Forget Free Agency, Blackhawks Should Weaponize their Cap

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 07: Erik Karlsson #65 of the San Jose Sharks skates with the puck against the Los Angeles Kings at SAP Center on January 7, 2018 in San Jose, California (Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 07: Erik Karlsson #65 of the San Jose Sharks skates with the puck against the Los Angeles Kings at SAP Center on January 7, 2018 in San Jose, California (Photo by Brandon Magnus/NHLI via Getty Images) /

With the most unexciting Stanley Cup Final looming, most of the league is setting their sights on the NHL offseason. During this week’s 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman touched on a few major stories that look to take their course during the offseason and free agency period.

The Blackhawks are only mentioned once, directly, and was in a bit of an unsurprising spot, as Friedman would highlight the potential suitors for center Kevin Hayes with the Blackhawks, Avalanche and Flyers as the parties interested.

Hayes is an interesting situation since he is a former first-round pick of the Blackhawks, who decided to sign elsewhere after his senior season with Boston College.

Hayes has had a very good career thus far after signing with the Rangers as a college free agent, racking up 229 points in 381 games in five seasons with the Rangers and the Winnipeg Jets, who he was traded to at this season’s trade deadline.

If the Blackhawks are truly interested in Kevin Hayes, which I think they are, it would make you also think they might be targeting a prospect like defenseman Bowen Byram in the draft. Drafting a player like Dylan Cozens, Trevor Zegras, or Alex Turcotte could create quite the log jam at the center position.

Hayes is an interesting target because he would add another dimension to the Blackhawks’ offense. He would likely be a 2nd or 3rd line center and a welcomed addition at the faceoff dot. The Blackhawks’ overall scoring depth would see a nice boost as well.

I really like Hayes, but I also have some concerns. What will his cap hit be, and can that cap space be better spent in other ways to help build this team?

My idea: Weaponize Their Cap Space

Friedman’s 31 Thoughts article focuses on a few other offseason situations with Phil Kessel’s situation highlighted, as well as that of top free agent Erik Karlsson. The Kessel situation seems interesting as it sounds like there is no going back for Kessel or Pittsburgh.

Unsurprisingly, Kessel seems unhappy with his situation and the Penguins seem equally frustrated. Although I am not the biggest fan of Kessel, his talent to put the puck in the net and ability to use his elite speed is undeniable.

According to Friedman and Pierre Lebrun of TSN, it sounds like Kessel nixed a move to the Minnesota Wild, as Kessel owns a no-trade clause. Would the Blackhawks be a destination that could interest Kessel? My thought is no, as he is a player who doesn’t seem to enjoy the media or spotlight.

This has been made clear with his interest to be moved to Arizona, where he can go and just play hockey. Although, there’s no doubting the fact that he would light up the NHL alongside the likes of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

However, the part that really caught my attention and really fueled this article was Erik Karlsson’s interest in possibly joining the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Wait, what? The Lightning? How? What?

According to Friedman, it sounds like Tampa was Karlsson’s preferred destination via trade when he was with the Ottawa Senators. He is good friends with Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play for Tampa?

It is a great city and the team is elite, despite their first-round exit. The Lightning also have more than enough talent and depth to help Karlsson cut down his minutes as he approaches age 30.

Here is the issue: Tampa has no money and a ton of high-cost RFA’s in the coming years. Guys like Brayden Point this offseason and players like Andrei Vasilevskiy and Mikhail Sergachev coming up next season.

This is where the Blackhawks come into play. The Lightning will need to move some bodies out to make way for the contracts of these players, if they want to add a player to the caliber of Karlsson. Names like Ryan Callahan, J.T. Miller, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn are players who have been rumored to be available to make some cap room.

The Blackhawks don’t have the kind of flexibility to take on a boat anchor like Ryan Callahan has been for the Lightning the past few seasons. He seems more like a player that low budget teams will target to get to the floor.

As for Palat, Miller, and Killorn, all three could provide depth scoring the Blackhawks desperately need and I personally would love to see them target a player like J.T. Miller.

Miller had a solid first full season with the Lightning with 47 points in 75 games. This is not exactly the career season he had the previous season, where he tallied 58 points while splitting time between the Rangers and Lightning. He would be an outstanding option for the Blackhawks’ top-nine forward group.

Will the Blackhawks Play It Safe?

The question then becomes, do you want to spend $5.25 million on a reliable/consistent player with a manageable cap hit, or do you try to hit the home run during the free agency period on players like Karlsson or Hayes?

Adding a proven player on a reasonable contract is an efficient use of cap space. This would also solidify the Blackhawks’ scoring depth and prevent them from being sucked into unreasonable free agent contracts. With that being said, it is more clear than ever that Bowman needs to supplement this solid core.

Players like Miller, Hayes, Karlsson, or even Kessel, would dramatically (at varying levels) put the Blackhawks right back in the playoff conversation. Spending wisely is going to be key for the Blackhawks, as their young players exit their rookie contracts.

Maybe, weaponizing their cap space is the best way to avoid overspending during what should be a crazy free agency period in Chicago.