Since the last horn sounded in Bridgestone Arena in Game 4 of the 2017 Western Conference Quarterfinals, the Blackhawks have never been the same. The Blackhawks were depleted and broken from the series sweep from the Nashville Predators. They played slow and couldn’t match the Predators physicality all series long. Their ownership realized this and decided to make drastic changes.
Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman traded away a dynamic star in Artemi Panarin and a fearless defenseman in Niklas Hjalmarsson. In return the Blackhawks got a power forward in Brandon Saad and a young physical defenseman in Connor Murphy. Flashforward two years later, and the Blackhawks and Bowman would sure like to undo those trades.
Brandon Saad has not nearly matched the production of Artemi Panarin and Connor Murphy has shown promise but still has shown deficiencies in the defensive zone. The Blackhawks finished as the 7th worst team in the NHL in 2017-2018 and the 12th worst team in 2018-2019. This is the first time the Blackhawks have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2007 and 2008. This offseason is crucial for the Blackhawks to figure out how to make it back in the playoffs and contend for a cup. Luckily, I will point out ways on why the Blackhawks will bounce back in 2020.
- Jeremy Colliton
The Jeremy Colliton era is here and it’s time for the Blackhawks to bind into his system. It took time last year for the Blackhawks to thrive in Colliton’s systems but there were definitely positive signs down the stretch.
The Blackhawks power play improved immensely under Colliton who leaned on a unit of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Erik Gustafsson. At one point the Blackhawks power play was one of the hottest in the league and will look to be even more consistent next year.
For the first couple months of Colliton on the bench, the Blackhawks suffered defensively. The forwards looked lost in the defensive zone and the defenseman were struggling to cover their man in the man-on-man system. It took time but Colliton was determined to fix this.
There was a positive stretch where the Blackhawks really found something in their defense units. They were rolling pairings of Duncan Keith and Erik Gustafsson, Carl Dahlstrom and Connor Murphy, and Gustav Forsling and Brent Seabrook. It was a glimmer of hope for Blackhawks fans to see these pairings excel and be efficient defensively. Now obviously the defense slipped near the end of the season and struggled to regain that mid-season form. Jeremy Colliton will have a full training camp and summer to help the Blackhawks defenseman understand their role and look to improve their weaknesses.
2. Cap Space and the #3 pick
For the first time since the summer of 2009, the Blackhawks will have the cap space to use and try to improve their team with. Having cap space can be a valuable asset to have for Stan Bowman, but he has to be wary of how much money he hands out and the term that comes with it.
This free agent class is one of the best in years in that includes: Artemi Panarin, Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene, Jordan Eberle, and Anders Lee. With the Blackhawks bringing in almost everyone from last season and the cap is $83 million, they will have roughly $15 million to spend on free agency or trades.
I think center and defense are the two primary spots the Blackhawks are looking to fill and will have their options. According to Elliotte Friedman and his 31 Thoughts, the Blackhawks are interested in signing centerman Kevin Hayes. Hayes would be a huge upgrade over Anisimov as he is 4 years younger than him and would provide an immediate spark to the Blackhawks top 9.
It’s also important to realize the Blackhawks can draft an impactful player with the #3 pick in the NHL entry draft in Vancouver and could possibly be someone who makes the team next season. I believe the Blackhawks will select the best player available in defenseman Bowen Byram. Byram could be a candidate to make the team next year, but if not he will definitely be a full-time player in 2021.
From this roster made on Capfriendly.com, the Blackhawks traded Artem Anisimov, signed Kevin Hayes, and signed veteran defenseman Jordie Benn to a 1-year deal to fill in a cushion for Bowen Byram to slide in the year after. The Blackhawks will still have $13 million cap space to use and have enough room to sign DeBrincat and Strome to long term deals.
The Blackhawks can also use their cap space to add on bad contracts and receive draft assets or prospects in return. For example, the Tampa Bay Lightning are cap strapped and are looking to open up some money. Forward Ryan Callahan has one year left on his $5.8 million contract and he could be someone the Blackhawks look to acquire for additional prospects. The Blackhawks could look to acquire Ryan Callahan and prospect Taylor Raddysh for a couple late draft picks. Taylor Raddysh was teammates with Strome and DeBrincat in Erie and would form a very talented line on the Blackhawks.
Either way, the Blackhawks are a team on the rise. With the development and progression from Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Erik Gustafsson, and Henri Jokiharju, the Blackhawks have a promising young core to rely on for years to come. Add in the cap space, Jeremy Colliton’s training, and the #3 draft pick, the United Center will be roaring again come May, June, and July.