After trading Brandon Saad and letting Corey Crawford walk, it sure looks like the Chicago Blackhawks hit the “rebuild” button. From the sound of things, key Blackhawks such as Jonathan Toews aren’t thrilled with said rebuild.
Blackhawks, including Toews, not happy with idea of a rebuild
A source told the Athletic’s Mark Lazerus (sub required) that Toews, Patrick Kane, and others are “pissed” that the Blackhawks (seemingly suddenly) decided to rebuild. While Toews didn’t use that same tone in a recent interview with Lazerus, he also didn’t approve of the plan.
“Bottom line is, I want to win,” Toews said on Saturday, via Lazerus. “The expectation for the other leaders on this team and myself is to come ready to training camp every year to be a playoff team. We prepare ourselves to win a Cup for our fans. I’ve never been told that we were going through a rebuild. That has never been communicated to me, for that matter. A lot of this comes as a shock because it’s a completely different direction than we expected.”
Considering that Toews is 32, and Patrick Kane is 31, it’s understandable that they aren’t thrilled with the idea of waiting. And they might be convinced — maybe too convinced — after the team waded into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs after beating the Oilers in the Qualifying Round.
But, let’s be honest. If anything, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman could be dinged for waiting too long to rebuild. If you believe they at least made gestures toward rebuilding, maybe a one-foot-in, one-foot-out plan was flawed?
Could they have gotten more than a third-round pick for Erik Gustafsson if they traded him after that 60-point season, instead of watching his trade value cool off? Would the odds of trading Brent Seabrook have been higher earlier? Maybe a full-on rebuild would’ve given them a better chance to land an extra blue chip prospect or two? (For every Robin Lehner trade that involved a pick, there were a few player-for-player deals; getting futures made more sense than Nikita Zadorov in the Brandon Saad trade.)
[MORE: 2020 NHL Draft Results; Winners and Losers]
How strong is the Blackhawks’ prospect pool?
So, again, Chicago probably should have pulled off the Band-Aid and started a rebuild earlier.
With that aside, how far along are the Blackhawks when it comes to prospects?
To start, they didn’t really land extra “dart throws” in the 2020 NHL Draft. They picked Lukas Reichel at the 17th pick, while only having one pick (a third-rounder) on top of the typical set of seven picks. Looking toward 2021, they actually only have six picks, as they lack a third-rounder.
Looking at work from The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler and others, the Blackhawks’ farm system is solid, but not astoundingly strong. Back in February, Wheeler ranked the Blackhawks’ prospect pool 12th overall., with Adam Boqvist leading the way. Following the 2020 NHL Draft, the Blackhawks ranked among six teams that didn’t have a top 50 prospect among players who hadn’t yet made the NHL leap, according to Wheeler. (Note: subscription required for articles at The Athletic.)
Back in June, Dobber Hockey ranked the Blackhawks’ pool at 11th. So, generally, pundits place the Blackhawks closer to the top third of prospect pools rather than the middle of the pack. Could be better, could be worse.
They at least seem pretty well-stocked on defense, but there’s plenty of work to do.
Key questions for Blackhawks as they enter unofficial rebuild
Overall, the Blackhawks’ pipeline seems solid, although they should actively pursue true impact prospects. Frankly, that’s where they might need to tank, and upset veterans such as Toews and Kane. Let’s look at the other factors of a Blackhawks rebuild.
How much will veterans have left?
Again, Kane is 31 and Toews is 32; they boast matching $10.5 million cap hits that run through 2022-23. Duncan Keith, 37, also sees his contract ($5.54M AAV) expire after three seasons, while 35-year-old Brent Seabrook’s punishing contract ($6.9M) won’t end until after 2023-24.
By the time the Blackhawks’ rebuild makes big strides, will Kane and Toews have much to offer? While Seabrook teeters between replacement-level and a potential future on LTIR, Keith’s seen a dramatic drop-off, even just from 2018-19 to 2019-20.
If the thought of a rebuild repluses these players, then they might fall in line with a lot of others who waived their no-trade/no-movement clauses over the years. Keith seems like the most realistic potential trade chip, although who knows with salary retention? And who knows how many teams would take on those contracts, even at reduced rates?
(Then again, this is the NHL. Even wildly expensive contracts get moved with staggering consistency.)
Which younger players are true “core” players?
Over time, the Blackhawks will figure out how prominent Kirby Dach, Boqvist, Reichel, and other prospects fit into their rebuilded roster. But what about players who fall between prospect and aging veteran designations?
Alex DeBrincat, 22, has already emerged as a top contributor, even after a bumpy 2019-20. But are Alexander Nylander (22) and Dylan Strome (23) going to justify their high draft statuses from before they were Blackhawks? And how much will they cost, being that Strome is an RFA, and Nylander is slated for that status after 2020-21?
Identifying keepers vs. trade fodder ranks among the Blackhawks’ key tasks during a rebuild. If they’re proactive, they can flip players for picks and prospects (Lehner style), rather than deciding too late and letting them walk. If you’re going to lose players like Corey Crawford, why not at least get picks for your trouble … more often than not? Don’t leave stones unturned any longer when it comes to spotting value.
Do they have a goalie of the future?
When it comes to tanking, team-building can become cynical. For instance: letting Crawford walk in free agency makes sense because, well, he’s often been good enough to steal wins.
But the bottom line is that the Blackhawks are basically back to square one when it comes to goaltending.
Heading into 2020-21, they boast two 26-year-old goalies in Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia. While Subban entered the NHL with hype (24th pick in 2012) and Delia did not (undrafted), neither have made much of an NHL impact.
Maybe it will come down to a prospect or future free agent pickup. If nothing else, Chicago’s taken some swings, selecting one goalie in each of the last three drafts. 2020 NHL Draft pick Drew Commesso represents the biggest investment of the three as a second-rounder (46th overall).
So, there are some big questions in net. On the bright side, free agency might be the most efficient way to address goalie options anyway, even if it’s also a big grabbag of mysteries.
Final thoughts on Blackhawks rebuild
Overall, the Blackhawks have a lot of work to do if they’re rolling with a rebuild. In other words, Toews might want to get used to this feeling, unless the organization makes another jarring about-face.
How long do you think a Blackhawks rebuild would take? And do you even think rebuilding is their best option?
From here, it looks like easier said than done.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.