When compared to recent years, the 2024 class of NHL free agents isn’t as loaded down with young-ish superstars. Steven Stamkos, Adam Henrique, and Jonathan Marchessault headline a group of veterans on the wrong side of 30 years old, but premiere young talent will be tough to come by.
That’s bad news for the Blackhawks, who will undoubtedly be searching for a veteran presence who will stick around as the team aims to get back into contention. The players listed above are likely a bit too far into their careers to be viable options by the time Chicago is a true powerhouse.
One exception to the rule, though, is Maple Leafs forward William Nylander. The superstar winger has tallied 22 points in just 15 games this year, leading his team and edging out even stars like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner of Toronto. He’s enjoying a terrific start to the season and has been a tremendous scorer throughout his career.
Nylander is being paid nearly $7 million this year and will be an unrestricted free agent when the year is up. Given his production, he certainly has a big paycheck coming his way. However, the Leafs find themselves in one of the stickiest cap situations in the league after signing Matthews, Marner, and John Tavares to deals worth more than $10 million AAV each. They can’t afford to keep everyone, and it doesn’t take a genius to see why he’d want to test the waters of free agency.
ESPN analyst John Buccigross believes that if and when he does so, Chicago would be a great destination, and it’s easy to make a case for them to sign Nylander.
Of any of Nylander’s potential suitors, Chicago has the most resources to get a deal done. They have the most projected cap space in the league with over $11 million and will have even more if they let high-dollar players like Tyler Johnson and Nikita Zaitsev go at the end of the season. If they’re eyeing a trade this year, the Blackhawks have seven picks in the first three rounds of next year’s draft as ammunition, as well as plenty more down the road.
If the Blackhawks were able to sign Nylander at the end of the year, he would immediately change the trajectory of the team’s rebuild, just as Connor Bedard has done. If those two were put on the same line, they’d be nearly impossible to stop. While Nylander has been playing on the wing all season, perhaps he’d be asked to slot in as the second-line center, the position where he was drafted. That move would alleviate many of the Blackhawks’ struggles down the middle and potentially allow Lukas Reichel, who has looked much more comfortable on the wing than at center, to move back to his regular position.
If Nylander was Chicago’s long-term answer at 2C, he would also be incredibly useful in taking the pressure off of the team’s rising prospects. With talented skaters like Frank Nazar and Oliver Moore expected to join the team as early as next year, Nylander’s presence would allow them to be eased into the league in a bottom-six role.
As the Blackhawks continue to take strides toward eventual playoff contention, the availability of the veteran star might be of particular interest. They have the means to do so, and Nylander would be a great asset wherever he’s lined up. If he’s asked to play center, he’ll alleviate some of the team’s biggest concerns. And if he’s Chicago’s top right winger? Good luck stopping a line of him, Bedard, and Taylor Hall next year.