Alex DeBrincat

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Trade: Blackhawks send Anisimov to Senators for Zack Smith

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Artem Anisimov‘s name has been floating in trade speculation for more than a year now, and on Tuesday afternoon the Chicago Blackhawks finally moved him.

The Blackhawks announced they have traded Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for forward Zack Smith. It is a one-for-one deal that will probably make a bigger impact on both team’s financial situations than on the ice.

Both players are 31 years old, have two years remaining on their current contracts, and are coming off of somewhat similar seasons in terms of their performance. Anisimov scored 15 goals and 37 points in 78 games for the Blackhawks this past season, while Smith had nine goals and 28 points in 70 games for the Senators.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

So what is important here for both teams? Money, obviously.

For the Blackhawks, the Anisimov-for-Smith swap saves them a little more than $1 million against the salary cap as they go from Anisimov’s $4.5 salary cap hit to Smith’s $3.25 number. For a team that is consistently pressed against the cap and still has a ton of big-money players, every little bit of extra space helps. Especially as they have to work out new deals for Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome over the next year.

The Senators, meanwhile, had a different set of problems.

They were still sitting under the league’s salary floor before the trade and are now finally above it.

Anisimov’s contract not only gets them over the floor, but because the Blackhawks have already paid Anisimov’s signing bonus for this season the Senators actually owe him less in terms of actual salary, which is also probably an important factor for a team that is seemingly always in a cost-cutting and money-saving mode.

The Blackhawks have been extremely busy this offseason making multiple changes to their roster after a second straight non-playoff season. Along with acquiring Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in trades to try and upgrade their defense, they also signed goalie Robin Lehner in free agency and brought back veteran forward Andrew Shaw.

This past week they traded former first-round pick defender Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres for Alex Nylander.

Related: Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Trade: Sabres nab Jokiharju; Blackhawks receive Alex Nylander

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For the last few weeks, a thought has percolated: “Boy, the Buffalo Sabres are … kind of killing it, aren’t they?”

Sure, they might have paid too much for Jeff Skinner, but they kind of had to. After that, they landed Colin Miller for pennies on the dollar, took a flier on Jimmy Vesey, and signed Marcus Johansson to a very team-friendly contract. People also seemed pretty happy with their draft haul. It was tempting to write something praising this offseason for a nice bit of work, but there needed that one extra move to go from “scratching your chin in approval” to outright excitement.

Tuesday’s trade with the Chicago Blackhawks might just provide that extra push, as the Sabres added young defenseman Henri Jokiharju in exchange for troubled (but still interesting, maybe?) prospect Alex Nylander. According to the Sabres, that’s the extent of the trade. There are no picks or prospects to warp things, so this is as simple as it gets: Buffalo’s betting on the young defenseman, while Chicago’s betting that they can pull a Dylan Strome with Nylander by getting more out of the struggling winger than Buffalo ever enjoyed.

Sabres receive: Henri Jokiharju

Blackhawks receive: Alex Nylander

To reiterate, the two young skaters have similar contract situations, too, so this is basically a pure one-for-one trade.

No joke

Considering the fact that Jokiharju was a 19-year-old rookie thrust into a prominent role on a Blackhawks defense that needed any help it could find, he fared surprisingly well. That argument is neatly made when you consider his stats relative to his more-experienced, but in many cases, more limited Blackhawks teammates:

Ultimately, as The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus and others indicate, it seems like Chicago soured on the now 20-year-old, for whatever reason(s). PHT’s Adam Gretz pointed to Jokiharju as a reason to be optimistic about the Blackhawks just earlier today, and now he’s gone.

Jokiharju finished with zero goals and 12 assists in 38 NHL games last season, averaging a robust-for-a-rookie 18:59 average TOI. Along with Colin Miller, he gives the Sabres another promising right-handed defenseman, and that overall defense corps is looking better and better, what with emergence of wunderkind Rasmus Dahlin, along with the solid addition of Brandon Montour. Jokiharju also gives the Sabres yet another nudge toward moving on from Rasmus Ristolainen, a polarizing blueliner who may be better off traded.

But, either way, there’s a lot of promise in Jokiharju, though apparently Chicago doesn’t see it that way.

Another reclamation project for Chicago?

Jokiharju is no slouch as a prospect, as the Blackhawks selected him in the first round (29th overall in 2017) and saw the Finnish defenseman make a remarkably swift jump to the NHL.

Make no mistake about it, though, Alex Nylander carries higher expectations. The Sabres selected Nylander eighth overall in 2016, ahead of the likes of Mikhail Sergachev (ninth), Charlie McAvoy (14th), and Alex DeBrincat (soothe your wounds a bit if you’re a Blackhawks fan, he was an instant steal at 39th).

Nylander, uh, hasn’t lived up to that billing, yet the Blackhawks might see this as a sequel to The Thrilling Redemption of Dylan Strome.

That’s certainly possible, but I have some worries that it will work out that way. Much like with Strome in Arizona, it just seemed like Nylander was running out of chances to stick with the Sabres, but the difference in their AHL play provides some cause for concern. Strome generated 50-plus points in his last two AHL seasons, despite shuttling back and forth to the NHL a bit. Nylander’s AHL numbers are more modest: 31 points in 49 games this past season; just 27 points in 51 AHL games in 2017-18.

It’s more comforting to see your should-be-star at least dominating a lower level of competition as they’re struggling to acclimate to the NHL. Strome showed plenty of signs of that during his tumultuous times with the Coyotes; Jesse Pulujarvi’s limited runs with the AHL tend to result in nice production.

The Blackhawks might have more modest expectations for Nylander, yet you wonder if they’ve significantly undersold on Jokiharju’s value. It’s tough enough to find promising defensemen, let alone ones who are just 20 and are right-handed shots.

This point should be clear: considering how explosive Chicago’s offense can be, if Nylander can’t excel there, then you might just have to fasten the “bust” label to him.

***

Yes, the Blackhawks likely view their defense as improved, and they were hoping to add some supporting scoring. They’ve also had some luck with reclamation projects, particularly (somewhat) similar story in Strome.

As of July 2019, this sure feels like a pretty big win for a Sabres team that badly wants to improve its defensive personnel. If Nylander is the bust many feared, Buffalo managed to avoid squandering his name value. Instead, they landed an intriguing prospect who’s already shown some promise at the NHL level.

If you had to choose a side, and had to project based on what you know right now, who won this trade? Consider my vote strongly in the Sabres’ camp.

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.

Blackhawks shaping up as NHL’s biggest wild card

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It is easy to look at the Chicago Blackhawks and come to the conclusion that their Stanley Cup window has slammed shut.

They have missed the playoffs two years in a row, have not won a playoff game in three years, and have not been out of the first round in four years.

Their championship core is older, some of them are gone, and they still have some flaws on their roster that could hold them back.

But if recent NHL seasons have shown us anything it is that we should take the idea of “a championship window” and throw it in the garbage (and I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to referring to “windows” … it’s time to stop). The Pittsburgh Penguins’ championship window in the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni MalkinKris Letang era was thought to be closing … before they won two in a row. The Washington Capitals were thought to have missed their chance in the Alex Ovechkin era … before they finally won it all in 2018. Then this season we had the St. Louis Blues whose window, again, seemed to be perpetually closed … until they won.

The takeaway from all of those teams should probably be this: If you have elite players that are still capable of producing at elite levels, you probably still have a chance to win the big trophy at the end of the season as long as you can put the right players around them.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

That is what makes the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s biggest boom-or-bust teams heading into the 2019-20 season.

The thing about Blackhawks this past season is they definitely had the offense to be a playoff team. They finished the year eighth in goals scored (one of only two teams in the top-16 that did not make the playoffs) and still have the always important top-line players that are capable of producing at an elite level.

Alex DeBrincat is an emerging superstar. Patrick Kane is still one of the best offensive players in the league. Jonathan Toews had an offensive resurgence this past season and is still a great defensive player. Brandon Saad may not be what he was expected to be or what the Blackhawks want him to be, but he will still give you 25 goals just by showing up.

Then there was perhaps the most significant development this past season, which was the emergence of Dylan Strome, the former No. 3 overall pick that is still only 22 years old and seemed to start realizing some of his potential following the mid-season trade over from Arizona. He is still a gifted player with enormous potential that has performed and produced at every stage of his development and finally started to do so at the NHL level once he got an increased role in Chicago. If he builds on that it gives the Blackhawks yet another key building block in place.

Top-line players are the most important pieces of a championship puzzle and the hardest ones to acquire, and the Blackhawks already have them. The problem the past two seasons has been everything that surrounds those pieces.

They still have some pretty glaring holes among their bottom-six forwards, but the return of Andrew Shaw from Montreal should help their forward depth a little bit.

The key to any success or failure will be what they can do when it comes to goal prevention, and that is where much of Bowman’s work has focussed this offseason.

The Blackhawks were a disaster of a defensive team this past season, and when combined with the health issues that have plagued starting goalie Corey Crawford it resulted in one of the worst defensive performances in the league. Nothing else held them back more than that.

What makes the Blackhawks such a wild card team this season is that they seem to have the potential to see some significant improvement in this area.

[Related: Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable]

While Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are a shell of their former selves (especially Seabrook), there is some hope for the future of the blue line due to recent first-round pick Adam Boqvist.

(Update: Chicago’s 2017 first-round pick, Henrik Jokiharju, was initially mentioned here as well, but he was traded to Buffalo for Alexander Nylander hours after this post was published)

When it comes to a more short-term outlook, the Blackhawks invested heavily this offseason in goal prevention with the additions of Olli Maatta, Calvin de Haan, and goalie Robin Lehner. de Haan may not be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from offseason surgery but has the potential to make a significant impact. His strength is shot suppression and the Blackhawks badly need defenders that can keep the puck away from their goalies. Maatta doesn’t do anything to improve the team speed or its offensive firepower, but he is a capable defender that cuts down chances against.

Both players should help.

But the biggest potential improvement could come from the presence of Lehner.

His addition in free agency was one of the more eye-opening signings in the league, not only due to the short-term and bargain price, but because the Blackhawks already have a starting goalie in Corey Crawford … when he is healthy. The problem for Crawford and the Blackhawks is he has had significant health issues the past two seasons, while the team has had no capable replacement. Just look at what has happened to the Blackhawks the past two seasons without him.

Pretty significant drop there without Crawford, and over a pretty significant stretch of games.

With Crawford (or any competent goalie), they have at least been close to a playoff spot. Without him they are pretty awful. With Lehner now in place they have two above average starters which should give the Blackhawks options. They not only have a Plan B if Crawford is not available, but they have a great platoon option if he is and just want to better pace out his minutes and playing time. Even if Lehner doesn’t duplicate his 2018-19 performance, he will still be a significantly better option than what the Blackhawks had. They don’t need Lehner to be a savior, they basically just need him to NOT be Cam Ward, Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, or Jeff Glass.

Even a .916 save percentage from Non-Crawford goalies (Lehner’s career average) would have trimmed somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 goals off of the Blackhawks’ total this past season on the same number of shots. That alone would have moved them from 30th in goals against to 20th. Still not great, but closer to where they need to be. Add in a better defensive performance with the additions of de Haan and Maatta, and they get even closer.

Yes, there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” and “this needs to go right” in this discussion, but the potential is definitely there.

They still have the right pieces in place at the top and they made additions in the right areas to complement that.

If those additions work out as planned, this team could once again be a fierce team to deal with in the West.

If they don’t … it might be back to the lottery for another season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Trade: Blackhawks get Andrew Shaw back as Canadiens clear cap space

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Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman was up to his favorite offseason activity on Sunday afternoon by acquiring another player he previously traded away.

The Blackhawks announced they have acquired forward Andrew Shaw from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for second-and seventh-round picks in 2020, and a third-round pick in 2021.

The Canadiens are retaining zero salary in the trade, meaning all of Shaw’s $3.9 million salary cap hit over the next three seasons comes off of their books.

That is significant for them as they attempt to be players in free agency (perhaps going after Matt Duchene?) when the signing period begins on Monday. Montreal now has more than $12 million in salary cap space and makes them a contender for any of the top free agents on the market.

The Blackhawks originally traded Shaw to the Canadiens three years ago for two second-round draft picks, one of which was used to select Alex DeBrincat.

In Shaw’s three years with the Canadiens he scored 41 goals and 96 total points in 182 games. That includes a career year this past season when he finished with 19 goals and 47 points in 63 games.

The Canadiens definitely sold high on Shaw this offseason and were able to pick up three more draft picks, giving them 11 selections in the 2020 class.

Ignoring the Blackhawks trend of trying to put the old band back together (in recent years they have re-acquired the likes of Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp, just to name a few, after previously trading them away in salary cap clearing deals) it is a curious move for them. For one, it eats up a significant portion of their remaining salary cap space and still leaves them with five roster spots to fill and only around $8 million in cap space to do it. It also is a pretty good sign that they intend to compete this season, not only because they are re-acquiring a veteran player but because that is a lot of draft pick assets to give up for a third-line player that may not really move them that much closer to a championship.

The Blackhawks have been extremely active this offseason as they attempt to return to the playoffs after missing in each of the past two years.

Along with the addition of Shaw, they have also traded for defenders Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan in an effort to improve what was one of the league’s worst defensive teams a year ago.

More Blackhawks Offseason:
Blackhawks defense suddenly looks respectable
Penguins trade Maatta to Blackhawks for Kahun, pick
Blackhawks get de Haan from Hurricanes

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.