Let’s take a trip ahead to 2022.
The coronavirus pandemic has been left in the past and the sports world has returned to its regular schedules. The White Sox are in the midst of a World Series title defense and the Bears are preparing for another 16-game schedule comprised of their typical mixture of suffocating defense with frustratingly mediocre offense. There’s a buzz around soccer, too, after the United States men’s national team raced to the semifinals of the 2022 World Cup on the backs of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKinnie.
For the Blackhawks, it’s been two years after general manager Stan Bowman embarked on a weeklong media tour, declaring the team was looking to supplement its proven veteran talent with a multitude of younger stars.
If this plan failed, Bowman is probably out of a job, several other people likely followed him out the door and veterans such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are likely plying their trades elsewhere. That doesn’t sound like fun, so let’s ignore that route.
Instead, let’s imagine what a decent 2022-23 Blackhawks lineup would look like. How good this team is feels like a debate for the comment section below. But, at a minimum, this should look like a roster that is somewhere in the range of the 3-6 seed in the Western Conference by the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Kane and Toews aren’t going anywhere and neither are Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook — according to Bowman — so we might as well find spots for them in the lineup.
Alex DeBrincat has a 30 and 40-goal season on his resume and is under contract until 2023. He’ll be around. Connor Murphy will turn 30 during the ‘22-23 season and become an unrestricted free agent before it, but will probably be re-signed to provide veteran guidance on the blue line (more details on the cap hits below). Dominik Kubalik will also need a new contract by then but seems like the type of secondary scoring punch Chicago will need. He should be in the mix.
That’s four forwards and three defensemen already.
High draft picks
If all goes according to plan, Kirby Dach may have supplanted Toews as Chicago’s No. 1 center by this point. Dach will need a new deal once his entry-level contract expires after the ‘21-22 season but it’s hard to envision a scenario that sees Dach playing anywhere else.
Adam Boqvist’s progression was not as immediate as Dach’s, but his future also appears certain in Chicago. Like Dach, Boqivst would also need a new contract prior to the ‘22-23 season.
That makes it five forwards and four defensemen.
Beyond those nine players lay a myriad of hypotheticals. Among Chicago’s current established players, the fourth-liners of like Ryan Carpenter, Matthew Highmore and David Kampf could continue to provide valuable production from the bottom of the forward lineup at affordable cap hits. It’s possible another veteran or a young prospect replaces one of that trio. That’s way down on the list of concerns at the moment, though.
Given Bowman’s comments after the Brandon Saad trade, it sure seems like left-handed defenseman Nikita Zadorov is more than just a one-year rental. This name may be written more in pencil than it pen, but it could be assumed Zadorov is still in Chicago come 2022.
And as much as the Blackhawks have hyped Ian Mitchell, it stands to reason the 2017 second-round pick would be part of this lineup, too.
Here’s a rough sketch of what this roster lineup looks like at the moment:
(Note: don’t read too much into the line/pairing combinations or designations of 1st/2nd/3rd/4th lines)
Dylan Strome’s omission here is intentional, based on a hunch that, if the Blackhawks truly believed he was part of this team’s future, his contract issues would’ve already been resolved because salary cap space is not prohibiting a contract extension from being completed. But he could be added to the center mix and would give Chicago a fairly strong 1-2-3 punch down the middle.
Curious about the salary cap hit? Thanks to CapFriendly, the above roster has a total cost of $65.2 million, assuming the following AAVs for players on new deals:
Dach: $4.5 million
Kubalik: $4 million
Carpenter/Kampf/Highmore: $4 million total to be distributed as desired
Zadorov: $4 million
Murphy: $5 million
Boqvist: $3 million
Since the salary cap will likely stay flat the next two years, this would leave the Blackhawks somewhere between $16 and $18 million to fill out the rest of the roster: six forwards, one defensemen and two goalies. Should some of Chicago’s own prospects fill those voids, that’ll leave Bowman the financial wiggle room to go after some higher-priced veterans who have a more proven track record, solidifying the whole lineup.
The third line seems like a perfect spot for current Blackhawks prospects to occupy. This is where players like Evan Barratt (center), MacKenzie Entwistle (center/right wing), Brandon Hagel (left wing), Philipp Kurashev (center/wing) or Michal Teply (left wing) could find their NHL spot. There’s also Artur Kayumov (left wing), a 2016 second-round pick, who continues to impress in the KHL and would be eligible to sign in Chicago before the ‘22-23 season. In an ideal world, those prospects nab the four open lineup spots above. Kayumov and Kurashev are probably the only ones with enough offensive skills to be considered for the 2RW role. And don’t forget about Pius Suter, Chicago’s latest European forward import.
Speaking of European imports, Lukas Reichel, Chicago’s 2020 first rounder, has one year remaining on his contract with Berlin in the DEL. He could very well be in the mix for ‘22-23 season. He’d only be 20 years old by then, however, so there could still be some development required before he can be counted on in Chicago — but his name cannot be ignored.
On defense, the most ideal scenario would have Lucas Carlsson, Nicolas Beaudin or Wyatt Kalynuk (all lefties) complete the blue line corps because those players would provide the most affordable options. Beaudin even moreso, because he’d still be on an entry-level deal. Alex Vlasic (lefty), a 2019 second-round pick, could be another option as a rookie after three seasons at Boston University. Alec Regula (righty), who was acquired from Detroit in the Brendan Perlini trade, might also be considered.
When the ‘22-23 season rolls around, the Blackhawks will know whether Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen or Malcolm Subban are NHL No. 1 quality. All three will be UFAs before that season comes and will have two seasons to show they’re the man.
Matt Tomkins will be the AHL backup this coming season, and will be a UFA in ‘21-22. Cale Morris is also in the system on a one-year AHL contract and looks to be behind Tomkins as the No. 3. Like Tomkins, he could stick around on an AHL deal before landing a NHL contract.
Chicago has two unsigned goalie prospects in the NCAA with Dominic Basse, a 2019 sixth rounder, and Drew Commesso, a 2020 second rounder. Basse (Colorado College) and Commesso (Boston) would either have turned pro after their sophomore season and be an AHL rookie or return for their junior season in ‘22-23.
One not-so-small issue
Much of what is described above is based on the Blackhawks turning their own prospects into NHL-level contributors — which hasn’t happened much recently. Mark McNeil, who was drafted in 2011, is the last first-round pick to sign a contract beyond his entry-level deal and his entire NHL career consisted of two games.
In the four drafts between 2014 and 2017, only two players have appeared in at least 50 NHL games for Chicago: Alex DeBrincat and the since-traded Nick Schmaltz. Players like Kayumov and Mitchell could alter that, but the overwhelming majority of the last wave of prospects never materialized, leaving the Blackhawks with the massive depth issues forcing this current rebuild.
If the Blackhawks are going to get back to contention soon, they’ll need to develop from within. But that’s why they’re in this mess in the first place.