The Blackhawks had no choice but to move Marian Hossa to the Arizona Coyotes. Signed to a 12-year, $62.8 million contract in 2009, Hossa earned every penny of the deal, helping the Blackhawks win three Stanley Cups while making a compelling case as the greatest free agent signing in Chicago history before his career ended last year because of a skin ailment.
By dealing Hossa on Thursday, along with young forward Vinnie Hinostroza and journeyman defenseman Jordan Oesterle for returning Marcus Kruger and other pieces, Chicago recovered $4.65 million in cap space and at least gave the team a chance to add this summer after an underwhelming start to the offseason.
Now it’s on general manager Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks to make sure that sweet cap space isn’t wasted. Bowman has four distinct options now that he has roughly $9.3 million to play with.
In descending order, here’s how the Blackhawks should use their newfound flexibility.
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4. Add an established goal scorer
Chicago has been linked with two big-name forwards: Montreal’s Max Pacioretty and Carolina’s Jeff Skinner.
Acquiring Pacioretty, the Canadiens captain, would mesh with Bowman’s desire to add more leadership and experience. Skinner, who can play center or left wing, would bring versatility and upside. Both would also look very nice on a line with Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz, and they would get plenty of chances in prime territory with those two feeding them the puck. They’d also leave respective scenarios of having their names constantly in trade rumors to what should be a more stable situation.
And with one season left on both of their contracts — Pacioretty at $4.5 million and Skinner at $5.725 million — either would allow Chicago to maintain flexibility while upgrading for the 2018-19 season.
Pacioretty is coming of a knee injury that ended his season in March that followed one of his least productive seasons of his career. But Pacioretty may also fit the bill of a buy-low scorer: He’s four times hit the 30-goal plateau, but ended last season on 17 while shooting a career low 8-percent, over three points below his career average. A year removed from a career-high 37 goals, Skinner regressed to 24 thanks in part to another precipitous dip in shooting percentage (13.2 to 8.7).
The biggest problem is that neither is a defenseman. And why would a Chicago team that still looks miles away from winning be interested in moving assets for a rent-a-player who wouldn’t help the blue line? Scorers are fun, but picking one up doesn’t feel like the right move for the Blackhawks.
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3. Stand pat
If you really think the Blackhawks’ window has closed then what is the point of dealing prospects to upgrade the 2018-19 team? Unless Erik Karlsson is a viable option or Chicago can fix two holes with one deal (more on those options in a bit), this group will struggle to reach the playoffs in a very tough Central division and would need to get supremely hot to make a move once they get to the postseason. There’s no reason to rehash the issues now, but this roster might have too many ifs and questions to invest in, starting with Corey Crawford’s health.
So why not just keep the powder dry, save money for next summer and let the kids develop? It might not be the worst idea to simply ride the youth and let them learn as they go and then re-evaluate around the trade deadline. Then at the minimum, there would be money in the bank when Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat need new contracts (Schmaltz, next summer, and DeBrincat, the following) and maybe to bring back potential 2019 free agent Artemi Panarin.
But that could bring consequences, starting with the end of Bowman and Joel Quenneville. Sly rebuild or not, the losses could pile up and things would get even uglier after the 2017-18 plummet. That might not be palatable for an impatient hierarchy, and goodness, it’d be a tough watch for a fan base not used to seeing anything but success.
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2. Go big
Because of their current contracts and a front office that seems attached to the Stanley Cup winners, it’s hard to see Bowman ever moving Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook. But as long as those four are there, the Blackhawks will never be completely flush with cap space. With the exception of Kane and maybe Keith, none are elite players anymore and their timelines might not align with the emergence of the club’s younger talent, who may not even pan out.
So perhaps it’s not completely insane for Bowman to roll the dice and try to trade for not just Skinner but also defenseman Justin Faulk, addressing two of Chicago’s gaping holes with one move. He could create the room do that by moving Artem Anisimov for more cap space and sliding Kruger into his spot in the lineup.
Or, if things get really zesty, Bowman could try to deal the farm and more for Karlsson and take Bobby Ryan. Karlsson would do everything Keith used to, and bad contract or not, the Blackhawks would find a way to get something out of Ryan. Chicago would obviously have to move out cap to make the numbers work in this hypothetical (Karlsson and Ryan carry a combined $13.75 million cap hit for the 2017-18 season), and Anisimov ($4.55 million) and the help of a third party could make it work.
Realistically speaking, this move is nothing but a pipe dream. It would make Bowman’s comments about maintaining flexibility look very outdated, and these trades would mortgage the future for one final gasp at a fourth ring. Carolina wouldn’t give up Skinner and Faulk out of the goodness of their hearts, and a Karlsson deal would cost Chicago all of its prospect capital and force them to hand the star defenseman an eight-year contract worth at least $11 million per year, should they even be able to extend him.
But man, it would be fun.
1. Fortify the blue line
Let’s be short and sweet: The Blackhawks’ blue line is a major problem.
Keith is aging, Seabrook is a bottom-pairing player getting paid like something more, Connor Murphy has a timeshare in Quenneville’s doghouse, and Brandon Manning is Brandon Manning. The rest? A hodgepodge of Erik Gustafsson, Gustav Forsling, Jan Rutta, or maybe even 19-year-old Henri Jokiharju.
That won’t get it done. But adding a certain three-time all-star who can run a power play and happens to have a right-handed shot could cure some ills. Of course, that player is Faulk, who’s been linked with Chicago for a while now. He wouldn’t come cheap, and Chicago should be incredibly selective in any trade involving Brandon Saad, but Faulk would pair nicely with Keith and allow Quenneville to move defensemen into more appropriate roles. And with two years left on his contract at a reasonable $4.83 million, Chicago could keep its precious flexibility while adding a premium blue liner.
Faulk won’t turn the Blackhawks into contenders, but he’s the best option for Chicago.