The Chicago Blackhawks were given a series of options with restricted free agent Brandon Saad this summer and chose the one nobody expected. The team traded Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a seven-player deal Tuesday, ending his time with the team after four years and two Stanley Cups.
The reaction to Saad's departure has been understandably distressed, with many fans wondering how GM Stan Bowman could let such a fantastic young player leave in such unexpected circumstances, and that's reasonable. Patrick Sharp, we were ready for, but the trade of Saad took away a player many assumed would be a franchise cornerstone for years to come.
Now the good news. Not only does moving Saad free up the team's need to commit a major salary to the young winger, but it has brought back several useful pieces from Columbus. Marko Dano is a new young gem for the franchise, Artem Anisimov is the long-awaited No. 2 center who brings size and the other pieces offer depth and fodder. It's not hard to find the silver lining in an unfortunate situation.
Losing Saad undeniably hurts, taking away one of the few players in this league who qualifies as a rising star, but the team found a way to salvage the situation. The Hawks couldn't afford Saad's reported demands, and if the alternative was letting him walk as an RFA in exchange for some draft picks, the following players should qualify as a superior return.
Dano, 20, is the real prize of the trade. Drafted by the Blue Jackets with the No. 27 overall pick in the 2013 draft out of Slovakia, he's become even more well-regarded over the past couple years while rising through Columbus' system. ESPN's Corey Masisak says he's likely more valuable than a mid-level first-round pick would've been:
Marko Dano was a 1st-round pick who has developed into a great prospect. More valuable than say, the 15th pick in the 2015 draft, yeah?— Cörey Masisak (@cmasisak22) June 30, 2015
During the 2014-15 season, Dano made his NHL debut as a 19-year-old and also spent significant time with the AHL's Springfield Falcons. In 35 games with Columbus, he recorded eight goals and 21 points, and in 39 games with Springfield, he put up 11 goals and 19 points.
"I think he’s going to surprise some people with his all-around game," Bowman said during a post-trade conference call.
The forward has fantastic hands, as evidenced by this:
Primarily a center, Dano will likely compete to take over as the No. 3 behind Jonathan Toews and the other big piece from the Saad trade, Anisimov. He might get bumped to a wing role temporarily, but either way he should be up with the NHL team for the whole season and play a prominent role going forward.
Dano is currently signed to an entry-level contract that'll include a $925,000 cap hit for the next two seasons. He's set to become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2017.
The Blackhawks also aggressively targeted Anisimov as part of the Saad talks. "He’s a player that we have been trying to acquire for quite some time," Bowman said during the conference call. Projected as the No. 2 center behind Toews, Anisimov will provide the stability Chicago has craved for some time -- he'll reportedly sign a five-year extension with the team soon.
After the Hawks sorted through a number of options last season, eventually giving up a first-round pick to rent Antoine Vermette, Anisimov can be the big (6'4, 198 pounds) center who eats minutes and plays the two-way game that coach Joel Quenneville craves. He's not a flashy scorer, but certainly brings a change of pace from many of the team's other options, including Dano.
Last season, Anisimov recorded seven goals and 27 points in 52 games, missing significant time due to torn triceps. He scored a career-high 22 goals during the 2013-14 season, and has averaged between 0.46 and 0.54 points per game in each of the past five seasons. His possession numbers haven't been as consistent, though they were trending in the right direction in 2014-15.
The forward should also help to ease the transition of talented young forward Artemi Panarin, who is expected to join the team out of Russia next season. Anisimov, a fellow Russian, presumably makes the Blackhawks' locker room a tad more welcoming for the 23-year-old this fall.
Anisimov is currently on an expiring deal that'll pay him a $3.28 million salary in 2015-16, but he's apparently going to be around for a while. After years of struggling to find guys to play behind Toews up the middle, Bowman made sure that wouldn't be the case if he had to move Saad.
Jeremy Morin and Corey Tropp
You're probably already familiar with Morin, who was a member of the Blackhawks last season before being traded to Columbus. Now he's back as part of the Saad deal along with Tropp, a 25-year-old winger who should provide the team with depth but little else. These two pieces aren't particularly important, but help give Bowman some options as he figures out who to bring to camp in the fall. Morin and Tropp will presumably compete for spots then if they're still around. It's possible Bowman moves these guys.
Final thoughts and a possible roster
This isn't the conclusion we expected from the Saad RFA saga, but it's an acceptable one given the trying circumstances that the team was placed in. Anisimov and Dano are useful win-now pieces that fit into the team's financial structure, and it's possible that the latter develops into something much more than a quality bargain forward on an ELC. Dano has done nothing but raise his profile during his first two years in the league, after all.
This isn't to dismiss what Saad brought to the franchise, or how much the Hawks will miss his contributions on the first line, but looking at the way things stack up now, the roster is pretty intriguing. The team will probably need to make another move or two, shedding the salaries of Bryan Bickell and potentially Kris Versteeg, but now retaining Sharp is in the cards. That might not sound great to everyone but I wouldn't be surprised if a return to a steady first-line role helped his production next season.
Here's a look at the situation assuming a couple things: (a) Marcus Kruger will re-sign for a $2 million cap hit and (b) Bickell's salary can be moved. It's worth noting that if these two things don't come to fruition, the most likely result will be a move to get rid of Versteeg's salary. That would help them to pay Kruger a little more and/or retain some salary in a Bickell trade.
It's also worth noting that a large portion of the cap hit on Panarin is bonuses that will be removed from the cap if he fails to reach them. CBA rules say that potential bonuses are included in cap hits at the beginning of the season. I'm not sure exactly how that works but Panarin's base cap hit is only $812,500, while there are nearly $2.6 million in bonuses. The same goes for Stephen Johns, who has a base hit of $800,000 plus another $300,000 in potential bonuses.
Here's the cap situation with a minimum salary addition on defense:
Again, the team's inability to move Bickell's whole salary would blow up this entire scenario and force the team to shuffle some pieces at the bottom, but this is the situation. Here's a projected depth chart:
So that's where the roster is at. Maybe Versteeg is out at the bottom and that money is used to help pay part of Bickell's salary, or something else. But for now, this is what the 2015-16 roster will look like assuming the team follows through on moving Bickell, retaining Kruger and staying the course.