Where do the Blackhawks go from here?
A Second City Hockey roundtable discussion on the team’s future.
The Blackhawks resume the second “half” of their schedule Friday night when they’ll head east to face the Sabres in Buffalo.
Through their first 51 games, the Blackhawks own an 18-24-9 record, good for 45 points and the final spot in the Central Division. Only the Kings (44) and Senators (43) have fewer points, with the Red Wings and Devils also tied at 45.
Reaching the playoffs is virtually impossible at this point. During this bye week, we here at Second City Hockey have unveiled our “State of the Franchise” series. Since Monday, we’ve detailed the series of events that brought the Blackhawks to this point, analyzed the active roster by position group, broke down the analytics behind Chicago’s descent and checked in on the Rockford IceHogs.
As the Blackhawks conclude their bye week and we conclude this series, it’s time to cast our glances toward the future, to see where Chicago goes from here. The road is unknown, but our staff has offered their opinion on what the Blackhawks should do in the upcoming weeks:
This season hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, has it? This is unprecedented territory for the Blackhawks this decade, coming off what one would consider a modern-day dynasty just four seasons ago. While the Blackhawks haven’t completely forgotten what it’s like to lose, the bottom of the standings is an uncomfortable place to be.
From here, it’s all about continuing to develop their young prospects and players in the system and making smart signings. Avoiding a large-scale rebuild seems to be the front office’s main goal, and the Blackhawks have some exciting defensemen on the rise, including Adam Boqvist and Ian Mitchell. Young players like Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome already at the NHL level can play impactful roles for the Blackhawks in the coming seasons.
While the Blackhawks could use some help on the blue line, a rental at this point isn’t worth a pick or a prospect considering where they sit in the standings. General manager Stan Bowman needs to wait until the offseason, and then spend big. Making multiple, smaller signings won’t fill the gaping holes throughout the lineup, and we learned that the hard way this season. Making investments on proven NHL players will be the big focus.
The Blackhawks should trade defensemen Gustav Forsling and Erik Gustafsson and forwards Brendan Perlini, Marcus Kruger and Dylan Sikura. They should consider hiring a new AHL coach. Load up on draft picks for the future or to add to a big trade.
Forsling is only 22, but he’s a pending restricted free agent and with Boqvist, Mitchell and Nicolas Beaudin waiting in the wings, it’s clear Forsling’s time is up. Gustafsson is only in his first NHL season, and should net a decent haul after what the Jake Muzzin trade between the Kings and Maple Leafs set the market at. If Bowman and get a prospect in Victor Ejdsell, a first- and fourth-draft pick for Ryan Hartman and a fifth-round pick, imagine what he could land for Gustafsson. Kruger and Perlini are both pending RFAs that don’t appear to have a future with the organization.
The Blackhawks should also not sign Evan Barratt after his sophomore season at Penn State. They should give him one more season to flourish before signing him.
Chicago will likely land a top-10 pick, at least, again this year and will be drafting a forward that should be able to slot into a top-nine forward group next season (Jack Hughes, Kaapo Kakko, Dylan Cozens, etc). In the offseason, the Blackhawks must add another scoring threat and a third-line center (unless Philipp Kurashev makes big strides). A top-four defenseman certainly wouldn’t hurt, either.
Now that Henri Jokiharju has been assigned to the AHL, look for Carl Dahlstrom, Gustafsson, Forsling and Slater Koekkoek to get more ice time as the trade deadline approaches. The Hawks have a talented group of defensive prospects nearing their NHL debuts, so one of Bowman’s main priorities should be to open up some space on the blue line. Forsling, Dahlstrom, and Koekkoek all have expiring contracts this season, which makes them prime candidates to be traded.
Additionally, the Muzzin trade should give Bowman an indicator of where the market is for a top-four caliber defenseman. Although Gustafsson is still working out some kinks in his defensive skillset, his offensive capabilities have shined this season. If another GM offers up a first or second rounder and prospects for Gustafsson, I would not be surprised if Bowman accepted.
On the offensive side of things, look for Colliton to continue to juggle around the lines until he finds consistent chemistry and depth in preparation of next season. I am expecting a splash in free agency that brings a premier scoring threat into the top six. This will open up an opportunity for Colliton and the Hawks to have three lines that can produce, and an improved chance at the playoffs next season.
With 31 games remaining, I am looking forward to seeing Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Alex DeBrincat continue to outpace previous career highs in scoring and points, the development of prospects, and which assets will be traded before the deadline.
The Blackhawks don’t really have an option outside of continuing the course they’ve been on for the last few seasons. Chicago’s been stockpiling defensive prospects and hopes their development coincides with continued production from the Hawks top forwards to return the Blackhawks to Cup contention.
They can’t truly tank, because that’d involve moving the contracts of guys like Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — and that’s not happening. But plenty of other pieces can be sold off at the upcoming trade deadline. Anisimov, Gustafsson, Kruger, John Hayden and just about any other veteran on an expiring deal can be dangled in negotiations. The aim should be adding more young talent to the team, and a focus on third-line forwards wouldn’t be a bad idea.
In the summer, they need to spend money. Whether that’s by trade or free agency, Chicago needs to land a proven top-six winger or top-four defenseman in the offseason. It may take some creativity because of a dearth of free agents, but that’s the task ahead for Bowman. Acquire legitimate NHL talent during the summer and then hope at least one or probably two of Chicago’s D prospects earn a roster spot for next season. That could be enough to get this team back into the playoff hunt.
Chicago’s offense is ranked in the Top 15 in goals scored per game this season, with some promising players contributing to the effort. Maybe you can find another young forward in the draft, or perhaps pick up a winger in free-agency to add to the collection of “fire power” in the top two lines.
Defensively...there’s some work to do. Starting Collin Delia “full time” over Cam Ward only gives the 24-year-old goaltender experience heading into the 2019-2020 season. Surround him (or maybe a free agent) with guys like Boqvist, Dahlstrom, Jokiharju and Mitchell, and you’re looking at the newest “defensive core” to protect your freshly-minted goaltender for years to come.
This team might not be as “far away” from a playoff berth as we might have expected at the beginning of the season, but it’s time for the “Bob’s” (or Stan) to take action with the cap space that is available.