Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman spent a lot of money and value in terms of trade assets last summer to improve their roster.
Bowman acquired defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta, signed center Ryan Carpenter and goaltender Robin Lehner on the free agent market and re-acquired winger Andrew Shaw. He took risks by trading for wingers Alex Nylander and Zack Smith, and drafted center Kirby Dach third overall.
How did Chicago’s offseason grade? There were likely not many high expectations with multiple small moves, although signing a Vezina-nominated goaltender did bring loftier aims. Below each acquisition is ranked from best to worst.
The Blackhawks gave up nothing to acquire Lehner should not have been available, especially after helping the Islanders upset the Penguins and get them to the second round of the 2019 playoffs. Yet there he was, available on a cheap, given the circumstances, one-year deal.
The Blackhawks received solid goaltender play from him that formed the best tandem in the league with Corey Crawford, for a time, and elevated the penalty kill. Lehner also helped lighten the workload to help Crawford stay healthy for the second half. In February, the Blackhawks acquired a 2020 second-round pick, a substitute backup goaltender in Malcolm Subban and a decent prospect in defenseman Slava Demin when they traded Lehner.
Lehner did everything he could to help the Blackhawks and brought back considerable value after being traded.
Carpenter made a huge difference in the Blackhawks improvement on the penalty kill. He was a solid fourth-line center, and while he lacked offensive production (three goals, 12 assists in 65 games) he did so while making near minimum, an affordable deal for a bottom-six role player.
Carpenter easily exceeded expectations and brought back huge return on investment. It cost the Blackhawks no assets to acquire him and he presented above-replacement level play, especially on the penalty kill, the unit he was brought in to help.
Dach had the best season of the top three picks from the 2019 NHL draft, which isn’t saying as much as it probably should have, based on expectations. Jack Hughes (Devils) and Kaapo Kakko (Rangers) simply had horrid seasons, while Dach showed up. Right now out of the top five forwards from that draft (Hughes, Kakko, Dach, Alex Turcotte, Dylan Cozens), I wouldn’t be surprised if Dach ends up being the best of the bunch.
Dach was a player who wasn’t expected by many to play in the NHL this season and made somewhat of an impact, which means he exceeded expectations. There’s room for improvement, but he’s only 19.
Maatta is on a similar deal to Carpenter, although one that’s more expensive, both in terms of salary cap ($4.083 million) and in terms of assets headed the other way as Dominik Kahun would’ve provided better forward depth when injuries happened this season.
With a much more unclear future in Chicago (buyouts have hung around Maatta even if his play doesn’t traditionally merit the usage) than Carpenter, Maatta grades lower. Maatta generally represented value analytically, even if he never passed the eye test. He might be high on this list, but he carved out role on the bottom pairing and made himself important.
Calvin de Haan
De Haan may have cost a lot less in trade asset value (Gustav Forsling and Anton Forsberg) than Maatta, but he costs more against the cap ($4.55 million), and was worse statistically. Maatta had the superior season, but the player Maatta was acquired for had a superior season than de Haan and Aleksi Saarela had cost.
There’s a trade off. While Maatta had the better season, and costs less, de Haan played a more important role when healthy and cost less in in trade asset value to acquire him.
Smith is who we thought he was when he was acquired from Ottawa. He’s not likely to make a difference in terms of production — four goals and 11 points — but he can make a difference defensively and he’s not a bad skater. He was seemingly one of the faster players on the penalty kill. That’s what catches your eye when watching Smith, he’s surprisingly quick and agile.
Smith exceeded some expectations — he also helped the penalty kill improve — but didn’t blow them out of the water. He also cost the Blackhawks center Artem Anisimov, and makes more than Carpenter at $3.25 million, which is a lot for a defensive specialist.
After being acquired from Buffalo for defenseman Henri Jokiharju, who could have been an important player in the Blackhawks’ top four, Nylander had some games where he showed up and some games where he did not. It’s also fair to say you’re more keen to look for negatives in a player you don’t think was worth being traded for.
Nylander scored 10 goals and 26 points in 65 games, which isn’t bad but it’s not the player worth a young defenseman like Jokiharju. Nylander had some solid analytics (1.96 points per 60 at five-on-five, 7.15 shots per 60, 1.5 goals above replacement, 5.3 expected goals above replacement), but he didn’t turn them into real results. He wasn’t anything more than a bottom-six forward who may have been served better by some time in the AHL.
This trade was a mistake.
Shaw’s concussion history is well documented, both with the Canadiens and in his first stint with the Blackhawks. It might end up costing him his career. A second- and a third-round pick was lower than what the Blackhawks got in return for Shaw from Montreal, but the risk factor involved was also substantially higher. His season ended Nov. 30 with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) and he won’t return for the qualifier round, but if Shaw does retire this year then it opens up some room on a flat cap for the Blackhawks.
It’s fair to say most prospect acquisitions don’t work out. The average prospect interaction adds depth to the AHL roster and that’s about it. That’s the move for Saarela, who had one assist in five games for the Rockford IceHogs before he was traded to Florida for Ian McCoshen. Saarela scored 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists) in 43 games with Florida’s AHL team and four points (two goals, two assists) in nine NHL games. McCoshen helped defensively and allowed the more offensively-minded defensemen to play with the puck. He had eight points (two goals, six assists) in 56 games for Rockford.