Analysis

Chicago Blackhawks Set Up For Exciting Free Agency Period

By Tim Martens
PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 09: Daniel Briere
PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 09: Daniel Briere /
facebooktwitterreddit

After years of summer free agency periods that have seen more subtractions than additions for the Chicago Blackhawks, summer of 2018 could be an exciting time for fans

On July 4, 2009, general manager Stan Bowman and the Chicago Blackhawks made a splash in free agency that would pave the way for the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 49 years. On that day, nearly nine years ago, the Blackhawks signed Marian Hossa, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden to bring in an exciting group of forwards.

Since that date, free agency has been a little different in Chicago. A combination of salary cap limitations and a majority of acquisitions coming via trade leaves a pretty depressing list of free agent signings for Bowman and the ‘Hawks.

Since July 2009, here are the free agents worthy of note whom the Blackhawks have signed: Marty Turco, Dan Carcillo, Jamal Mayers, Michal Rozsival, Antti Raanta, Scott Darling, Brad Richards, Artemi Panarin, Brian Campbell, Jordin Tootoo, Patrick Sharp, Tommy Wingels, Lance Bouma and Jan Rutta.

In several cases (Panarin, Raanta, Darling, Rutta), the free agents being signed were not coming off a season playing in the NHL, but receiving entry-level or first-time NHL deals. Not to knock any of these signings, but for the purposes of this post, we will put these signing aside as we are concerned with free agents on the market in the summer who have already been playing in the league.

In other cases (Richards, Campbell, Sharp), the player who signed with the Blackhawks acknowledged taking a pay cut to come play in Chicago. Players looking to play with the team took a pay cut either to return to Chicago or to play with a team that was likely to compete for the Stanley Cup.

Coming off their worst season in a decade, the Blackhawks are not likely to draw discounts for a chance to compete, and there aren’t any ex-Blackhawks who will be free agents this summer to consider signing to a discounted deal.

Cutting that list down, there is a pretty depressing group left of who the Blackhawks were able to actually draw to the Windy City. When the headliners of a list of summer NHL free agents who didn’t take a pay cut to come to the team are players like Rozsival and Carcillo, you can tell the last eight years has not been too exciting for the Blackhawks in summer free agency.

More from Analysis

Coming into a summer where the team will have the most cap space to work with in recent memory, what can the ‘Hawks do to improve their team? What can Chicago do to make (at the very least) ripples in free agency?

Budget

The first factor that will come into play is: What kind of money will the Blackhawks have to spend this summer in free agency? This question has many factors, but first we will look at where the team stands right now.

On the books for next season, the Blackhawks have about $67.5 million against the salary cap. The team will have a salary cap overage penalty due to incentives again this year, but this year it should only be around $1.2 million or so. That puts the team at about $68.7 million on the books.

The first thing the team will do this offseason (unless it gives up on young talent) is re-sign its important restricted free agents: Vinnie Hinoztrosa, John Hayden and Anthony Duclair. For quite some time, I thought the team would be able to sign each of them for around $1 million a year, but after the Erik Gustafsson and Rutta signings this past year, we could see the average between $1.2 and $1.3 million each. Let’s go on the high end and say all three players cost the Blackhawks an even $4 million cap hit.

The Blackhawks would be entering free agency with about $73 million on the books, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars. The salary cap is said to be increasing this offseason and could land anywhere between $78 and $82 million. If that is to happen, it means the ‘Hawks could have anywhere from $5 to $9 million in space to work with this summer in free agency.

But the savings doesn’t end there! The Blackhawks still could make some other moves to increase that cap space, such as trading off one of the current contracts weighing them down.

Could Chicago find a team looking to reach the salary cap floor that would take on Hossa’s $5.275 AAV contract? Would trading off a player like Artem Anisimov and his $4.55 million salary cap hit be a good move for the team? Could Connor Murphy at a $3.85 million cap hit be seen as money the ‘Hawks should shed?

Chicago Blackhawks

Losing all three of those salaries would be $13.5 million in savings on the salary cap and could give the team a lot of room to make a big signing this offseason. The question is which moves the team is willing and able to make.

If the cap only rises to $78 million, the team may be more inclined to make a trade. If the cap goes to $82 million (highly unlikely), the $9 million in cap space could be enough to not send off any players currently on the roster.

In all likelihood, I think the ‘Hawks look to move Anisimov and the cap lands right around $78 million. If both are to happen (and the return for Anisimov is draft picks and not a player contract coming on the books), the ‘Hawks would have somewhere around $9.5 million in cap space.

Of course, we will have to keep in mind that there are still limitations to what the team can afford to spend with salary cap room still needing to be available for future deals for players like Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat.

There are a lot of different ways Bowman can work the roster to give himself plenty of room in free agency. It really depends in which direction the general manager wants to move forward.

Possible targets

Assuming the ‘Hawks have some decent salary cap room, let’s take a look at who the team could be targeting in free agency this summer. Keep in mind that any of these players could end up being out of the team’s price range depending on what the market dictates. It’s not only the Blackhawks for whom the salary cap is going up.

Spotrac has a great list of unrestricted free agents for the summer of 2018 that sorts the players based on the salary of the contract they are coming off of. Keeping in mind the salary these players were receiving will not dictate their next salary, there are some interesting names available. Also note that I won’t even consider the ‘Hawks being contenders in the John Tavares or John Carlson sweepstakes.

As far as forwards, Evander Kane, James Neal, James van Riemsdyk, David Perron, Mark Stone and Patrick Maroon are all very interesting names that fall in the 25- to 30-year-old age group. They also are all coming off seasons where they each had at least 43 points on the year, which would guarantee that adding any one of these players would be adding a forward who had a better 2017-18 than all but four of the Blackhawks last season (Kane, DeBrincat, Schmaltz, Jonathan Toews).

More from Analysis

But the biggest weakness currently plaguing the Blackhawks is on the blue line. Upgrading the defense will likely be a priority this summer. As far as defensive free agents go, the names that stick out are Mike Green, Jack Johnson, Alexei Emelin, Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey, Ian Cole, Andrej Sustr, John Moore and Nick Holden.

I can completely understand if these names don’t pop off the page and get you excited, as there are some older options and a few players who dealt with injuries throughout 2017-18. But there are also several names on this list that have me more interested in a potential Blackhawks defensive group than one that requires Murphy, Gustafsson Rutta and Jordan Oesterle to suit up every night.

If the Blackhawks could make a signing on both ends of the ice like a van Riemsdyk along with an Sustr, they would really be helping themselves. While neither is going to have the excitement that signing Hossa did, both would easily be the most exciting acquisitions in free agency the Blackhawks have had since July 4, 2009.

For a very long time now, it has been perceived that Chicago is a destination many free agents would be excited to go to. With the recent success, the talent currently on the roster and the organizational history, many people make the claim that players should want to play in the Windy City.

Now is the time to find out if that is actually true. Now is the time to see what Bowman can actually do in free agency with a little extra money to work with.

Next: 'Hawks Not Far from Playoff Teams

Summer 2018 is set to be a very interesting one. The ‘Hawks will have a top-10 draft pick as well as an additional late first-round pick. They will likely have rumors swirling about possible trades with other teams in the league. But what could end up helping the franchise the most and righting the ship after an awful 2017-18 season is finally having some successful additions in free agency.

facebooktwitterreddit