Could the Blackhawks consider trading Brandon Saad this season?

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman speculated on the idea in his recent 31 Thoughts column.

Brandon Saad played less than 10 minutes in the Blackhawks’ 3-2 loss to the Flames on Tuesday night, then less than 24 hours later, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman brought him up in his latest 31 Thoughts column. “Chicago needs cap relief. With Brandon Saad dropped down the lineup, wonder if they look to give him a fresh start somewhere else,” Friedman wrote.

This sounds like speculation more than firm reporting from inside sources, but it’s still telling of where the reunion between Saad and the Blackhawks has gone in its first season. Rather than have the winger return to reignite Jonathan Toews and a past dynamic duo, those two have been split up in hopes of finding a mix that works.

So naturally, with the Feb. 26 trade deadline less than three weeks away, it’s time to start wondering what moves the Blackhawks might make. And with a roster loaded with no-movement clauses that limit their options, Saad immediately stands out as a prime candidate if general manager Stan Bowman wants to make a major move.

Toews, Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith can block trades to all 31 teams. Among players on the roster making more than $4 million per year, Saad is the only one without any trade protection folded into his contract. Just like how a lack of flexibility forced Niklas Hjalmarsson into the trade spotlight last year, it’s not inconceivable that a similar situation could play out with Saad.

However, this would be a place where the Blackhawks would need to tread carefully. Saad is still a very talented 25-year-old two-way winger on a reasonable contract through 2021. The team should be weary of selling low on him. It’s one thing if another team offers a quality piece in return — let’s say the Oilers offer Oscar Klefbom because they want to pair Saad with McDavid, as one Twitter user suggested to me — but otherwise, there’s little reason for the Hawks to go out of their way to move one of their best pieces.

It’s also important not to oversell what Friedman said in his 31 Thoughts column. The way he frames it makes it sound like he’s merely connecting dots instead of offering some grand revelation from an insider, so it’s not like we should start trying to parse out all the teams that could be pursuing Saad.

But Friedman rightfully notes that Saad is one of the few Blackhawks who could be moved this season in order to clear cap space. Right now, the team has $63.1 million committed to seven forwards, four defensemen, and two goaltenders for next season, per Cap Friendly. Even with an increased salary cap and a bunch of players on entry-level contracts, there won’t be a ton of room to make big changes to a roster that could clearly use some help.

Anisimov’s no-movement clause turns into a partial no-trade clause on July 1, so that’s one way to clear salary over the summer, but if the team wants flexibility before that or additional cap space, Saad is the next natural candidate. Sure, it’d probably be better to keep him around and let him turn things around, which he seems likely to do given his underlying stats, but the Blackhawks should at least keep their ears open.