It has been quite a while since we have watched an NHL team shamelessly gut its roster with the ferocity that the Chicago Blackhawks have over the past six months.
After missing the playoffs in four of the past five years (with that one playoff appearance only happening because of the expanded bubble postseason), and many of their championship players either already gone or rapidly aging, it has been clear that a full rebuild is on the way.
The short-term plan for that rebuild is obvious: Gut the roster, be as bad as possible in the short-term, hope for some draft lottery luck, and rebuild around as many top picks as you can collect.
It is a long process, and as the Buffalo Sabres showed going back to the 2013 and 2014 era, it is not a guaranteed recipe for success. And even though the Blackhawks will not openly admit that is what their plan is, all you have to do is look at the most recent roster moves.
It is not just about getting rid of declining players toward the end of their career that would have no long-term future with the team (like the recent trades of Duncan Keith or Marc-Andre Fleury over the past year). It is about getting rid of everybody on the roster regardless of age, production level, or long-term outlook.
[NHL free agency tracker 2022: Full list of offseason signings]
In return for that group of players, the only NHL players they have received in return are Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk, both received in exchange for Brandon Hagel. Everything else has been draft picks.
What stands out most about those deals is that four of those five players are age 25 or younger. They are, in theory, players that should still have prime years (and in some cases maybe the best years) still ahead of them.
A run down of the moves to this point.
- Hagel, 23, and a 25-goal scorer this past season, was traded to Tampa Bay at the NHL trade deadline for Raddysh, Katchouk, and two future first-round draft picks (2023 and 2024).
- Alex DeBrincat, one of the league’s best goal scorers, a bonafide top-line player, and still only 24 years old, was traded to Ottawa before the NHL draft for three draft picks, including the No. 7 overall pick in 2022.
- Kirby Dach, still only 21 years and just three years removed from being the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, was traded in a three-team trade for the No. 13 overall pick in the draft.
- Dylan Strome, 25, was not given a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent despite the fact he has been a 20-goal, 50-point player with strong underlying numbers with the Blackhawks. He will be a highly sought after player as an unrestricted free agent.
- Dominik Kubalik, 26, has a 30-goal season on his resume and was one of the few goal-scoring threats still on the roster. He was also not extended a qualifying offer and will be an unrestricted free agent.
Individually, most of these moves are defensible, and probably even make some degree of sense.
Hagel might not ever repeat his 2021-22 performance and they sold high on him. Maybe Kubalik gets overvalued in arbitration. Dach has not exactly panned out as hoped.
But selling DeBrincat for so little, and then getting nothing in return for Strome, just really shows the degree to which the Blackhawks are willing to tear this all down.
The end result is a roster that, as of now, has maybe four above average NHL players on it. Even they have their flaws.
Patrick Kane is still an elite scorer, but he might legitimately be one of the worst defensive players in the league. At this point in his career is not going to carry a team no matter how many points he racks up. Jonathan Toews has rapidly declined and might only be able to score at a second-or third-line rate if the team is lucky. Those two are both entering the final years of their contracts and will be unrestricted free agents after this season.
Seth Jones had a strong offensive season, but his contract is an albatross while the trade that brought him to Chicago has been a massive loss for the Blackhawks in terms of the assets given up (not to mention the salary cap hit). And then there is Connor Murphy, a solid if unspectacular defensive defenseman that is probably a solid No. 2 or 3 on a good team.
As far as the good, proven players are concerned. That is it. They have some intriguing players with potential (Lukas Reichel, Philipp Kurashev), but nobody else that is proven. The only goalie under contract is Petr Mrazek, and he is only there because Toronto wanted to dump his contract so badly it was willing to move back 14 spots in the draft to do it.
[Related: Blackhawks trade Kirby Dach]
The rest of the roster is grim, and even with those four this might already be the worst team in the league by a substantial margin. While they were able to collect a lot of draft picks, they should be lucky if two of those four first-round picks they recently acquired becomes an NHL regular. They should be ecstatic if even one becomes a star.
Their most valuable pick will be their own pick this year. The prized prospect in the 2023 class is Connor Bedard, and the Blackhawks have already done well to potentially position themselves for the top odds to get him. But even in that situation they still have less than a one-in-five chance of actually getting the top pick.
Now that they are at this point, there is no reason for them to stop here.
They might as well just fully embrace the situation and do whatever it takes to auction off any remaining facsimile of an NHL player to the highest bidder. Retain as much salary as possible (which will be required to move any of the Kane, Toews, or Jones) to maximize the return.
Neither Kane or Toews is going to re-sign in this situation unless they are blindly loyal to the organization, or completely lacking in common sense to to see the reality of the situation and what is ahead in the coming years. There is no reason for the Blackhawks to even entertain the idea of extensions given the other roster moves. Rather than lose them for nothing in a year, just rip the band-aid off and get it over with and keep collecting your lottery tickets. Yes, they have no-trade clauses, but those are minor hurdles if it can get them to a situation where they play competitive hockey again for the first time in five years.
Because it is probably going to be at least another five years before this team even has a chance to be competitive again.