The Blackhawks’ championship window is defined by these 4 choices
The biggest “make or break” moments of the Hawks’ Cup quest.
When talking about the Blackhawks’ big Stanley Cup window, which you’ve probably noticed we’re doing a lot of lately, it’s always tempting to look back at the moves that got the team where it is now. How did the window get started? What are the moves that could seal its fate?
Building a three-time Stanley Cup winner over the past decade is far more complicated than just a few signings and trades, but the Blackhawks’ fortunes have swung most heavily thanks to certain moves that (in hindsight) look brilliant or highly suspect. There’s a good chance the Hawks’ window lasts through at least 2019, but it’s also possible it’s already closed for good.
With that in mind, I thought I’d look back at the most important moves of the past few years, and how they’re impacting the championship window today. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but a look at some of the biggest “make or break” moments.
To many people, this is where the Blackhawks began putting limits on their championship window. The team had the unfortunate timing of both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews being a year away from free agency in 2014, when the NHL was optimistic the salary cap would keep rising at a steady rate.
In that environment, it totally made sense for the Blackhawks to give Kane and Toews annual cap hits of $10.5 million each, even if it was a premium. Surely the raising cap number would alleviate the issues created by their big salaries, right?
That was presumably the plan, but a combination of factors would slow the increase of the salary cap over the next few years. Now, nearly three years after the Kane/Toews extensions were agreed upon, they’re still the largest deals in the NHL by annual cap hit.
Will Connor McDavid or another superstar finally surpass them soon? It’s possible, but the Blackhawks ended up paying more than they probably should’ve for Kane and Toews because of unfortunate timing. They had to get the deals done, and $10.5 million was market value — it just so happened that the market changed before those contracts even started.
Rundblad & Leddy
The Blackhawks needed to get under the salary cap entering the 2014-15 season, and had such a stacked team at the time that they were able to deal Nick Leddy to the Islanders for prospects without skipping a beat.
The move, at least in the short-term, clearly worked. The Blackhawks rode their top-four of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Johnny Oduya to the Stanley Cup in 2015. They didn’t need Leddy, who ended up signing a huge extension with the Islanders worth $5.5 million per year.
But now that the Hawks’ defense is showing signs of age in 2017, it’s hard not to look back at the Leddy trade and the David Rundblad trade as two moves that didn’t help much. The team chose older players over Leddy, who is now just 26 years old. Rundblad was supposed to be the next skilled young defenseman to take over for him, but that move didn’t work.
And the Leddy return, which now amounts to prospect Ville Pokka, doesn’t look great in retrospect. The Blackhawks essentially sold low on Leddy to get under the cap, and while the 2015 team was so good that it didn’t matter, they’ve felt the results of their questionable asset management since then.
(On the flip side, there’s one deal around this same time that Bowman deserves credit for. Adam Clendening is a solid young player, but he wasn’t being passed in the Hawks’ organization, and Bowman did a good job to land prospect Gustav Forsling from the Canucks for him. Forsling is now the Hawks’ top defenseman prospect entering 2017-18.)
The next big move upon which the Hawks’ future hinged came in the 2015 offseason. The Blackhawks needed to re-sign Brandon Saad, who was a restricted free agent, but were struggling to find the cap space to meet his demands. Meanwhile, defenseman Brent Seabrook only had one year remaining on his deal, and needed an extension unless the team wanted to risk losing him for nothing in a year.
You know what happened next — the team traded Saad to Columbus for Artem Anisimov and other pieces, extended Anisimov for roughly $1.5 million less than Saad wanted, and wrapped up the offseason by giving Seabrook a ridiculous, monster eight-year, $55 million extension that makes playing hard ball with Saad seem laughable.
It’s not hard to imagine how this looks much differently. The Blackhawks could’ve re-signed Saad for something around the $6 million annually that he got from the Blue Jackets, then traded Seabrook, who would’ve been a major trade asset, for players who could’ve helped on center or defense.
The net result would be having Saad at $6 million instead of Seabrook and Anisimov at $11.4 million — not to mention you wouldn’t have a no-movement clause on Saad given his age. Seabrook and Anisimov both cannot be traded to any team without their permission.
This is a take that a lot of fans don’t agree with. They think that Seabrook has been too important to the defensive core, and the benefit of retaining Saad would’ve been outweighed by the loss of Seabrook on defense. But if you had over $5 million in cap space plus whatever trade return Seabrook yielded, the odds are good that you’d be able to find an adequate replacement who can fill Seabrook’s current role as a decent No. 2/3 defenseman at even strength who does his best work on special teams.
And while Anisimov is solid, Saad is one of the best two-way wingers in the league. There’s a good chance this team is better now if it had Saad and other pieces instead of Seabrook and Anisimov.
The 2016 all-in trade deadline
The Blackhawks had good reasons for being so aggressive at the 2016 trade deadline. Championship windows don’t last forever!
But the execution was a disaster. Trading a first-round pick, a second-round pick, Marko Dano, and Phillip Danault in order to rent Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, and Tomas Fleischmann was questionable at the time, and looks downright terrible in hindsight. The same goes for trading Trevor Daley for Rob Scuderi when other teams were trading veteran defensemen for picks. The Blackhawks ended up with over $1 million in retained money for 2016-17 after they got rid of Scuderi.
These moves all set the team back without meaningfully affecting their ability to win a title in 2016. They still fell wildly short, largely because of a thin defensive group that was somehow never addressed. It’s no surprise they responded by doing basically nothing at the deadline in 2017 — it appears some lesson was learned here.
So I’m sure there are lots of other moves I didn’t include (such as trading Teuvo Teravainen, signing Artemi Panarin, drafting Alex DeBrincat, etc.) but to me, these are the four biggest things that the Blackhawks have done to impact their championship window over the past few years. If you think there’s an angle I didn’t catch on, let me know in the comments!