Analysis

Chicago Blackhawks’ Defenseman Search, Dynamics Involved In Possible Trade

By Thomas Keeney
GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 19: Arizona Coyotes defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) looks on during the NHL hockey game between the Calgary Flames and the Arizona Coyotes on March 19, 2018 at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - MARCH 19: Arizona Coyotes defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson (4) looks on during the NHL hockey game between the Calgary Flames and the Arizona Coyotes on March 19, 2018 at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /
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As general manager Stan Bowman looks at available defenseman trade options, let’s review what goes into an NHL trade and the factors specific to the Chicago Blackhawks that effect any potential deal

On July 12, 2018, the Chicago Blackhawks jettisoned two promising, young NHL players in order to rid themselves of Marion Hossa’s contract and gain cap space.  In the aftermath of the trade, the website CapFriendly shows the ‘Hawks with just under $5.5 million in available cap space with 22 players signed to the active roster.

Assuming a few tweaks are made before the season begins, let’s say the ‘Hawks have $5 million to sign a top pair, right-side defenseman. What does a trade look like to obtain this type of player?

Trading in the NHL 101

In order to make a trade in the NHL, you need multiple things to align.  The basic elements are to have an asset another team wants and for that team to have an asset your team wants. You need to be able to afford any new players you add, and be confident you can dispense with your assets without hurting your team in the long term.  That alone makes trading difficult.  But it’s even trickier than that.

If an organization identifies a player, prospect or draft picks it wants to trade for “assets,” the other team needs to be willing to trade with you.  This can immediately rule out teams in the same division or even conference, as the last thing a competing team wants is to make a rival team stronger.

In addition to this, there are teams where there is a problematic history with a specific GM.  You don’t need to be friends to make a trade, but if there are trust issues or another GM took advantage of a past situation, things rarely get done.

So in theory, before you even start the process of looking for a trade, a quarter of the teams in the league may be off the table before you even begin.  If you’re willing to overpay, you may be able to overcome this (Andrew Ladd trade with the Winnipeg Jets in 2016, for example). But if the trade value seems equal, many teams in the league are not willing to trade with the Blackhawks due to internal reasons.

This is why you tend to see the same teams come up in trades with the ‘Hawks — Arizona, Carolina (before its GM was fired) and Montreal are all multiple trade partners in recent years.  The more teams that don’t want to trade with you, the odds of landing the right player get worse.

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What position are you looking to trade for?

The type of asset you covet is also a factor.  The Blackhawks are looking for a veteran, top-pair, right-side defenseman, as Brent Seabrook can no longer fill that role.  Most teams want a right-side defenseman that shoots right-handed – it’s easier to get the puck off the boards and make a quick outlet pass when you’re on your forehand.

There are left-shooting players who play the right side (Niklas Hjalmarsson is a great example), but most elite right-side defensemen shoot right handed (PK Subban, Brent Burns, Drew Doughty, etc.).

Per CapFriendly, of the 463 defensemen who played in the NHL last year, only 178 were righty shots.  Tough enough to find a top-pair defenseman, but a right-shooting, right-side defenseman is even harder to find. Less than 40 percent of active players are even righty shooting.  The talent pool for the ‘Hawks gets smaller.

So understanding the scarcity, a talented right-shot, right-side defenseman is one of the most valuable commodities in hockey.  Just as a starting goalie correlates to a starting quarterback in the NFL, a top-pair, right-shot defenseman who can run a powerplay correlates to a Pro Bowl left tackle.  Tough to find and usually off the table when it comes to trade talks.

The ‘Hawks’ defensive system is a factor

Another consideration when trading for a defenseman is the fit with your team and the “system” it plays. The ‘Hawks tried right-side defensemen who were supposed to play a top-four role in the past few years.

Trevor Daley, who went on to win the Stanley Cup twice with Pittsburgh in a top-four role, was traded away after only 29 games as a Blackhawk.  We were told he couldn’t play in the ‘Hawks’ system.

Most recently, the club traded Hjalmarsson for Connor Murphy.  The trade was to lock in a less expensive player (and one who shoots right-handed) to replace Hammer as a top-four defenseman. Whether it is system fit or poor talent evaluation, as of this date Murphy hasn’t shown the ability to be a top-four defenseman for the ‘Hawks.

The team has tried other right-handed, right-side D-men in recent years — Trevor van Riemsdyk, Cody Franson, Stephen Johns and Adam Clendening, to name a few — and no one stuck. Unless the ‘Hawks are open to change their defensive system to fit their talent (a smart coaching move, but very doubtful it will happen), this unique “fit” remains a critical factor in any defensive player the ‘Hawks look to acquire.  The pool gets even smaller.

Win now or win later?

Another aspect when evaluating a trade is where the team is organizationally.  Are they a player away from being a Cup-winning team?  The ‘Hawks have made their share of these trades.

Antoine Vermette, Brad Richards and Michal Handzus were great pickups.  These key additions made a difference in winning the Stanley Cup.  On the other side of the coin, there are examples where the assets given up were not worth the player added.

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  • Both the Ladd trade and the Phillip Danault trade cost the organization players and multiple high draft picks for little to no return.  If you’re pushing for a Cup run, the other team knows it, so you usually end up paying more than market in those trades.

    On the flip side organizationally, if a team is rebuilding, it wants more prospects and draft picks to strengthen the organization from within.  From my perspective, this is where the Chicago Blackhawks are a mystery.

    Over the past three years they have held on to most draft picks and seem to be building with youth, but then they trade young players right when they are about to make an impact with the club.  It takes a few years of development before most players can become impactful players in the NHL.

    Teuvo Teravainen, Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle are prime examples of players who are/were ready to step into a more important role, but were traded away before they could do it as a Blackhawk.

    Don’t get me wrong, none of these guys are Connor McDavid, but it seems the ‘Hawks have a penchant for trading players they drafted before they reach their first non-entry level contract (or in Vinnie’s case, trading him weeks after signing it).  Organizationally it seems odd to draft and develop a player and then cut him loose right when he can play a larger role with your club.  Strictly circumstance, or are the draft picks just not as talented as the team thought?

    Timing and value

    What about the timing of a trade?  In recent past, many of the Chicago Blackhawks’ trades seem to have been made from a position of weakness due to when the trade occurred.

    Trading a player the league knows you can no longer afford lessens the value you get in return.  The Patrick Sharp trade, the Brian Bickell trade and to a lesser extent the Hjalmarsson trade, are examples where the other team knew what the ‘Hawks needed to do and the return was less than full market value.

    If you have a player who won’t be a fit the next year due to cost or age, you’re better suited to trade them before that becomes apparent to the rest of the league.  Timing matters.

    The final facet of any trade is the concept of value.  Value, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.  No matter how scarce or untradable a player may seem, it really comes down to value received.

    Even Wayne Gretzky was traded.  The question is how much are you willing to give up.  A team will trade with its arch enemy if it’s confident it wins the value game.  If high draft picks are included, a trade can also hurt the other team for subsequent seasons.  If you’re in the same division, that is a beautiful thing to make happen as a GM, and can bring some bad blood between GMs, as discussed earlier.

    What are the ‘Hawks’ trade options?

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    So understanding the Blackhawks will need to give up some material assets to sign a top-pair, right-side defenseman who can run the powerplay, I start to get nervous.  Aside from Artem Anisimov and future draft picks, the only real assets other teams want are Nick Schmaltz, Alex DeBrincat and the young defensemen/other prospects drafted in the past couple years.

    It’s doubtful Brandon Saad would be moved as he was the main piece of the Artemi Panarin trade.  Oh, right, I forgot, that’s another trade the Blackhawks got fleeced on. An old adage in trading is to end up with the most talented player.  I believe Saad will have a bounceback season, but he’ll never have an 80-point season as Panarin did.  His highest career point total was 53 (had 35 last year).  A different level of talent.

    If Bowman decides not to trade and keeps the young talent (I sure hope so), it highlights two main options. The first is a signing of one of the remaining free agents.  Most of the talent is gone at this point, but adding Rick Nash as a winger to provide additional scoring for this season would allow the ‘Hawks to retain their assets.

    By next season, a couple of right-shooting, right-side defensemen who have been drafted in recent years will be ready to contribute.  This should be a consideration before the ‘Hawks consider losing more young talent trying to find the right defenseman now.

    The second option is not spending this newfound cap space and using it at the 2019 trade deadline. More talent becomes available at that time, and if the ‘Hawks are still in the postseason mix, adding an impact player late could make for a deep playoff run.

    If it ends up the ‘Hawks are at the bottom of the division (like last year), keep the money and look to make a deal at next year’s draft.  In recent years the ‘Hawks haven’t dealt much during the draft, but most believe it’s a great opportunity to gain leverage on your trade partner.

    Teams on the clock tend to get favorable deals due to the other team really liking a specific prospect and giving up too much to trade up to get him.  I honestly thought this might happen at this year’s draft since the ‘Hawks had two first-round picks, but no deals were made.

    Summary

    With what we now understand of the current situation and the assets the ‘Hawks would need to part with to trade for a top defenseman, what do you think Bowman and the Blackhawks should do?

    1. Trade away a veteran center and prospects/picks for a top player now
    2. Trade young players on the team plus prospects/picks for a top player now
    3. Sign a free agent and don’t trade at this time
    4. Stand pat with the money and spend it later – at the trade deadline or next draft

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    We’ve seen the complexity of trading in the NHL, especially for a three-time Stanley Cup championship team looking for a right-shooting, top-pair defenseman.  So the next time someone tells you they can’t understand why Bowman hasn’t gotten a trade done, let them know why.  It’s not as easy as it looks.

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