Coming out of the 2018 NHL All-Star weekend, the Chicago Blackhawks find themselves in an unusual position. With 53 points, they’re sitting four points out of a wild-card berth in the Western Conference.
While the Blackhawks’ goal is to remain in contention for the Stanley Cup, they’re in danger of missing the 2018 postseason. Still, they’re tantalizingly close to a playoff spot. That might tempt general manager Stan Bowman to consider a roster-boosting move or two near the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
The painful truth is there’s no season-saving deal out there for the Blackhawks. Certainly not one that will vault them back into Cup contention.
After nearly a decade as a perennial Cup contender, the Blackhawks are no longer a powerhouse. As the Chicago Tribune‘s Joe Knowles observed on Jan. 23, most of their best players are “aging, injured, underperforming or some combination of the three.”
When Bowman took over as general manager in July 2009, he inherited a solid core of talent in forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and goaltender Corey Crawford. Almost nine years later, only Kane and Crawford are still considered elite players.
Toews, 29, remains a respected two-way center but his offensive output has decreased in recent years. The decline in the 32-year-old Seabrook‘s all-around performance is noticeable. Keith, 34, is on pace for only 38 points, his lowest output in a full season since 2007-08.
The Hawks are also missing veteran winger Marian Hossa, who’s out for the season with a skin condition. Shipping left wing Artemi Panarin to Columbus last summer to reacquire winger Brandon Saad hurt their offense. Bringing back fading winger Patrick Sharp for one more season didn’t help.
Beyond veterans Keith and Seabrook, the Blackhawks lack depth in skilled, experienced defensemen. The absence of Crawford, meanwhile, should raise concern over where to find his heir apparent.
In recent years, Bowman demonstrated a willingness to make moves near the deadline to bolster his lineup. His most notable additions included defenseman Johnny Oduya in 2012 and Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen in 2015. Oduya was part of two championship runs, while Vermette and Timonen contributed to their last title.
Bowman’s busiest deadline period was two years ago, acquiring veterans Andrew Ladd, Christian Ehrhoff, Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. However, those rentals couldn’t get the Hawks past the opening round of the 2016 playoffs.
Addressing their current roster issues will require more than quick-fix repairs. Such moves could have devastating long-term consequences for the Blackhawks.
If Bowman wants playoff rental players, the cost will be draft picks or prospects. That’s the last thing a GM with an aging core should consider.
The Blackhawks possess depth in promising forwards, such as Nick Schmaltz, Alex DeBrincat, and Ryan Hartman. The 25-year-old Saad has only 23 points in 49 games, but his youth and two-way ability make him worth retaining.
If Bowman seeks players with term remaining on their contracts at the deadline, the asking price could be one of those young forwards.
Bowman also has to consider his salary-cap constrictions. The Blackhawks will have over $3.8 million in cap relief with Hossa on long-term injured reserve by deadline day, but Bowman could still face shipping out some salary to accommodate a trade.
The Hawks already have over $63 million invested in just 13 players for 2018-19. Taking on a player signed beyond this season could put a further squeeze on their cap space.
The time has come for Bowman to admit the Blackhawks need retooling. He doesn’t have to blow up the roster, but the transition toward younger, affordable talent must begin in earnest.
Bowman’s best move is to resist the urge to buy at the deadline. He could instead attempt to move out some of his fading veterans. With most carrying no-movement clauses and others carrying expensive cap hits, that could prove a difficult task.