Blackhawks need to pick a path this offseason despite limited options

But which will they choose? Let’s break them down.

There’s a different feel to this Chicago Blackhawks offseason than any other one I’ve covered in my two-plus years following the team. With an aging core coming off complete decimation at the hands of the Nashville Predators last month, wholesale changes actually feel possible in a way they didn’t before.

Comments about trading a big contract like Corey Crawford or Brent Seabrook were already common before the sweep, but they always seemed to be coming from the fringes. Oh, that guy who wants to trade Corey The Crawful? You don’t need to pay attention to him.

But this spring feels a bit different, for two reasons. The first is that the Blackhawks’ cap situation, always an issue, is hitting its breaking point. They have so little flexibility entering the offseason that shedding salary is a must. The only way to do that will be to get rid of players the team kinda needs to stay in contention. The second is that, again, the Hawks didn’t just get knocked out of the first round again. They got beaten so badly that demoralization set in before the series was even over.

You can see why there’s a greater sense of urgency now than the past couple years.

Maxim Shalunov to stay in KHL for at least 3 more seasons, per report

Except none of that actually means big changes are coming. The team already fired NHL assistant coach Mike Kitchen and AHL head coach Ted Dent, but those are relatively minor moves. One of the true game-changing options — firing Joel Quenneville — has already seemingly been taken off the table. GM Stan Bowman and Quenneville are going to try to work together to get this team back on the throne.

And good luck trading some of those big, long-term contracts with no-movement clauses attached.

The other big variable is the 2017-18 salary cap, which hasn’t been announced by the league yet. Until we know how the final number will compare to the current upper limit of $73 million, there’s still some wiggle room for projecting where things will go. But the increase won’t be so large as to solve what ails the Hawks’ cap situation.

So with most of the pieces already in place, what will Bowman do? Here’s a quick look at the Choose-Your-Path options for the general manager this summer.

Stay the course

This would probably be the easiest option for Bowman, depending on the final cap number. He could shed a salary like Marcus Kruger, stick to adding contracts worth under $1 million annually, and try to fill out the depth on his team with roughly the same core. As we projected last month, the Hawks could probably pull this off if they wanted to. It might be necessary with all the no-movement clauses they have preventing bigger changes.

The problem is that, with so many entry-level players on the team, you’d be looking at a roster that’s still quite thin, with a core that’s a year older than it was last time around. Sure, maybe Nick Schmaltz and Gustav Forsling take a step forward, but there’s also a good chance guys like Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews start showing their age more. If the 2016-17 Blackhawks weren’t a contender, staying the course probably won’t make the 2017-18 Blackhawks a contender.

Stay the course with minor changes

Basically the same thing as the scenario above, but with more deals peppered in. Maybe the Hawks find an affordable player who is a good fit that they decide is worth trading a guy like Schmaltz, Forsling, or Ville Pokka. Maybe trades for restricted free agents Richard Panik, Michal Kempny, and Tomas Jurco lead to getting something interesting in return.

It’d be pretty much the same thing as staying the course, but with enough changes on the fringes that the team’s depth would look meaningfully different next season. The core, however, would remain intact.

Roster shakeup, Hjalmarsson edition

This one takes the changes a bit further. Instead of simply trading Kruger to clear enough breathing room to stay above water, the Hawks go for bigger changes that allow them to supplement the core in a different way than before. This would require trading Niklas Hjalmarsson, one of the only highly paid players without a complete no-trade clause, to make it happen.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: You can’t trade Hjalmarsson! He’s a bargain at $4.1 million!

And you’re right. This kind of maneuvering is a long shot because of how important Hjalmarsson is to the Hawks’ system. Care to imagine what the penalty kill looks like without him on it? Yeah, me neither.

But I insist upon putting this option here because Hjalmarsson’s contract status makes it possible. He can’t block trades to all 30 teams like many of his highly paid teammates, so depending on how desperate the Hawks are to make changes, Hjalmarsson is a possibility. It’s just one that we can all agree probably wouldn’t end all too well.

This category also could’ve applied to Corey Crawford, who has a partial NTC, but the Scott Darling trade makes another goalie trade highly unlikely. It’s hard to see the Hawks moving Crawford now that they’ve already traded their obvious Plan B option in goal.

Why did the Blackhawks choose Corey Crawford over Scott Darling?

Roster shakeup, Panarin edition

Pretty much the same thing as the Hjalmarsson edition, but trading Panarin and his $6 million cap hit instead of Hjalmarsson and hit $4.1 million. Like the other scenario, this would be creating a big hole for the Blackhawks in order to create more salary cap space (while also presumably getting some good pieces in return).

The argument here would be that the team decides it needs to make a change beyond Kruger, and its options are Hjalmarsson, Crawford, and Panarin. Which do they choose? As we explained above, Crawford is pretty much off the table, so they’d be deciding between Hjalmarsson and Panarin, who doesn’t have a no-trade clause due to his age.

When you consider that Panarin would provide an extra $1.9 million in savings and doesn’t have the limitations on his market that apply to Hjalmarsson, it opens up this possibility. Losing Panarin would be a major blow, but the circumstances could line up to make it a real consideration.

Then again, maybe they don’t need to trade Panarin or Hjalmarsson to clear that space. Maybe they could get around one of those pesky no-trade or -movement clauses.

Please waive your no-trade clause!

This section is really about two players. There are six guys on the Blackhawks with complete no-movement clauses, but only two of them feel like actually trade candidates. It’s impossible to see how Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, or Duncan Keith gets traded.

Kane and Toews because they’re the cornerstones of the franchise. Hossa because of his cap recapture penalties. Keith is a little of both.

But that leaves Brent Seabrook and Artem Anisimov as the guys Bowman could try to convince to waive their NMCs. Both players are expendable parts of the system relative to some other players, and their contracts aren’t so onerous that it’s impossible to see the other 30 teams being disinterested.

The circumstances make it difficult to see, though. Maybe some team views Seabrook as being worth his nearly $7 million cap hit, but then you also need to (a) get both teams to agree to a fair trade, and (b) convince Seabrook to waive his NMC for that one team willing to take him.

Could that scenario come together? Sure. It would also be a lot more complicated than trading someone who couldn’t block any deal.

Blow the damn thing up

This isn’t going to happen for a lot of reasons, starting with the no-movement clauses. There’s also the matter of selling ownership on trading a big name like Toews or Kane when they’re regularly among the top-selling jerseys in the league. Trading popular players is hard — it’s even harder when they’re three-time Stanley Cup winners who helped transform the franchise.

But if Bowman watched that series smackdown against Nashville and decided huge personnel changes were needed, he could pursue it. No-movement clauses are firm only to a point. If the Blackhawks wanted to get aggressive enough in pursuing a significant overhaul of their roster, it’s technically possible on some level.

What if you could sell Kane on going to hometown Buffalo to team up with Jack Eichel as potentially the best American duo ever? What if you could convince Seabrook he’s the missing piece for one of the up-and-coming Canadian teams, allowing him to move closer to home?

Yes, they’re unlikely scenarios, as we noted above. But sometimes, getting a no-trade clause waived is just a matter of determining how badly you’re willing to do it. There’s usually a deal the player is willing to agree to, the problem is finding one that works for the team as well.

But don’t hold your breath. Of all the possible paths the Blackhawks could take this offseason, blowing up the roster is by far the least likely one.