Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has re-shaped the look of his team over the last 14 months.
Through multiple trades and other roster moves, the Blackhawks became significantly younger (and faster) than the team that was swept in its last playoff appearance. Similar avenues have also alleviated the salary cap crunch that Chicago has felt for the last decade.
But now it’s time for Bowman to summit the steepest peak on the climb back to the mountaintops upon which this team once stood: improve the team’s on-ice talent at the NHL level.
Chicago looked so old and slow in that aforementioned four-game exit from the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Soon after that series ended, the Blackhawks started looking for younger players, most notably in the trade that sent Niklas Hjalmarsson, then on the verge of turning 30, to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Connor Murphy, who’d just turned 24. The Hawks also added 20-year-old Alex DeBrincat and 21-year-old Nick Schmaltz to its top two forward lines. And more younger players could be on the verge of bigger roles, with players like Carl Dahlstrom (23), Dylan Sikura (22), Blake Hillman (22), Victor Ejdsell (22), Gustav Forsling (21) and Henry Jokiharju (19) all with the potential to earn roster sports at training camp this September.
Bowman also relieved Chicago’s salary cap stress with the trade that sent Artemi Panarin — who’s going to be very rich, very soon — to the Columbus Blue Jackets for old friend Brandon Saad, who’s locked in to a $6 million cap hit through 2021. Thursday’s trade that sent away Marian Hossa’s contract leaves the Hawks with $9.3 million cap space, what feels like the most cap room the Blackhawks have had to use since signing Hossa to that massive deal in 2009.
But lowering a team’s average age and adding cost certainty through transactions are nowhere near as difficult as finding ways to make your team better. It’s hard to argue that any deals Bowman has made in the last two offseasons have done that. The best argument is probably in the Hjalmarsson/Murphy deal, and that’s still debatable. And there’s less debate in the Panarin/Saad deal, because of how well Panarin continued to play in Columbus while Saad suffered through the worst season of his career.
There hasn’t been a better opportunity for Bowman to improve Chicago’s on-ice talent on quite some time.
The Blackhawks have their top two picks for the next three seasons intact along with a boatload of prospects added to the organization over the last few seasons. Players like Jokiharju and Sikura figure to be competing for NHL spots, not trade bait. But there are other pieces who could be used as bargaining tools to go after, say, a Justin Faulk or a Max Pacioretty or a Jeff Skinner. Players like Ian Mitchell, Tim Soderlund, Lucas Carlsson and Chad Krys could be included in a package to land the NHL-ready players that Chicago still needs to make its roster into a formidable opponent for an ever-improving Central Division.
Bowman’s got the cap space. He’s got the pieces he needs to build a strong offer. Now’s the time to pull the trigger on a deal to get this team back into contention.
Because (spoiler alert!) the “core” is old. Duncan Keith will be 35 on Monday, Brent Seabrook is 33, Corey Crawford is 33, Jonathan Toews is 30 and Patrick Kane is 29. Arguments over which players of that group are or aren’t regressing are not the point here, but it shouldn’t be hard to agree that they’re collectively on the downside of their careers — though they can certainly still be effective NHL players (and even moreso, in a few cases). And, as mentioned multiple times on this website, the uncertainty of labor peace in the summer of 2020 looms large in the future. And forgive the lack of optimism because of 1992 and 1994-95 and 2004-05 and 2012-13. But if the NHL loses that season, that’s another year for that group to get even older without even having the potential to lift the Cup a fourth time.
It really feels like this team has two seasons left to squeeze one final Cup out of this core before some serious questions will be asked of the organization, and the fan base probably won’t like the answers.
That’s why Bowman needs to act now. Maybe this team doesn’t win a Cup in the 2018-19 season, but perhaps it builds a foundation that leads to one final parade down Michigan Avenue for this group in the summer of 2020.
No pressure, Stan.