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Blackhawks’ best step forward could be small step back

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Chicago should approach the NHL trade deadline with its future in mind.

Chicago Blackhawks v Calgary Flames Photo by Terence Leung/NHLI via Getty Images

We’re in that same spot again, aren’t we?

It’s strikingly similar to last season. The playoffs appeared out of reach for the Blackhawks around Christmas but, when the calendar flipped to the new year, a strong run of play injected some playoff hopes into the fanbase.

Guess what happened next.

A 1-5-2 stretch, punctuated by a 1-4-0 road trip through Canada that ended with a 3-2 loss to the Jets on Sunday. The Blackhawks remain six points out of a playoff spot with the NHL’s trade deadline a week away and barely a quarter of the season remaining to leapfrog four teams.

The Blackhawks appear to have two options right now.

They could keep this team together and see if they can pull off some miracle run to the playoffs, giving postseason hockey to Chicago for the first time since 2017.

Or ...

They could sell.

Not a total auction, of course. But enough to signal this season isn’t going to end the way the Blackhawks had hoped and they’ll take proper steps now to ensure it doesn’t happen again in the 2020-21 season.

And general manager Stan Bowman can bring some worthwhile chips to the bargaining table if he wishes:

  • Erik Gustafsson is the most obvious trade piece, given his affordable $1 million cap hit and expiring contract.
  • The expiring contracts of Drake Caggiula and Slater Koekkoek could appeal to teams looking to bolster the depth spots on their roster, although the returns in those deals likely wouldn’t be substantial.
  • Olli Maatta has two more seasons with a $4.083 million salary cap hit remaining on his contract, but perhaps another GM would be enticed by the pair of Stanley Cups on his career highlight reel — it wouldn’t be the first time that happened.

But the biggest hauls possible for the Blackhawks would come from trades involving their goaltenders.

Corey Crawford is 35 years old, but he’s still performing in a way that could appeal to team’s lacking confidence in their own goaltending. Plus there’s that minor detail of him having already won the Stanley Cup twice. Crawford seems like the type of commodity that would be in high demand at the trade deadline.

Robin Lehner could be an even more enticing option.

Lehner, like Crawford, will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer. He won the Jennings Trophy last season and was a Vezina finalist. This season, Lehner’s .923 penalty kill save percentage is the best in the League among goaltenders who’ve been on the ice for at least 50 minutes while shorthanded, according to Natural Stat Trick. Not only would a team acquiring Lehner have his services for the postseason, they’d also have the inside track on negotiating a new contract with him. Acquiring a goalie of Lehner’s caliber with the potential to lock him up as the long-term starter would have to net a serious return, wouldn’t it?

It’d be a shrewd move, for sure.

The most difficult part of this tactic may be getting Chicago’s veterans on board with the idea of selling off so many key pieces of the current roster. There probably isn’t an easy way to approach 31-year-olds Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, let alone 36-year-old Duncan Keith, and ask for another year of patience as they continue to travel down the back halves of their careers. The selling point is that additions made at this deadline could bolster the team in the upcoming seasons, when the Blackhawks ceiling would (hopefully) be higher than an early playoff exit.

At some point, though, the Blackhawks front office needs to do something different. This is the second straight season that’s seen Chicago residing in the purgatory that exists between contending teams and rebuilding projects. A total teardown doesn’t seem possible with all the no-movement clauses occupying the roster.

But if they can make moves now, and collect pieces that can help in the short-term, maybe it’s worth auctioning off the final two months of this season. Perhaps trading away one of Chicago’s goaltenders can help improve the 18 skaters in front of them enough that the Blackhawks won’t have to rely so heavily on their goaltenders to carry them to victory each night.

Maybe — just maybe — the best way for this franchise to move forward in future seasons is to take a small step in the opposite direction right now.