LOTS TO DO — AND LITTLE TO DO IT WITH
OFFSEASON SHAPES UP AS A PUZZLE FOR BOWMAN AS CAP-HINDERED HAWKS TRY TO KEEP AND ADD TALENT
In his 11 years as Blackhawks general manager, Stan Bowman has never seen an NHL offseason like the one that lies ahead. In fact, he’s practically viewing it as a new era altogether. “In the past, the system we had was — even if not official — based on the concept of a rising [salary] cap,” Bowman said during his end-of-year media availability Friday. “The comparable contracts were based on that. Now, we’ll have a different phenomenon.”
With the salary cap staying flat at $81.5 million for the next two years, Bowman foresees an inevitable market correction coming. Few teams will have money to spend, few teams will be able to meet free agents’ contract demands, and values will be driven down.
And the stagnant cap is just the biggest of numerous changes this offseason.
All the action that normally happens in June and July has been pushed to October. The draft will be held entirely online. And no one knows exactly when, or how, the 2020-21 season will happen.
That said, Bowman and the rest of the Hawks front office still have a packed to-do list. Here’s an overview of all the storylines and events coming this offseason:
The draft is set to take place online Oct. 9 and 10, and the Hawks will have their usual array of picks. Their first-round selection will be roughly in the middle of the order — 17th. They also hold not their own secondround pick but the Penguins’, and both their own and the Flames’ third-round picks, in addition to their own fourth-, fifth- and sixthround picks.
Unlike last year, when the Hawks’ selection of center Kirby Dach third overall set the tone for the rest of the first round, the Hawks’ options will be more affected by other teams this year. They need prospect depth at forward, and an abundance of solid players are projected go between picks 10 and 25. Names to watch include Seth Jarvis, an undersized but high-scoring wing from the WHL; Connor Zary, a well-rounded center also from the Western Hockey League; Noel Gunler, an offensive-minded wing from Sweden; and Dylan Holloway, a strong-framed center who played with recent Hawks signee Wyatt Kalynuk this past season at Wisconsin.
Other forwards such as Dawson Mercer, Hendrix Lapierre, Rodion Amirov and Jan Mysak could also be in the mix.
The Hawks could also make a splash by picking Russian goaltender Yaroslav Askarov, who will take years to develop but is seen by some as a potential once-in-a-generation goalie.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
The Hawks’ list of restricted free agents — who will only stay restricted if they are tendered qualifying offers — is long this year: forwards Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik and Drake Caggiula; defenseman Slater Koekkoek and goalie Malcolm Subban.
The flat cap will make it difficult for Bowman to re-sign all of those players and also keep unrestricted-free-agent goalie Corey Crawford (more on him below).
“We do have some decisions to make,” Bowman said. “We have some ideas on what we’re going to do. That process is starting right now. [I’ve] had a couple of meetings since we finished the season, and we’ll have more over the coming weeks. It’s our job to figure out how we’ll have flexibility, as well as making sure we keep the players we need to keep.”
Kubalik’s 30-goal rookie season cranked up his value. He and the Hawks may be best served by negotiating a two-year bridge deal at around $4 million annually, which would give Kubalik the chance to prove he’s not a one-hit wonder — setting himself up for a huge 2022 payday — without swamping the Hawks financially in the short term.
Strome, meanwhile, saw his stock fall during an up-and-down season. His inability to click on the wing, and Dach’s emergence as the permanent No. 2 center, bumped him to the third line in the playoffs. His next cap hit may be around $3 million.
Caggiula and Koekkoek were both solid role players this year, and Bowman had especially complimentary words for Koekkoek on Friday, but the cap crunch makes their futures in Chicago uncertain.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
The Hawks only have one at the NHL level, but he’s a huge one. Finding a way to keep Crawford, or solving the goalie conundrum through another method, is agenda item No. 1 for Bowman this fall.
“That’s a top priority, getting goaltending situated for next year,” he said. “But I don’t have that mapped out right now.”
Crawford’s expiring contract carried a $6 million cap hit; the Hawks probably can’t afford that anymore. Ideally, Crawford — a career-long Hawk — would take a discount in the $3- to $4 million range, but he has no obligation to do so.
Theoretically, the Hawks could promote Subban — if they re-sign him — or AHL starter Collin Delia to be their starting NHL goalie next year, but that would be risky.
Bowman also could look to bring in another unrestricted free agent if Crawford leaves, but money will be just as big an issue then. The top unrestricted goalies — Robin Lehner, Braden Holtby and Jacob Markstrom — will probably be too pricey. Islanders co-starter Thomas Greiss, Stars ace backup Anton Khudobin or Flames journeyman Cam Talbot could be viable options.
The Hawks could, and likely will, use buyouts to give themselves more cap space— at least enough to have a fighting chance of re-signing Crawford, Strome and Kubalik without a salary-dump trade.
The obvious candidates are defenseman Olli Maatta, although his strangely fantastic postseason complicates the decision, and forward Zack Smith. Bowman also could try to trade Maatta.
Buying out Maatta would save $3.4 million each of the next two seasons. Buying out Smith would save $2.2 million next season.
If either defenseman Brent Seabrook ($6.9 million cap hit) or winger Andrew Shaw ($3.9 million) isn’t ready for next season and goes back on long-term injured reserve, that also would free up more cap space, but both veterans have said they plan to be ready for 2020-21.
NEXT YEAR’S TEAM
The salary crunch, no matter how it affects personnel changes this offseason, means the Hawks’ 2020-21 roster probably won’t be too different from the 2019-20 one.
“We’ll have a similar group, not the same group,” Bowman said. “There’ll be some new faces. But there’ll be fewer brand new faces to the Blackhawks.”
That last sentence implies many of the Hawks’ additions will be internal. Top defensive prospect Ian Mitchell is finally coming in; sought-after European import forward Pius Suter also recently signed. Forward prospects Brandon Hagel and Philipp Kurashev and defensemen Lucas Carlsson and Nicolas Beaudin will contend for jobs, too.
One noticeably missing part of this preview is the “free-agent signings” category. That’s because the Hawks are unlikely to make any substantial out-of-town free-agent additions, outside of maybe a goaltender. While unrestricted free agents Taylor Hall, Alex Pietrangelo, Mike Hoffman and Torey Krug will make headlines, the Hawks will not be involved in those sweepstakes.
Instead, their offseason activity will be less dramatic and more cautious, largely shuffling around their own puzzle pieces. ✶
Goalie Corey Crawford (above) could be on his way out, forcing the Hawks to consider promoting Malcolm Subban (below left) or drafting Russia’s Yaroslav Askarov.