Long-term outlook for Blackhawks: salary cap, prospects, and more

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

Both at age 31 with matching $10.5 million cap hits through 2022-23, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews remain the headliners of the Blackhawks’ core.

While Toews in particular isn’t what he once was, the biggest problem is shaky support.

Duncan Keith is far removed from his prime at age 36, yet his contract ($5.54 through 2022-23) lingers. Quite a bit of this structure has broken down, to the point that it would be preferable for both Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw to stay planted on LTIR.

Credit Stan Bowman with trying to improve a shabby defense. Unfortunately, Bowman whiffed with Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy, and Calvin de Haan to varying degrees. Those three contracts stay on the books through 2021-22.

To Bowman’s credit, he’s experienced significant successes finding forward talent, sometimes off the beaten path. While the Blackhawks galaxy-brained themselves out of Artemi Panarin, they locked up Alex DeBrincat to a team-friendly extension.

One key question remains: can the Blackhawks find the cash to re-sign Corey Crawford? Actually, that folds into other questions. Being that Crawford is 35, should they?

Also, will Dominik Kubalik and/or Dylan Strome become core members, or stay in limbo with “bridge” deals. Can Alex Nylander cement himself? The supporting cast continues to go through auditions as if they’re in Chicago’s Broadway.

Long-Term Needs for Blackhawks

The Blackhawks face plenty of long-term needs.

Still, sometimes the biggest needs go deeper than “scoring depth” and “some actual, above-average NHL defensemen.” The Blackhawks organization needs to let go of the past, even if it means some extra suffering in the present. Otherwise, the future could be plagued by half-measures.

It would be understandable if the Blackhawks struck a short-term deal with Corey Crawford. He quietly put together a surprisingly strong 2019-20, particularly down the stretch.

Yet, how many times should Chicago really go to that nostalgia well? (To say nothing of how tough it might be to fit Crawford under the cap, as Mark Lazerus discussed here [sub required].)

This team needs more difference-makers. Adam Boqvist and other prospects figure to boost the competence of Chicago’s crummy defense, but how much?

Ultimately, the Blackhawks need to add “blue chip” talent, and hope that Boqvist, Kirby Dach, and others fall in that category. By trying to enjoy the best of both worlds of competing while getting some young talent, Chicago risks falling short of both marks. They’ve seemingly accrued good-but-not-great talent, and were moderately competitive but not legitimate contenders.

Pull off the Band-Aid already.

Long-Term Strengths for Blackhawks

As mentioned with Panarin and DeBrincat, the Blackhawks have shown some ability to unearth talent even when they didn’t have no-brainer picks like they did with Kane and Toews. (Panarin was a Euro free agent, DeBrincat went 39th overall in 2016). Dominik Kubalik looks like he could be the latest hidden gem.

Such successes have been a bit of a double-edged sword, as referenced in the long-term needs section. By finding ways to be semi-competitive, the Blackhawks have sometimes added good where a “tank” season may have provided great.

Still, there’s decent talent to work with. DeBrincat, Strome, Kubalik, and maybe Nylander can help on offense. Dach’s development is crucial.

Boqvist ranks as vital on defense, too, but he’s not alone. In ranking Chicago’s prospect pool 12th overall (sub required), The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler frequently listed defensemen. Wheeler highlighted Ian Mitchell almost as much as Boqvist, so help could be coming there. Wheeler’s Athletic colleague Corey Pronman placed Chicago’s under-23 core at a respectable 13th, so it’s not as if there’s nothing beyond Kane and Toews.

Lately, “almost” has been in painful supply for Chicago. An optimist might squint and see how things could break the Blackhawks’ way, but improving this long-term outlook will require more long-term thinking.

MORE BLACKHAWKS:
2019-20 season summary
Surprises and disappointments

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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