The Athletic’s Scott Powers dropped an interesting report today (sub required): Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman realizes that he’ll have a glut of defensemen soon, so he might need to make a move.
To be more specific, the impending return of Connor Murphy could make for quite a crowd. Powers notes that Bowman acknowledged that much a couple weeks ago, albeit while also resisting some of the perceived pressure to make a move.
” … Murph’s a good player, so we want to get him back as soon as we can to help our team. What that means for the other guys, we’ll sort that out,” Bowman said on Nov. 24. “If there’s a surplus and everyone’s healthy, then there’s always needs around the league for defensemen. We can maybe make a move at that point.”
Now, Powers points to Bowman trying to move a depth defenseman such as Brandon Manning or Jan Rutta merely to open up a modicum of space … but that honestly might be thinking too small.
Right now, the Chicago Blackhawks are on a six-game losing streak. They’re not technically in last place in the West with 23 points, yet they’re sagging with 30 games played already, so they’re awfully close to that mark. Maybe playing five of their next six games at home will help them save a little face, but just about every projection should hammer a painful reality home: the 2018-19 season is as good as shot for Chicago.
With that in mind, the Blackhawks should begin preparing for the future, and that means acknowledging – not continuing to ignore – the elephant in the room: it’s time to strip away significant portions of this core group.
It’s tough to imagine the Blackhawks parting ways with the $21 million duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and in all honesty, those two could still conceivably help a team contend.
Instead, it’s time for Bowman to hit the “reset” button on an ailing defense, and he’d be foolish not to explore every avenue in doing so. Yes, that means doing whatever he can to a) convince Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to waive no-movement clauses and b) finding trade partners for one or both of those defensemen.
The risks that come with keeping Keith
At 35, Keith isn’t at that Norris Trophy level any longer.
Defensemen aren’t always sniping machines, yet it’s troubling that he’s failed to score a goal in 2018-19, and only has two over his last 112 games. He’s not quite the source of offense he once was, and while his possession stats are respectable, they won’t knock your socks off.
Keith is still a very useful defenseman, however, and one can bet that he still enjoys a high standing in the NHL … for now.
Let’s face it; as times go on and Keith’s team declines further from past successes, his stature is likely to tumble. It doesn’t help that his average ice time is down considerably this season (22:36), and last season’s 23:50 TOI average was already a significant step down from his workhorse, 25+ minute days.
The Blackhawks need to be weary of Keith’s $5.54M cap hit, which lasts through 2022-23. Yes, it carries the scent of obvious cap circumvention, as Cap Friendly lists his salary diving from $4.5M to $3.5M next, and so on until it sinks all the way to $1.5M in 2022-23. In my opinion, Chicago would get a much better return for Keith if they traded him before he became, essentially, Marian Hossa-like contract fodder.
(Sure, the Blackhawks moved Hossa’s deal, but they had to give up a helpful, affordable, and not-yet-optimized player in Vinnie Hinostroza.)
If the Blackhawks wait too long, they might be stuck bribing a team to take the last, empty cap years of Keith’s deal, rather than getting assets that can truly help them in the future. That’s not exactly an ideal scenario for a franchise that sorely needs to restock its prospect cupboard beyond Adam Boqvist.
Finding a taker for Brent Seabrook
While Keith could conceivably fetch an interesting offer, it’s difficult to picture GMs lining up to land Seabrook, a 33-year-old with a horrendous $6.875M cap hit that doesn’t expire until after 2023-24.
On the other hand, we’ve seen some surprising trades over the years that force you to never say never.
The Habs didn’t just absorb a nightmare Scott Gomez contract, they also sent Ryan McDonagh to the Rangers. A contract Roberto Luongo despised didn’t keep him in Vancouver forever. Chris Pronger eventually drew checks from the Coyotes.
Seabrook will be easier to move in time, as his total salary goes from $9M in the first three seasons (ending in 2018-19) to $7.5M next year, and lower as the years pass. That’s a comforting thought, but are we totally certain that Bowman has been practicing due diligence to get rid of that deal as soon as possible? You never know if an old-school team might want to take Seabrook off of Chicago’s hands sooner.
All it takes is one GM/front office to think that they’re seeing something no one else understands. Unfortunately, it’s fair to wonder if Bowman is too close to the situation, and thus overrates his own players to his own detriment.
One to keep
If there’s one defenseman I wouldn’t take many trade calls about, it would be rookie Henri Jokiharju. The 19-year-old is already showing serious promise, and maybe just as importantly for the cap-challenged Blackhawks, he’s only in the first season of his three-year, entry-level, rookie deal.
Which brings us to some optimism:
If they can only stomach a short rebuild …
Normally, I’d refer to this idea as a “soft rebuild,” but let’s be frank: it won’t be easy for Bowman to swallow his pride and, ideally, trade Keith and/or Seabrook. Management probably wouldn’t even enjoy moving a more obvious cap-filler like forward Artem Anisimov.
Could there be some light at the end of the tunnel, though?
It certainly stings that Chicago lost some quality, affordable players in recent years because of the cap crunch and some general errors (Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, Teuvo Teravainen, Nick Schmaltz, etc.).
They still might have some help thanks to certain cheaper options. As mentioned, Jokiharju could be part of a solution. Rising star Alex DeBrincat‘s rookie contract won’t expire until after next season. If Dylan Strome can at least bring more pros than cons, then he’s another guy who is cheap through at least 2019-20. Depending upon how he develops, Boqvist might be able to add to that group of cheap, competitive players.
According to Cap Friendly, the Blackhawks currently have 15 players carrying $62.21M in cap commitments heading into 2019-20. If Chicago moved Keith or Seabrook for futures and/or expiring contracts, they could push that number closer to $56M or so (considering overages and other cap quirks).
Suddenly, things could look more interesting with a salary cap estimated around $83M.
Perhaps the Blackhawks could right a wrong by bringing back Artemi Panarin, giving them more of a chance to outscore their problems? Maybe they could lure Erik Karlsson away from San Jose and other suitors? They could also target mid-level free agents in pursuit of depth, or extend their rebuild window by taking on some contracts from other teams (maybe they should “help out” the Maple Leafs?).
Things can start to change quickly once you gain some flexibility, with some ideas being wiser than others. Most of the bolder ideas sure beat sitting idly by, risking waiting too long to make much-needed changes.
For the sake of Blackhawks fans, here’s hoping Bowman agrees, even if it means painfully saying goodbye to some of the icons of a fading era.
MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.