With the Blackhawks 2015-16 season now over after being eliminated in the first round of this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, the focus for the organization now shifts toward the offseason. After falling short in a year in which they did so much to try and solidify their place as a Stanley Cup favorite, there are a lot of pressing questions facing the Blackhawks this summer. For now, we've narrowed the list down to the most pressing issues. Here are the ten biggest questions facing the Blackhawks this offseason.
What do they do with Bryan Bickell's contract?
Bickell has one year remaining on his deal with a $4.5 million salary and $4 million cap hit. Sending him to Rockford of the AHL removes only $950,000 of the cap hit. The Blackhawks were able to handle the dead space this season, but with a substantial bonus overage from Artemi Panarin, and retained salary from the deal that sent Rob Scuderi to Los Angeles already reducing next season's cap, they may be unable to do so next season. As it's highly unlikely another team would take Bickell on at any price, the Blackhawks' only option may be to buy him out. A buyout carries a cap penalty of $1 million in 2016-17 and $1.5 million in 2017-18. - Liz
Will they add a defenseman from outside the organization?
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman emphasized growth from within in his end-of-season press conference, but the only defensive prospect who is close to the NHL at this point is Ville Pokka, unless someone surprises in camp. While Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville seem happy with Trevor van Riemsdyk as the fourth defenseman, Viktor Svedberg and Erik Gustafsson have strugled at the NHL level and Michal Rozsival could retire, so Bowman may look to strengthen his third pairing through free agency or trade. - Liz
What will they do with Andrew Shaw?
Shaw is the most important of the Blackhawks' pending restricted free agents. His salary this season was $2.5 million, which sets the value of the qualifying offer the Blackhawks must tender to retain him as an RFA. While his play merits a larger raise, he might be willing to take a one-year deal to stay in Chicago similarly to Marcus Kruger last season. However, the cap situation remains murky for 2017. On the other hand, the Brandon Saad situation last year demonstrated the talk of a "hometown discount" can evaporate once the negotiations get serious. If Shaw wants to get the contract his play warrants this off-season, it's unlikely to be in Chicago. - Liz
What will Artemi Panarin get paid?
Panarin already earned his performance bonuses of $2.575 million this season, finishing eighth among forwards in scoring with 77 points. There's no doubt he earned every penny, but now the Hawks stand to try and lock him up long term. The only precarious issue here is, how they create space for him. Chicago will already have to likely move someone like Andrew Shaw just for Panarin's bonus, but for a longer extension, Panarin is certainly going to command more than his $3.275 million salary from 2016. They know that they can't let another Saad instance happen if they are to truly contend for a Cup in the near future. You can't keep losing this kind of superstar talent to maintain the championship window after all.
If the Hawks choose to buy out Bickell as Liz said, a situation may arise where there is not enough room in negotiations for both Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen given the dead money left over. I'm not sure if Panarin will necessarily command as much money as Saad at the moment, given there is no pressure of a pending restricted free agency, but Chicago would do well not to allow Panarin "bet on himself" as Saad once did. - Robert
How will the team handle Teuvo Teravainen?
Teravainen faced some inconsistency both in his usage and his performance in his sophomore season. However, Bowman gave a positive comment on Teravainen in his end of season press conference. Teravainen has a year remaining on his entry-level deal, so it seems likely that the Blackhawks will keep him while he's cheap. He saw more success at wing this season than center, and Quenneville liked his versatility, so where in the lineup he'll play is unclear - knowing Coach Q, it could be anywhere in the forward corps. - Liz
What prospects have the best chance to make the NHL next season?
The Blackhawks have a good number of prospects that look to be NHL ready, particularly at forward. Young players like Nick Schmaltz (if signed), Tyler Motte and Ryan Hartman look like they could find a roster spot out of training camp next season. Schmaltz is easily the best prospect Chicago has in the system, and after an outstanding sophomore season in which he helped lead North Dakota to winning the program's eighth national championship, it wouldn't be surprising to see him make the jump the pros. Motte was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker award last year, and made an instant impact when he joined Rockford on an amateur tryout contract. Hartman has been one of the Hawks better prospects since being drafted in the first round in 2013, and is the heir apparent to Andrew Shaw's role. Again, all three should be contention for a spot at camp next year.
There's also Vincent Hinostroza, who led Rockford in scoring with 51 points (18 goals and 33 assists) in 66 games in his first full pro season after leaving Notre Dame two years early. The Bartlett, Ill. native played in seven games this season for Chicago, but was held scoreless. He will join Motte on Team USA for the World Championships, which begin May 6.
On the blue line, Ville Pokka looks like the only prospect that is likely to be in the NHL next season. The Hawks have really thinned out their organizational depth at the position in the past few years, and Pokka is the only blue line prospect that appears close to NHL ready at this point. I wouldn't be surprised if the Hawks still feel he needs a bit more seasoning in the AHL next year. - Adam
How will Stan Bowman replenish the prospect pool?
The Blackhawks no longer own their first and second round pick in the 2016 draft, and with the trades of Stephen Johns, Marko Dano and Phillip Danault, the prospect pipeline could benefit from some additions. Bowman will likely look again to the KHL, the Swedish Hockey League, USHL and college free agents where he has had success in signing young players in the past. While we can't expect to hit on a Panarin every year, taking a flier on these players costs little and can pay off with cheap depth options. Reports have already linked the Blackhawks to UND free agent Drake Caggiula and KHL defenseman Michal Kempny, so Bowman seems to already have this step in hand. - Liz
Could the Blackhawks trade anyone of significance other than Shaw or Bickell?
The short answer here is: no. The Hawks don't have a lot of attractive trade assets at this point in time beyond Shaw. If they wanted to go "nuclear" and clear cap space, perhaps they could look at trading someone like Brent Seabrook, but with his new contract extension set to kick in this summer, and his full no movement clause, it's extremely unlikely to happen. Artem Anisimov and Kruger are similarly in the first year of new deals. I don't think they're going to move a top young player like Schmaltz or Teravainen, and in order to move any other top prospect it would require them receiving major defensive help. They're unlikely to move 2017 draft picks due to being the host of that draft, so outside of Shaw -- which is still just a maybe at this point -- and hopefully Bickell, the Blackhawks will probably not be trading many players this summer. - Adam
Who plays wing next to Jonathan Toews next season?
Two years ago or even at the start of this season, this would have been an easy answer on both sides.
What was once one of the best lines in hockey in Saad, Toews and Marian Hossa, now looks like a shell of that run. Saad left in restricted free agency vacating a spot at left wing that the Hawks struggled to adequately fill all of this season. Hossa took a noticeable step back offensively as he eventually transitioned into a third line role towards the end of the series with the Blues. Hossa may still play next to Toews but it's worth wondering if Quenneville tries some new things with his superstar captain in the prime of his career.
The Hawks ideally won't want another situation where they're only reliably playing one scoring line as they did this year so playing around some wouldn't hurt. Shaw had some trials with Toews this year but he may not return. Someone to look out for will be Richard Panik, who thrived in a top line role as Quenneville's new Swiss (er Candian breakfast loving) army knife. He showed versatility, speed and an excellent two-way game using his size and athleticism that fits well with Toews. We could also watch for Chicago's top overall prospect in Schmaltz to potentially be expedited into a huge role on the other wing with Toews, but he has yet to be signed. Free agency won't work well with Chicago either as there really isn't enough cap space to sign a quality veteran.
For now, Panik-Toews-Hossa wouldn't be the worst idea to bring back a dominant first line. - Robert
How do the Blackhawks recover with a longer offseason?
Ah, the price paid for sustained deep playoff runs. You never know when they'll quite come back to bite you.
In the Toews-Kane era, the Blackhawks core has attained by far the most mileage of any team in the league since 2009. If you really put it in perspective, Chicago hasn't had much of a rest since 2013 either. With the lockout having Game 6 of the 2013 Final end in late June, two more sustained deep playoff runs into the Western Conference Final and a Stanley Cup in June 2013 and 2015 respectively, didn't give this team much time to just breathe. This is where all of these "playoff switch" conversations began where everyone assumed the Hawks were just saving energy for the postseason. It worked in 2015, but the extra gear didn't seem to be there this year with the Hawks running on fumes at times. Personnel losses and a greater reliance on the core players in that respect, had fatigue no doubt play a part on this team. You could particularly see the effects on a larger defenseman like Seabrook, He was bound to lose a step either way at 31 years old, but it seemed he had much more trouble moving around this season than normal because of the wear and tear on his body.
Ideally, the Hawks step away from the game for a few weeks and take advantage of these extra two months of offseason time. It might be time to just get away from hockey for a little while and effectively recharge. If they can, you get the feeling that there's a much fresher and hungrier Hawks team in the early goings of next season. Maybe there won't be need for talk of a switch then. - Robert