Editorials

Chicago Blackhawks: Antoine Vermette Return Potential

By Colin Likas
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Could Antoine Vermette consider a return to the Chicago Blackhawks?

While the NHL offseason has been mostly devoid of interesting moves of late, at least as they relate to the Chicago Blackhawks, something potentially relevant to the Blackhawks occurred in Arizona on Monday.

The Coyotes placed center Antoine Vermette on unconditional buyout waivers, agreeing to take him at a smaller cap hit the next two seasons while also dumping him from their active roster. The 34-year-old was re-signed by Arizona last offseason after serving as a key rental for the Blackhawks in their 2015 Stanley Cup run.

Vermette’s cap hit with the Coyotes will be $1.25 million for the next two seasons. He was due to get paid $3.75 million next season.

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What does this mean for the Blackhawks? Well, they have a small, but not unreasonably small, amount of cap space left to work with this offseason. So what is the possibility of Vermette returning to Chicago as a bottom-six center?

From the Blackhawks’ perspective, this would be a really strong move. Even at age 34, Vermette has plenty to offer a championship contender. In 76 games last season for a middling Coyotes outfit, he produced 38 points. As a top-six center, that would be disappointing. As a bottom-six center, that would be totally fine, especially with the trouble Chicago had last season finding consistent bottom-six scoring.

Vermette is also a demon at the dot in his career, posting a 56.1 faceoff win percentage in 12 seasons, including a 55.8 percent success rate in 2015-16. And he’s not taking a small number of draws to boost the stats; he won 754 faceoffs last season.

Vermette’s career possession numbers are just fine, as he’s at 49.2 percent Corsi-for in his career. With a few more cherry-picked zone starts as a bottom-six center in Chicago, though, that number could certainly rise to a nice 51 or 52 percent. Vermette is also capable of playing a fair amount of minutes, having posted a 16:39 average time on ice last season.

So how does this work from Vermette’s standpoint? Well, he’d have to take an obvious pay cut, for starters. General Fanger posts the Blackhawks’ projected salary cap hit at about $70.6 million with 12 forwards, eight defensemen and two goaltenders.

The Blackhawks would be highly unlikely to carry eight blueliners during the regular season, so replace an Erik Gustafsson type ($667,500 cap hit) with a Tyler Motte/Nick Schmaltz type ($925,000 cap hit), and you’re looking at close to $71 million against the cap. That leaves about $2 million to spare (remember, the cap rose to $73 million this offseason).

Vermette could conceivably go the Brad Richards route and decide he’s made enough money in his career to accept a smaller contract with a good opportunity to win the Stanley Cup once again. Sure, Vermette hasn’t made as much as Richards did, but when you’re a veteran NHLer getting closer and closer to running out of chances to hoist the silver chalice, your priorities typically change.

The only issue for Vermette could be recalling his previous experience in Chicago. Yes, he won a Stanley Cup here in 2015, but he was treated like a second-rate citizen for no reason for a large portion of his time in Chicago. Coach Joel Quenneville struggled to warm up to him and healthy-scratched him into the postseason. Vermette took this somewhat poorly before proving his worth in the later stages of the Stanley Cup Playoffs — something he really shouldn’t have had to do.

I’m not sure how Vermette holds grudges (or doesn’t), but he may not want to deal with Q and his coaching staff again. His fear of being scratched for a Brandon MashinterJordin Tootoo type would be entirely reasonable, and for $1.75-$2 million, he probably wouldn’t be up for that.

But maybe Vermette can get over the rougher portion of the past and look to the good times (the Stanley Cup, the potential for another, Q hugging him close to first among the players he embraced following the 2015 win). Vermette could be at a stage in his career where he essentially serves as a mercenary, going where he’s needed and where he feels he has the best chance to win the Cup. He knows Chicago already, so it could be a good first stop.

Overall, the Blackhawks bringing back Vermette would be to the benefit of the team. They have some youngsters who would serve well under his tutelage, and he also has enough to offer an everyday lineup to become a double bonus.

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I’m sure there are multiple teams who are interested in Vermette now that he’s out in the open. Some would probably utilize him in a top-six center role, and maybe that’s what he still wants. But, likely, he knows one of his best Cup chances in the immediate future lies in Chicago. So that option is definitely on the table.

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