Chicago Blackhawks’ Bad Offseason Begs For A Concrete Plan

TAMPA, FL - MAY 11: Chris Kunitz #14 of the Tampa Bay Lightning gets ready for the game against the Washington Capitals during Game One of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 11, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - MAY 11: Chris Kunitz #14 of the Tampa Bay Lightning gets ready for the game against the Washington Capitals during Game One of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 11, 2018 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images) /

After a very disappointing start to the offseason, the Chicago Blackhawks need to make a choice whether they are going to try to make one more run for a title or finally start a full rebuild.

So this is it? Almost two weeks into the free agency period and the additions to the Chicago Blackhawks’ low-achieving 2017-18 roster are a backup goalie who had worse stats than Anton Forsberg last season, a winger who turns 39 before the start of the season and a depth defenseman who will battle for a spot on the bottom defensive pairing?

I know I am the same writer who said the Blackhawks should avoid the big names in free agency, but that didn’t mean completely looking past the guys in the middle ground.

Cam Ward

First off, let’s look at Cam Ward. While Ward does have a Stanley Cup championship on his resume, it was way back during his rookie season. In his 13-year career in Carolina, he has posted a save percentage higher than .920 just once and is a career .909 percent.

That is just .001 percent higher than Forsberg posted last year, in what was essentially Forsberg’s rookie season at 25 years old when he played in 35 games. 

The signing of Ward is not terrible if you were looking for a veteran goalie to (hopefully) back up Corey Crawford, but even if you still have some belief that he should be getting time instead of developing Forsberg, the $3 million deal and no-movement clause are exactly the issue with this deal.

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Stan Bowman has thrown around no-trade and no-movement clauses far too freely, and it has played a factor in getting the Blackhawks into the predicament they are in now.

Giving Ward the no-movement clause, even if it is a one-year deal, means you cannot assign him to Rockford during the year and you are locking the team in with Ward as your backup, taking up $3 million of cap space. 

Here is a list of goaltenders who signed with a new team this summer and are all younger than Ward, had better save percentages than Ward a season ago and signed a new contract that is a smaller cap hit than Ward’s $3 million deal: Carter Hutton, Robin Lehner, Michael Hutchinson and Anton Khudobin

Chris Kunitz

That $3 million of space along with the $1 million cap hit on Chris Kunitz’s contract would have been a great $4 million to use on a much more productive goaltender, winger or defenseman.

For example, Patrick Maroon just signed a one-year deal in St. Louis for $1.75 million. Maroon is from St. Louis and may have been giving a hometown discount, but wouldn’t a winger who is nine years younger than Kunitz and had 27 more points than him over the last two years be a little more interesting?

See also: Tyler Ennis. Ennis will be 29 at the start of the 2018-19 campaign. Ten years younger than Kunitz, Ennis had his best year in the NHL a season ago in Minnesota with 22 points in 73 games, or 0.30 points per game. Kunitz had 0.35 points per game. Ennis signed a one-year deal with Toronto for $650,000. 

Perhaps most frustrating of all: Anthony Duclair. Listen, I was not so impressed with Ducair’s short stint in Chicago that I thought he deserved a big payday, but the kid is going to be 23 next season and he just came off a season in which he scored 23 points in 56 games (0.41 points per game) in Arizona and Chicago.

He was a youth piece that would have been cheap to re-sign, even if signing him as an RFA would have cost a bit more than the eventual one-year/$650,000 contract Duclair signed in Columbus. 

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The Blackhawks have around $4 million left in space on the salary cap, even after their signings this summer. Would a $1 million contract for Duclair really have broken the bank? Is Kunitz honestly that strong of an upgrade versus trying to develop a young player like Duclair? Did the Blackhawks think they would be spending a whole lot more in free agency and just swung and missed at every turn?

Brandon Manning

That leads me to the final signing: Brandon Manning. The Blackhawks committed two years to Manning at a cap hit of $2.25 million per year. They now have $5.75 million wrapped up in Jan Rutta, Erik Gustafsson and Manning, three bottom-pairing defensemen, at best. 

Meanwhile, a much more reliable defenseman like Thomas Hickey re-signed with the Islanders for four years at a cap hit of $2.5 million a year. Even if it would have taken $3 million a year for Hickey to leave New York, that extra $750,000 cap hit over Manning would have been worth it. 

With the aging Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook at the top of the defensive depth chart, the 2018-19 team will once again be hoping for the best from Connor Murphy and a carousel of young defensemen who could likely use more seasoning in Rockford.  

What is this team’s plan?

Many have talked about this period of time as a kind of “silent rebuild” for the ‘Hawks, but if you are looking to rebuild, why be secretive? Why commit to only half-measures? If you are going to rebuild, then do it. If you are going to make one more run with your current core, then make a move to bring on a big-time defenseman and center. 

Tip-toeing the tightrope of trying to stay competitive this coming season while slowly rebuilding for the future is a recipe for disaster, with the best-case scenario being a top-three draft pick. Whatever it is the Blackhawks are doing this offseason, they are falling further and further behind the competition they have in the Central Division. 

I would like to give the Blackhawks’ front office the benefit of the doubt and think that many of its free agent targets ended up signing elsewhere when the ‘Hawks did have a good offer on the table.

But even giving them that credit opens another issue: Chicago isn’t a free agent destination anymore. When given a similar offer between the Blackhawks and another team, free agents see more benefits elsewhere than in the Windy City.

More so then ever, the Blackhawks have reached a fork in the road. One direction is a full rebuild, and the other is a final push for a championship with the current core.

Next: Chicago Still On Youth Movement Track

Offroading right into the split in the road is reckless and could put the franchise in a tough spot for many years to come. Unless Bowman has a major trade still up his sleeve, it would be best to start figuring out how to trade off more veteran assets and start preparing for a future: the post-dynasty era Blackhawks.