Today marks the beginning of NHL Draft week in Nashville, it's true, but with a flurry of deals being rumored things seem to be setting up quite nicely for our Blackhawks. While the draft is now in 2 days, it also signals that Free Agency is just 5 days away as well.
After the draft is over on Thursday evening, the Chicago Blackhawks will likely only leave Nashville with 1 NHL ready player in Connor Bedard. It will be exciting to comb through scouting reports and read personal tidbits on all the other new prospects, however for the 23-24 campaign it is really just going to be Connor Bedard that wears the jersey from the class.
So how we fill our roster will, just like last offseason adding the likes of Athanasiou and Domi, come down to deals in free agency. By all accounts this free agency class is not headlined by big names that are in their primes expecting huge deals. This, combined with the rumor that the hard cap may only grow a small amount if at all, may see a team like the Chicago Blackhawks become the destination for quite a few good veterans.
Let's look at cap space and the teams that are able to truly use it. Anaheim, Chicago, Detroit, and Arizona should all have 27-39m in available cap to spend. Teams like New Jersey and Carolina have space, however they also have players looking at extensions that could take up parts of that space they "currently" have. There are of course a few teams in the 20m range that could also make some moves to secure some players like Seattle, Ottawa, Nashville, San Jose, or Pittsburgh but their aim is likely to focus in on a specific player or 2.
If you look at Anaheim and Detroit these are 2 rosters that have been drafting high first round talent for the last few drafts and perhaps it is an offseason where they need to hold onto that space for when those extensions come through. Arizona is in a pure state of "who knows what" with their future and is not likely a destination because of this uncertainty.
This leaves Chicago, with not alot of upcoming high priced players due a deal, with a city that is at the top of many players lists (I assume), and now a franchise player on an entry level contract. Connor Bedard may or may not reach our lofty expectations, however in the present moment he will certainly be an attractive draw for free agents looking to boost their numbers.
So, with over 37m at the moment (according to the Sporting News at www.sportningnews.com) where should the Blackhawks spend their money?
First and foremost as mentioned this isn't a class where there are long term players in the unrestricted group of players. Some of the best players in the class are above 30 too like Dmitry Orlov, Ryan O'Reilly, and Vladimir Tarasenko. While all those players would help the Blackhawks, I do not see a fit for them.
The players that I am looking at are Michael Bunting, Joonas Donskoi, Max Domi, Alex Kerfoot, JT Compher, and Ryan Donato. To me these forwards could present to us players that couldn't find homes with contenders that could give them their market value. The Blackhawks can afford them and if needed pay down their deals and trade them in the future to the teams they may truly want to be apart of.
A player like Ivan Barbashev is enticing as his age and production would give the Blackhawks an immediate top 6 forward for the future. I however do not believe the Blackhawks will be handing out a 40-50m deal before the rest of our roster is set up. A player like Michael Bunting in my view may be in a different situation though. This is a player that hasn't played a lot of NHL hockey actually. Just 187 career regular season games and playing with some of the leagues best lines. It could be a situation where he could sign a deal with less term in order to get a bigger deal after this years' deal. Would he be interested in a 1 year higher AAV deal to prove that he deserves a long term contract?
I believe the Blackhawks could afford any of these players a few things:
A. More AAV than their market price would be
B. Ability to have more ice time in Chicago's top 6
C. The Chance to increase their value playing with Connor Bedard (hopefully more points)
Chicago isn't going to contend for a playoff spot next season, but these free agents could look at the teams they truly want to go to as not great options at the moment given the hard cap and those particular teams' financials. The Blackhawks, as they did in the last trade deadline, could offer a win-win to both the free agent and to Kyle Davidson's every growing asset capital cache.
To me the Blackhawks will likely add 2 veteran forwards to help fill in the top 6 and help Connor Bedard have some talented linemates. Will that be a return of Max Domi, Chicagoland native JT Compher, or maybe if Joonas Donskoi is healthy (concussions among other ailments), a player of his caliber somewhere in the middle 6. Either way I do not believe the Blackhawks will or should be handing out deals above the low 20m range of total value. A 3-5 year deal for some of the younger forwards in the 4-5.5m AAV seems to be the spot in which I believe Kyle Davidson will operate.
Lower term deals could yield high AAVs to help lure in players as well that perhaps Chicago doesn't want to commit to for the future. Either way, the field in free agency has been set up nicely for the Blackhawks to take advantage of (if they want). From teams jumping the market on trades for players (like the Avalanche for Johansen, using their LTIR space), or teams needing that space for extensions (like the Devils for Meier), Chicago could gather a group of assets at their own pace.
My prediction is that Kyle Davidson will sign 2 forwards from the upper tier of free agents to deals in the framework I presented. Some of the players I noted could very well be Blackhawks within a week of today. After the first wave of deals (typically 3-6 days) I then believe he will sign a 1 or 2 year deal with a player that fits into Chicago's bottom 6 as a bigger forward that can help enforce our identity as a team that is tough to play against. If they decide the young players aren't ready, a 1 year veteran 2 way deal for a defenseman is always an option as well. I hope though, that our young blue liners like Vlasic, Phillips, and Kaiser step up this season and secure a long term role.
Anyway you look at it, it's Chicago holding the cards in free agency.