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2018 NHL free agency: Potential forward targets for the Blackhawks

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John Tavares is the star of the class, but there are other options behind him.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in a decade, a Chicago Blackhawks general manager has actual cap space available with free agency slated to begin on Sunday. According to CapFriendly, Chicago general manager Stan Bowman has $9.2 million in cap space for the 2018-19 season, with the potential for that to go even higher if the Blackhawks can move a few contracts, such as Marian Hossa’s.

But who’s available for Bowman to spend that money on? We started by looking at the forwards, where there’s one big prize that probably isn’t coming to Chicago.

John Tavares, center
2017-18 team: New York Islanders
2017-18 cap hit: $5.5 million
Status: Unrestricted free agent (UFA)
Stats: 82 games, 37 goals, 47 assists

The No. 1 talent available in this year’s free agency class by a mile. The downside is that Tavares has already narrowed his field of potential candidates, with the Blackhawks reportedly not among the teams that met with Tavares this week. He’d look great in a Chicago sweater. But that looks to only be possible in NHL ‘19.

James van Riemsdyk, left wing
2017-18 team: Toronto Maple Leafs
2017-18 cap hit: $4.25 million
Status: UFA
Stats: 81 games, 36 goals, 18 assists

The older sibling of former Blackhawk Trevor appears to be one of the obtainable forwards with top-six talent in this class. With a 6-foot-3, 217-pound frame, JVR would give the Hawks the type of power forward it hasn’t had since injuries shortened Bryan Bickell’s career. Of his 36 goals, 11 were on the power play with many of them coming via puck battles in front of the net that he was able to win with his size and strength. The question for Chicago will be how much of a raise Van Riemsdyk wants over the six-year, $25.5 million deal he signed in 2011 when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers. At 29, it’s likely to be the last big payday of his career and he should be able to cash in, given the thin crop of free agents. But Chicago should be able to afford JVR’s price tag if that option is available.

Tyler Bozak, center
2017-18 team: Toronto Maple Leafs
2017-18 cap hit: $4.2 million
Status: UFA
Stats: 80 games, 11 goals, 31 assists

Relegated to a more-appropriate third-line role in Toronto the last few seasons, Bozak turned in the kind of steady production from the bottom six that rounds out the scoring punch for a contending NHL team. Pairing the signing of Bozak with a trade of Artem Anisimov ($4.55 million cap hit) would help alleviate whatever cost it takes to bring in Bozak, who’s in a similar position as his Toronto teammate in looking for one final payday. Along with solid point production, Bozak would be a big boost as the faceoff dot, where’s been over 50 percent in each of the last four seasons with a career mark of 53.6 percent.

Paul Stastny, center
2017-18 team: Winnipeg Jets
2017-18 cap hit: $7.0 million
Status: UFA
Stats: 81 games, 16 goals, 37 assists

This one might be just out of Chicago’s reach, especially if Jonathan Toews and Nick Schmaltz are locked in as the team’s top two centers. Stastny will probably command something in the vicinity of the $7 million he earned last season and that’s just too much for the Blackhawks to pay to a third-line center. Moving Schmaltz to the wing and letting Stastny remain in the middle could be an option, but it’s still a pricey one. Stastny does provide special teams usage that make him more valuable on the open market, but that value still may not be enough to get Bowman to pick up the phone and give him a call.

Rick Nash, left wing
2017-18 team: New York Rangers, Boston Bruins
2017-18 cap hit: $7.8 million
Status: UFA
Stats: 71 games, 21 goals, 13 assists

The current speculation at TSN is that the Pittsburgh Penguins have been clearing cap space to make a run at a player like Nash or the aforementioned JVR. Nash just turned 34 years old and never seemed able to stay healthy during his five-plus seasons in New York. In 12 playoff games with Boston, he had just three goals and two assists. The production has been tapering for quite some time for Nash and, given the Hawks recent focus on adding speed to the lineup, doesn’t appear to be someone Chicago would target.

David Perron, left wing
2017-18 team: Vegas Golden Knights
2017-18 cap hit: $3.75 million
Status: UFA
Stats: 70 games, 16 goals, 50 assists

Perron has played for four different teams in the last three seasons but never had a better campaign than the 66-point season he just put together in Vegas. He added nine more points in 15 playoff games, so it’s not like Perron disappeared when the time and space available was made smaller in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Perron has hovered around a 50-point-per-season average for much of his career, much of it spent antagonizing the Blackhawks while skating for the St. Louis Blues. Perron’s contracts have never eclipsed the $4 million AAV mark, but a career-best season should take care of that this summer. Is that too much for the Blackhawks to afford? Only one way to find out.

Michael Grabner, right wing
2017-18 team: New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils
2017-18 cap hit: $1.65 million
Status: UFA
Stats: 80 games, 27 goals, 9 assists

Similar to Bozak, a player like Michael Grabner might be out of place in a top-six but could provide excellent depth scoring in the bottom two forward lines. Grabener hasn’t been able to re-create the 34-goal season he had as a rookie in 2010-11, but has managed to score 27 times in each of the last two seasons. Grabner has the wheels that’d make him a fit for Chicago’s uptempo style and could occupy time on the penalty kill and power play units. But spending big money on depth forwards is a quick ride to salary cap hell and the Blackhawks may be reluctant to throw too much money at a player of Grabner’s caliber. But if the rest of the free agents head elsewhere and someone like Grabner is still around, he may be one of the only options remaining.