It is Wednesday, my dudes. That means it’s another edition of “Wishlist Wednesday” here at Bleacher Nation Blackhawks.
You can find last week’s Wishlist Item here.
This week we are talking about the long-term future of the organization on the blue-line and the team’s desperate need for a true No.1 defenseman, something that the team hasn’t had to worry about for about 15 years because of Duncan Keith. Now, Keith is no longer the top-pair defenseman he was, and the Blackhawks don’t have a true, sure-fire No. 1 defenseman waiting in the wings behind him. There’s a number of ways to address it this offseason, and they will have to address it sooner rather than later if the organization wants to be considered a contender before the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews end their careers.
While the Blackhawks have used a good number of recent draft picks on defensemen, so far they have not been able to develop any of those picks into the next top-pair defenseman for the club. Beyond Duncan Keith, the veteran defensemen on the roster for the Blackhawks included Connor Murphy, Nikita Zadorov, and Calvin de Haan this past season. It’s possible that two of those three won’t be back with the Blackhawks next season. Although, none of them are top-pair defensemen in the NHL.
Chicago saw an influx of young players and rookies in the lineup this season, including a number of defensemen of the future. Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin, two former first-round picks from the 2018 NHL Draft, have shown promising development in their time in the NHL, with Boqvist getting more ice-time than Beaudin so far.
The 20-year-old former eighth overall pick has had two professional seasons hampered by injuries, but Boqvist started to look more comfortable in the NHL this season and his defensive game looked improved from his rookie season. If his development continues on the current path, he could turn into a very good top-end defenseman, but may not hold No. 1 talent.
Along with Boqvist and Beaudin, rookies Wyatt Kalynuk and Ian Mitchell showed flashes of promise this past season. Unfortunately for Mitchell, the hype that he held coming into the season dwindled over the year as he started to “hit a wall” after 30ish games. Both are still young and defensemen usually take longer than forwards to develop at the NHL level. Both will get ample ice-time next season and could find themselves as good middle-pair defensemen when they hit their peak, but not solving the problem.
In the prospect pipeline, Chicago has intriguing defensemen in Alec Regula, Wyatt Kaiser, Alex Vlasic, and Isaak Phillips, but none are jumping off the page currently as potential No. 1 defensemen in the NHL. We’ll wait and see on them before writing anything off.
Here’s where the Blackhawks may have a real shot at addressing the problem immediately. The free-agent market for defensemen this offseason isn’t all that deep. The prize the Blackhawks (and the rest of the league) could make an offer for and the player that would make significant impacts as a top-pair player starting Day One in training camp is Dougie Hamilton.
At 28-years-old, Hamilton is reaching the age where it could be a gamble to offer a longer-term deal, but for a player of his caliber and for where the Blackhawks currently are with their depth at the position, it would be worth it. Hamilton is having one of his best seasons in 2021, scoring ten goals and 42 points in 55 games during the regular season, and he so far has a goal and three assists in eight Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Hamilton was at one time a one-dimensional defender but has since rounded his defensive game to add to his offensive point-production. He’ll of course garner a pay raise from his current $5.75M AAV cap hit and adding a Norris Trophy could make that raise go even higher. Hamilton would step into the Blackhawks lineup and be the best defenseman the team has seen since Keith was in his prime.
This has turned the heat up just recently, but it appears that the Blackhawks could be in the market for newly “looking to get out of Columbus” player Seth Jones. Jones made it known that he is looking to test the free-agent market next season when his current contract comes to a close. He would be another star-caliber player looking to exit the Blue Jackets organization, and the Blackhawks could be in a position to make a trade and sign him to an extension in the process.
At 26-years-old, turning 27 before next season begins, Jones is in the prime of his NHL career and holds an affordable $5.4M Cap Hit for the 2021-22 season. He tallied five goals and 28 points in 56 games with Columbus this past season and is three seasons removed from his career-best year in 2017-18 when he scored 16 goals and notched 57 points.
According to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, Jones is going to have a lot of attention on him now this offseason, and the Blue Jackets will have plenty of trade offers to consider. One of the major players in the Jones market looks to be the Blackhawks, according to Portzline.
If you’re the betting sort — and isn’t everybody these days? — the early favorite appears to the Los Angeles Kings, given their stable of prospects and their pile of draft picks. Chicago and Montreal are expected to be major players, too.
The major caveat to trading for Jones is that he may not sign an extension in Chicago, and we also have to wonder what assets are the Blackhawks giving up to get Jones? The Blue Jackets are likely selling low on Jones, but he’s still a top-pair caliber defenseman and those are still not cheap to come by in the NHL. For a Blackhawks team that has put their chips in the pile of playing the long game and focusing on developing their current young players in hopes that they become the next “core,” do you then risk losing a first-round pick and a top young player like Adam Boqvist or Kirby Dach to land Jones? I’m not convinced Chicago’s front office pulls that trigger.
Finally, speaking of the long game, the Blackhawks could look to the NHL Draft to find their next top-pair defenseman. Again. While I mentioned earlier that there a good number of decent defensive prospects in the Blackhawks’ pipeline, not many project to be top-pair players. This July’s NHL Draft is a crap-shoot and tonight’s NHL Draft Lottery could shape the strategy of the Blackhawks moving forward.
There are two scenarios where the Blackhawks could find a future top-end defenseman in the first round of this summer’s draft. One is that they win tonight’s NHL Draft Lottery and draft Owen Power with the first or second overall pick. The other is that they do not win the lottery, end up picking at or around 12th overall, and draft Carson Lambos.
Ever since the first 2021 NHL Draft rankings came out, defenseman Owen Power has been at the top or near the top of every list. The former Chicago Steel defenseman and University of Michigan standout is not likely to fall outside the top five picks, maybe not even the top three, so Chicago would need to win the lottery to have a shot at him. In a draft class that has so much unknown about it, one constant is the impact a defenseman like Power would have almost immediately at the NHL level. At 6’5″, 215 pounds, Power would solve two problems the Blackhawks have in needing a top-pair defenseman and needing to get bigger and stronger on the blue-line. While not a consensus top-overall prospect, scouts seem unanimous that Power is the real deal combination of size and skill that every NHL needs in their defensive core.
While Power is the dream, the reality might come down to Carson Lambos for the Blackhawks if they do not win the lottery. That’s not a slight at Lambos either, he projects as a solid NHL-caliber defenseman, but the chance he turns into a legit No. 1 is not a consensus among scouts. At 6’1″, 200 pounds, Lambos is again a great combination of size and skill, but his rankings have been all over the board leading up to this July’s draft. Some scouts continue to rank Lambos as high as a top-five pick, some have him falling to the late-first round in the 28, 29, 30 range. Lambos is one of the top prospects that had their season altered drastically by COVID restrictions and needed to play in Finland this season. He recorded 14 points in 15 games at the U18 and U20 levels in the Finnish Liiga with JYP Jyväskylä Oy (or JYP) and has the two-way skill set that would make him an all-situations style of defenseman at the NHL level.
However the Blackhawks want to go about addressing the need, they need to figure it out soon. Chicago has been one of the worst teams in the league in recent years in surprising shots and having consistently good all-around play from the blue-line. If they want to be contenders in the postseason within the next two years, which is the hope and plan, they’ll need a true No. 1 defenseman.