $1MM-$2MM makes the most sense here, although the Blackhawks could opt to try to lock him up long-term if they are believers in his NHL future.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents
D Calvin de Haan – The biggest-name veteran player the Blackhawks have to offer to the UFA market is defenseman Calvin de Haan. He was often mentioned in trade rumors but did not ultimately get moved at the 2022 deadline. De Haan, 31, is a veteran of 520 NHL games and has battled injuries throughout his NHL career. De Haan has only played in a full season once, and missed 13 games due to injuries this year. De Haan, the 12th overall pick at the 2009 NHL Draft, has had a successful NHL career thanks to his steady defensive play. De Haan’s offense is not what it used to be. While his career-high in points is a healthy 25, his eight points in 69 games this year are a sobering reminder of the declined state of his offensive tools. Nonetheless, De Haan still enters the market on stable ground: he’s an experienced, reliable defenseman who can help a second-unit penalty kill and fit in as a team’s fourth or fifth defenseman. While his next contract may come in lower than the $4.55MM he earned on his last deal, and the shoulder injuries he sustained may give some teams pause, he should still have a strong group of suitors once he hits the market next week.
G Kevin Lankinen – In some ways, Lankinen is in a similar situation to Kubalik. Like Kubalik, Lankinen was an out-of-nowhere import signing who, after a successful pro career in Europe, got into the rebuilding Blackhawks’ lineup and saw immediate success. Lankinen’s first 10 NHL starts were extremely promising: he posted a .920 save percentage or higher in seven of ten starts and frequently had to bail out a Chicago team that wasn’t putting forth a structured defensive effort to protect him. He effectively had to fend for himself early in his NHL career, and endeared himself to many Blackhawks fans in the process. The end of Lankinen’s rookie season was a struggle, and his numbers dipped overall, but his season-ending 17-14-5 record and .909 save percentage was indicative of the promise he flashed as a rookie. Lankinen even received seven Calder votes for his season and looked like he could possibly be the Blackhawks’ goalie of the future. 2021-22 didn’t go as planned, though, and Lankinen struggled as the Blackhawks plunged to the bottom of the NHL’s standings. The defensive performances in front of him didn’t help matters, but the reality was the nights that Lankinen would save the Blackhawks, which were all so common in his rookie year, were becoming few and far between. The Blackhawks recently acquired Petr Mrazek, but that shouldn’t block a return for Lankinen if that’s the route Davidson wants to pursue. If he hits the open market, Lankinen will be, like Strome and Kubalik, one of the more interesting (and risky) options on the open market.
Projected Cap Space
For all the issues on the Blackhawks’ roster, the one advantage they do hold over most NHL clubs is that they have a wealth of cap space to work with. CapFriendly projects them to have $15MM of space to work with this offseason, and with the team expected to not qualify its most notable RFA’s, Davidson will have a blank canvas to work on in this summer’s market. Even with the $5.5MM cap recapture penalty incurred by Edmonton Oilers defenseman Duncan Keith’s retirement, they’ll be able to continue taking on other teams’ unwanted contracts in exchange for future assets, as they did with Mrazek.
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. Contract information courtesy of CapFriendly.