The Chicago Blackhawks weren’t kidding around when they said changes would be coming after a second straight first-round exit. The moves came quickly in late June and early July, as GM Stan Bowman shuffled around key pieces to try to create a speedier, feistier version of the Hawks.
Out of the mix are Niklas Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin, Marcus Kruger, Scott Darling, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Brian Campbell, Dennis Rasmussen, Tyler Motte, Johnny Oduya, and a host of other minor players. In their place we got Connor Murphy, Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp, Jan Rutta, Tommy Wingels, Lance Bouma, Anton Forsberg, and some new fringe pieces.
Overall, it’s fair to wonder whether this team is any better. That’s a question deserving of a lot more than a couple paragraphs here, but if Goals Above Replacement is any indication, the answer is a firm no.
A short thread on how teams have added/lost goals above replacement value (using DTM's data).— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) July 9, 2017
CAR leads the pack in gains.
CHI/WSH, gutted. pic.twitter.com/9QT0Cc3iif
Now, GAR is not perfect, and this doesn’t account for changes in the Blackhawks’ on-ice strategy. But Hjalmarsson, Panarin, and Campbell were three of Chicago’s best players last season in the statistic, and bringing back Saad, Sharp, and Murphy could only do so much to offset those losses.
Even if you think GAR overestimates the step back that the Blackhawks will take next season, it’s one strong indicator that the team didn’t necessarily improve at all despite all the commotion.
And yet, most likely, this is the roster that the Blackhawks will have on opening night, give or take the potential emergence of a prospect like Alex DeBrincat. At this point, the prospects feel like the biggest variable remaining in the construction of the roster.
The salary cap is the main reason for that. The Blackhawks are currently over the cap by roughly $34,000, per Cap Friendly, with a roster of 14 forwards, five defensemen, and a goaltender. Most likely, they will do some cap tricks for opening day to get below the $75 million upper limit with enough players to play the first game, then place Marian Hossa on long-term injured reserve on the second day of the season.
That would allow the Blackhawks to use the opened up LTIR cap space to refill their roster after spending opening day on a limited budget.
But assuming that’s the plan, there’s not much flexibility left for the Blackhawks to make moves until mid-O. They’ve assembled the group that’ll be competing for spots in September, and now it’s just a matter of seeing which players rise to the occasion.
The only potential way this could be shaken up is a Hossa trade, which would allow the Blackhawks to free up that $5.275 million in cap space without getting into the weeds of LTIR. There’s one rumor that the Hawks could trade Hossa, a pick, and a good prospect to the Hurricanes in a deal that’d bring back a defenseman, possibly van Riemsdyk.
But Carolina will need its cap flexibility over the next two years in order to retain its many talented young players, so it begs the question of why it would do that deal. Presumably the pick and prospect from Chicago would need to be quite compelling, akin to the Teravainen/Bryan Bickell deal that happened two years ago.
Would you be cool if the Hawks traded Hossa, any prospect but Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman, or DeBrincat, and a second-round pick for van Riemsdyk? Keep in mind that the Hurricanes would need to keep Hossa on LTIR or play him, lest the NHL try to implement salary cap recapture penalties on the Hawks for his retirement.
That kind of deal could make sense, but there’s presumably a line both sides have drawn in terms of value. At a certain point, it won’t be worth the cost for the Hawks to move Hossa when he can just be placed on LTIR. For the Hurricanes, it’d be a hassle of their own making, so obviously they’d need a dang good reason to go through with it.
All of that makes a Hossa trade seem unlikely, even if the Blackhawks are putting in the work to see if it’s possible. The Hurricanes have become a reliable trade partner for the team, and Hossa’s low salaries make his deal more palatable, but that kind of move still feels like a long shot.
The same goes for any other kind of major trade that could be made, especially now that the Hawks’ top remaining names all have complete no-movement clauses except for Corey Crawford, whose place was solidified with the Darling trade. Trading Brent Seabrook or Artem Anisimov is not inconceivable, but it would’ve been a lot easier a few weeks ago when more teams were wheeling and dealing. Toss in that either player would need to give his approval for a trade, and we’re back at square one.
All of this is merely to say that the Blackhawks’ summer of big changes is likely over. For better or worse, they’ve made the big moves that’ll define what next season looks like. Maybe they can pull a Hossa out of the hat, but outside of a possible PTO or two at training camp, what you’re looking at is what you’ll get