A big week of roster changes is coming league-wide. Here is why I think the Chicago Blackhawks should be one of the quieter clubs this free agency period.
Free agency frenzy is almost upon us. As we build up to the opening of the signing period on July 1, rumors swirl about the big-name free agents, the secondary market after these top players and what the Chicago Blackhawks may be trying to achieve this summer.
There is no perfect answer for the direction this team should go. On one hand, the Blackhawks were a bottom-10 team in the league a season ago, surrendering 10 more goals and scoring 16 fewer goals than the league average. On the other hand, the ‘Hawks had record-low stats across the board last season that you can’t imagine would be repeated, and the team did win the Central Division just two seasons ago.
Have the Blackhawks completely fallen off the cliff, never to get back up again? Was last year a fluke season? Realistically, is this team closer to the top or the bottom of the teams in its division?
While an argument can certainly be made that some re-tooling could get the Blackhawks back in contention, I believe it is time for Stan Bowman and company to fully embrace a commitment to getting young and avoiding big contracts in this free agency period.
Why adding a big name is bad
The Blackhawks were (according to some beat writers and reporters) kicking the tires on John Tavares as recently as this past weekend.
Don’t get me wrong: Tavares is one of the brightest talents in the NHL and would be an incredible add for any team in the league. However, when the news was reported that the Blackhawks would not be getting a meeting with the star summer free agent, I felt nothing but relief.
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Tavares is set to receive a contract that could hit a length of eight years and a cap hit of $10-$12 million a year. For the Blackhawks to even be on the low end of that offer, they would be committing to three forwards on their roster making $31 million combined. That would be 39 percent of the salary cap tied up in three offensive players.
Add Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford’s contracts into the mix, and you have nearly $50 million of the $79.5 million salary cap tied up in six players. How do you assemble a team around that? How can you get production from three more full offensive lines and two full defensive lines with less than $30 million to work with?
The reality is a major move and big-name signing would absolutely destroy the future of the franchise and may still not be enough to make Chicago a Stanley Cup favorite. I don’t blame Bowman for at least checking in with the Tavares camp, but Chicago is in no position to add a contract like that to the current roster. The same can be said for defenseman John Carlson, who signed an eight-year, $8 million AAV contract with Washington.
While many fans were excited to see the salary cap go up to $79.5 million this summer, the cap went up for the entire league. While it gives the Blackhawks more room to work with, every team in the league gets this extra space, and the likelihood is it will only increase the price for valued free agents. A $5 million contract doesn’t get you now what it did two or three years ago.
The Blackhawks are currently sitting with more cap space than only two or three teams in the league (Los Angeles, Florida and Pittsburgh). With the majority of the league having more cap space, the Blackhawks are not going to be the best suitor for many free agents this summer.
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Add to this, the Blackhawks are coming off a horrific season where they look anything but championship caliber, and the fact that players like Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat will be due new contracts in summer 2019 and summer 2020, respectfully, Chicago is not a top destination anymore.
Blackhawks face tough road to contention
Look around the Central Division. The Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets have the most skilled rosters in the division. Colorado is on the rise with a young team that snuck into the playoffs last season. Minnesota and St. Louis still have competitive rosters that will not be pushovers.
Expand out into the whole Western Conference and you have last year’s champion Vegas Golden Knights, the always talented San Jose Sharks (who are in on the Tavares courting) and a dangerous Los Angeles Kings team that added Ilya Kovalchuk this past weekend.
The Blackhawks’ current roster is not one that is a single big name away from being the tops of the Central, yet alone the West. There are holes all around the roster that need to be filled in order to have a competitive team on the ice night in and night out.
With all of that being said, I truly believe the best step forward for the Blackhawks is to continue to develop young talent, look for affordable free agent signings at shorter contract lengths and hope that your star players can shake off whatever funk the 2017-18 season was. Adding on big-name players who take up more cap space will push the Blackhawks further down the hill.
The Vegas Golden Knights won the West last year just 11 or so months after being a team laughed at by the majority of people who looked at their roster after the expansion draft. But as a cohesive unit all committing to the game plan laid out before it, the team was as dangerous as any in the league. They may have only had a few big names, but they skated four lines deep and defended their own net brilliantly.
The Blackhawks should be looking to try to achieve this same thing. Balance across lines and production from everyone on the ice. Depending on a few star players to carry the entire team does not work anymore.
I don’t think the prime years of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are completely behind them. I don’t think Brandon Saad will have a sub-10 percent shooting percentage this coming season. I am not ready to say Crawford will never be a healthy and dominant goaltender again. But I am also not willing to double down and put more big names around these players for one last run at the Stanley Cup with the current core.
If the Blackhawks play their cards right, they could still have a strong team over the coming years with Kane and Toews still contributing a great deal. But that has to start with strong youth development and smart free agent signings. While it may be boring as a fan, getting involved in a bidding war and fighting for big-name free agents is not in the Blackhawks’ best interest. For the sake of the franchise’s future, I hope Bowman sees things the same way.