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What if Blackhawks hadn’t traded Niklas Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin

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We look back at one of the most consequential days of Chicago’s post-dynasty era

Chicago Blackhawks v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The nice thing about winning three Stanley Cup championships in a decade is fan bases don’t have a lot of “What If” moments regarding the Blackhawks of recent past.

Outside of a fluky bounce in Game 7 of the 2014 Western Conference Final that cost Chicago a shot (or, given the opponent, an inevitable coronation) at back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, much of what’s transpired in the Blackhawks world has ultimately worked out.

So, as part of SB Nation’s weeklong “What If” exploration into alternate sports realities, we turned our attention to one of the biggest moments in Chicago’s post-dynasty years: the one-hour span on June 23, 2017, when the Hawks stunned the hockey world with two massive trades.

First, they shipped defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Coyotes for defenseman Connor Murphy and forward Laurent Dauphin. Before anyone in Chicago could catch their breath, the Hawks then packaged left wing Artemi Panarin, center prospect Tyler Motte and a 2017 sixth-round pick to the Blue Jackets to re-acquire left wing Brandon Saad along with goaltender Anton Forsberg and a 2018 fifth-round pick.

The salary cap ramifications were essentially a wash, at least for the first two seasons after the trade.

Salary cap hits for outgoing pieces:

  • Panarin: $6 million
  • Hjalmarsson: $4.1 million
  • Motte: $925,000

Total: $11.025 million

Salary cap hits for incoming pieces:

  • Saad: $6 million
  • Murphy: $3.85 million
  • Forsberg: $750,000

Total: $10.6 million

For two seasons, the Blackhawks gained $425,000 of cap space, which isn’t enough to add a veteran minimum or entry-level contract. After those two seasons ... well, let’s come back to that later.

The Blackhawks’ 2017-18 season was largely undone by goaltending issues after Corey Crawford missed the majority of the season with a concussion. Even if the assumption is Hjalmarsson was a better player than Murphy that year (an assumption that is potentially overstated if not an outright miscalculation), it’s hard to fathom the former’s presence on Chicago’s roster would’ve been enough to salvage the season. Even if Panarin was around to put up 100 points while skating opposite Patrick Kane for 82 games, it may be hard to envision that team as being playoff worthy, let alone a Cup contender.

As for the ‘18-19 Blackhawks, a similar issue arises. That team’s most glaring issue was a historically bad penalty kill. Does keeping Hjalmarsson over Murphy — who missed the first two months of the season recovering from back surgery — really make that much of a difference? Would Panarin and Kane have scored enough to make up for that chronic deficiency? Furthermore, if Panarin was on the roster instead of Saad, who’s going to handle the 1:41 of shorthanded ice time per game (fourth among Chicago forwards) that Saad logged?

It’s hard to fathom keeping Panarin or Hjalmarsson around would’ve made the Blackhawks significantly better from ’17-19.

And then there are the long-term ramifications for the trades.

Cap certainty was one of the top reasons why Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman felt these trades were worth Chicago’s time. Saad is locked into a $6 million cap hit through the 2020-21 season, while Murphy remains in the books at $3.85 million until 2022. At the time of the trade, both Panarin and Hjalmarsson were on contracts that expired at the end of the 2019 season: Panarin a two-year deal at $6 million average annually value and Hjalmarsson near the end of a five-year deal at $4.1 million.

So, had the Blackhawks hung on to those two players in 2017, they both would’ve needed new contracts this past offseason. Even with the benefit of long-term injured reserve relief because of multiple injuries, the Blackhawks cap space is slightly above $175,000 according to Cap Friendly.

Panarin currently has a $11.6 million AAV after he cashed in with the Rangers in 2019. Say the Blackhawks were able to keep him down to $10 million at the bargaining table last summer. Take the $6 million that went to Saad — who was never re-acquired in this hypothetical — and the $3.85 million currently allotted for Murphy (ditto), let Hjalmarsson walk in free agency, factor in the LTIR and there’s enough wiggle room for Panarin.

That situation leaves Chicago’s already thin blue line without another proven piece. Let’s say the Hjalmarsson/Murphy trade still went down, but the Hawks re-signed Panarin to a long-term deal for $10 million AAV. To stay under the cap, Chicago doesn’t re-acquire Andrew Shaw and his $3.9 million AAV through 2022. That keeps Panarin and another proven defenseman on the roster, but it creates two other issues:

  • Dylan Strome’s looming contract extension seems impossible to manage
  • The same for Dominik Kubalik, who may not even have been pursued by the Blackhawks if they’d still had Panarin.

It’s hard to assemble any situation that keeps Panarin in Chicago after the 2019 offseason.

Without trading Kane or Toews, of course. And that seems too ridiculous to even consider given they have full no-movement clauses and are among the greatest players in franchise history.

The two seasons that have unfolded since those massive 2017 trades would not have been significantly altered if the deals had never materialized. And, as detailed above, it wasn’t really possible for the Blackhawks to hang on to Panarin once his contract expired.

The question here isn’t whether or not the Blackhawks should’ve traded Panarin in the first place. The real question is whether or not they received adequate compensation once they decided to part ways with their budding star.