By Kristi Loucks, originally published at The 4th Line Podcast
It is officially the time of year where we go from the euphoria of a Stanley Cup Final and a Cup Champion crowned to that roughly three week period of rumors and rampant speculation before free agency hits and the NHL Draft cranks up the trade insanity. Every team has fat to trim and holes to fill, and there tends to be no shortage of players dangled in an effort for each team to accomplish both goals.
The Blackhawks have done a lot of maneuvering over the last eight years, and because of their successes they haven’t always been the ones in power because simply put, no team wants to purposefully help make a contender better.
For the first time in a long while the Blackhawks are no longer considered a part of the league’s upper echelon of teams, a fact that could work in their favor provided they don’t rest on habits created during their successful runs and overpay for players that teams are actively trying to unload anyway.
Having said that, the Blackhawks have a number of holes to fill, and it’s probably going to take more than a couple of phone calls with trusted trade partners to fill them. So, let’s dig into the problem areas the Blackhawks have to shore up if they have any chance of playing their way into the Playoffs next spring.
Blue Paint and Blueline
Though the Blackhawks scoring was somewhat inconsistent over the course of the season, that was actually the least of their concerns. Much of the Blackhawks shortcomings came between the pipes and on the backend.
The Blackhawks were hit with a lethal combination of age, injuries, and inexperience and they had no hope of recovering.
None of the netminders that came in to spell an injured Corey Crawford performed well enough to consider a second season holding down the blue paint should Crawford be unable to return or perhaps need extra help carrying starts over 82 games.
Collin Delia had a moment with the Blackhawks that would indicate he may be ready for a legitimate look at some point soon, especially after a solid postseason with the Rockford IceHogs, but realistically he could use another season commanding the crease in an AHL setting.
And it seems unlikely Scott Foster will be giving up his day job as an accountant after one emergency start that showed up most of the other starters who saw significant work in 2017-18.
Anton Forsberg may very well be a legit starter someday, but last season made it clear that he is not ready for the burden of an 82 game season to land on his shoulders. Odds are a change of venue is in his future and will likely be welcomed. Jeff Glass is likely to move on, and while J.F. Berube has another year it seems clear that he would have to battle for a chance to play second fiddle to Crawford (if he doesn’t get moved), so chances are that help is going to come from the outside.
So who will the Blackhawks seek out to carry the load?
Oh My Darling
Stan Bowman is a huge fan of the recycle bin. And if you’ve spent more than five minutes on social media today, you’d know that there are dozens of reports of Bowman kicking the tires with one of his favorite trading partners, the Carolina Hurricanes.
Scott Darling is one of two targets on his shopping list and would be welcomed back to Chicago by the coaching staff, the team and especially the fans. Darling is a hometown hero after he single-handedly saved the day in the first round of their most recent Cup run in 2015, and a beloved fan favorite.
— theScore NHL (@theScoreNHL) June 8, 2018
In fairness, Darling had a rough go last season in Carolina which Allan Erickson detailed earlier this week, so his return wouldn’t be without risk, but it might just be a risk worth taking if he is made available. He appeared 43 times in Carolina (starting 40) and carried a .888 save percentage (SV%) with a 3.18 goals against average (GAA). In three seasons in Chicago, he played in 75 games and averaged .923 SV% and 2.37 GAA.
Now, part of the decline was undoubtedly working in a new system that required him to play a game that was not entirely in his comfort zone, but another piece in this equation was that the team just wasn’t as good as the teams Darling played in front of in Chicago. The team he’s coming back to may not be any better short of some big changes, but at least the system is one he thrives under and the hope is that Bowman can course correct enough that the Blueline can bounce back from a dismal 2017-18 showing.
Darling worked well in the Blackhawks system and had a great rapport with the coaching staff and Crawford.
The question is how will he fit in the cap structure with a contract that runs three more seasons at $4,150,000. He does have a modified no trade clause, but it’s hard to believe Darling wouldn’t jump at the chance to return to his hometown team and the team that gave him his break in the NHL, but that would be over $10,000,000 tied up between two netminders which is less than ideal. Unless Crawford is going to be spending time on the LTIR, in which case the solution in the blue paint is likely to be costly regardless. Last season proved that it would take a very good backup, or a starter to fill the crater if Crow stays down.
This is a move Bowman, and the Blackhawks might be willing to make if it means not having a repeat of last season.
There are a number of other possibilities via free agency or perhaps trade to shore up the backup position, but unless the Blackhawks are confident that Crawford will return and be able to carry the bulk of the load as the starter, they are unlikely to chance another young and relatively unproven number two.
Darling has already proven he can stand in for Crawford, and the hope is that the Blackhawks can improve their defensive depth enough to make the team in front of him better than it was last season, but we’ll get into that a bit later.
Free Agent Finds
They could also go after a career backup (apart from his first season in Nashville where he played 40 games) like Carter Hutton (32) who has played a single game for Chicago (2012-13) which would qualify him as a recycling project as well. Or they could go with a player like Anton Khudobin (32) who has proven himself as a reliable backup, most recently with the Boston Bruins.
Both players are free agents who could be looking for short-term contracts with reasonable cap hits. While Khudobin seemed like a lock to be re-signed by the Bruins, last month the B’s President Cam Neely cast doubt when he mentioned finding a backup as one of their top priorities.
If they go that route, Khudobin could be worth a look to help lockdown the Blackhawks crease.
The Blues could also retain Hutton, but with a disappointing finish to their season, they could also be looking to shake things up.
However, If Darling is made available by the Canes, he would seem to have the advantage at 29, and it has to be said after last season, there is something to the saying ‘the devil you know.’
The Blackhawks have no greater need than a number two defenseman. Duncan Keith tried valiantly to put lipstick on a lot of talented but not ready for primetime pigs last season, but it wound up hurting him more than it helped the guys that lined up beside him.
The whole team, but especially Keith would benefit from a true number two defenseman, because let’s be real for a minute, Keith had a rough year last year.
While a lot of that can be contributed to the revolving door impersonating a jet engine that kept spitting out players who were maybe a four or five on a good day. Another factor is the fact that there is also a lot of wear on Keith’s tires at this point and the Blackhawks have to come to terms with the idea that they can’t continue to utilize the defender in the manner that they have in years past.
With some consistency and a little lighter workload, Keith can remain a top-two defenseman for a bit longer, but it’s time to start focusing on making his job easier so that he can do what he’s best at and stop playing clean up in aisle three.
Big Money Blueliners
There are a ton of names about to hit free agency or in one case, hit the trade wire, so let’s start with the guys who are extremely unlikely to find their way to Chicago first.
Erik Karlsson is the biggest name to hit the open market in part because the Ottawa Senators are being run into the ground by a used car salesman (Owner Eugene Melnyk) who has no bloody idea what he’s doing because any other team would find a way to extend Karlsson locking him up long-term and build their franchise around him. Instead, some other team will undoubtedly grab him up and throw a ridiculous pile of money at him to keep him among their ranks for the foreseeable future.
That team will not be the Chicago Blackhawks.
While John Carlson isn’t Karlsson, he is likely to draw a lot of attention should the Washington Capitals let him dip his toes into the free agency pool. They may try to re-sign him, but they have a number of players in need of new contracts the next two seasons and may see a need to use a more measured approach that might not include giving the blueliner the kind of term he could get elsewhere even if they could settle on the money side of things.
There is a team out there that will offer him term and money that could see him taking his show on the road.
Again, that team probably won’t be Chicago. It is more likely than Karlsson, but he will probably price out of the market here on term and money unless Bowman is really looking to make a splash.
But wouldn’t it be nice if Bowman landed this big fish?
Defender for Hire
A name that has circulated along with Darling is Justin Faulk. He isn’t as flashy as Karlsson, or as experienced as Carlson, but he is an intriguing option for the Blackhawks.
Faulk has fallen out of favor with the Canes and is likely in need of a change of scenery, and perhaps a new coaching philosophy would be beneficial as well.
Faulk (26) has another two years on his contract at $4.833 million a year. He has scored 30-plus points a season since the 2013-14 campaign. While he still hit 31 points (eight goals, 23 assists) in 76 games last season it was considered a down season. In the three previous seasons, Faulk scored at least 15 goals, and the hope would be that he could return to that.
Faulk had a 55.14 Corsi percentage and an expected goal differential of plus-8.33, according to Corsica. These kinds of numbers would be welcomed in Chicago.
Another plus for Faulk is that he is a right shot, so he could slot in beside Keith and bring him some much-needed stability. That would also give Connor Murphy (if he doesn’t wind up on the trade block) and Jan Rutta a little room to grow without the pressures of a top pairing role. It would also be a huge help to Brent Seabrook who is no longer best suited to play on the top pairing.
Another player worth a look would be the Islanders Calvin de Haan (26). He is a left defense but is still intriguing. Playing the left side he’d likely slot in behind Keith instead of with him, and he is just coming off of season-ending shoulder surgery, but he is a physical presence on the blueline and has a penchant for blocking shots. Both attributes the Blackhawks could use on the backend.
Without Niklas Hjalmarsson, de Haan is a really interesting choice to jump in and try to fill his skates. He will never replace Hammer, but he could be a key piece that can help fill the chasm left when he was sent to Arizona. He should also be quite affordable.
Mike Green (32) is another right-handed shot that could seamlessly slide in beside Keith. He averages 11 goals per season and could be an asset on the power play and let’s face it special teams are in need of some fresh looks. However, Green is likely to command a pretty penny and would require some cap wizardry to bring him into the fold.
Here we go! Final (assuming I don't find any errors) contract predictions for the 2018 Free Agent Class:https://t.co/CwF6kTUfdZ
— Matt Cane (@Cane_Matt) May 21, 2018
Or they could go with veteran Ian Cole (29) though he is another left shot. Cole is also an excellent shot blocker and steadying presence. Cole is likely to be more affordable than Green and brings his own winning pedigree from his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Either Cole or Green would go a long way towards stabilizing a blueline in flux, de Haan might be a bit more of a gamble, but he could add some grit to the blueline as well.
The Blackhawks have a glut of defenders on the payroll already, so chances are one or two of the current defenders could be on the move. Murphy’s name has been floated recently, and Rutta’s has come up in the past. Odds are it will not be Seabrook (unless they talk to Ottawa since they appear to be game for bad decision making), because no matter the benefits Seabs brings in leadership and experience his contract is anchored to the Blackhawks bottom line for an eternity.
While forwards might not be the top target of the Blackhawks, there are a number of players they might look to in order to bolster their depth and perhaps get a little more scoring.
First and foremost, there is John Tavares and while Bowman will undoubtedly have some daydreams about signing the pivot, and Blackhawks fans are certain to be salivating at the prospect this is nothing more than a pipe dream. Tavares is likely to command upwards of $10,000,000, and there is no scenario (short of trading Toews perhaps) that would make that a feasible option.
While I am sure, there are a few fans out there who might be amenable to that prospect let me just say the odds are slim to none. It would be great to add a triggerman of his caliber but moving Anisimov, and one of the young defenders isn’t even close to being enough to make his likely cap hit fit into the precarious cap puzzle for the Blackhawks. Besides, that type of cap hit would severely hinder the Blackhawks ability to fill the other gaping holes on the blueline or in the blue paint, so Tavares will have to stay in your fantasy league, or you can watch him when the Blackhawks play St. Louis, or maybe Montreal.
Tommy Wingels (30) is a likely candidate to book a return visit to the home bench, and he will likely be an affordable option to help round out that fourth line and pick up where he left off. Wingels was one of the more consistent players last season in terms of his reliability and playing the game the right way, he’s not going to shoot the lights out, but he plays his role well.
He is also another Chicago product, and the Blackhawks do love a homegrown talent.
Another option would be Michael Grabner (30) who could slot in with Toews and Saad and help the team on the Penalty Kill which is in dire need of a facelift. He’s likely to hit between $3,500,000-$4,000,000 which is a bit higher than the Blackhawks might like, but with the cap on the rise and a little player realignment, it’s still possible.
The Blackhawks have a lot of work to do and a lot of tough decisions that should come to a head around the draft as they always do, and there will undoubtedly be even more names floated before we get there. If you were the GM for the day, who would you pick? Feel free to hit the comments and let us know.
Up next: We’ll take a look at the 2018 NHL Draft and a few of the players that might be available for the Blackhawks with their eighth pick.