There is plenty to be excited for this upcoming season with the Chicago Blackhawks. They have a new look on defense and in net, Jonathan Toews is pretty much back, and they have a number of young players that look to be headed in the right direction in their budding NHL careers.
But, look beyond this season and things start to get tricky.
Chicago, seemingly overnight, decided that the “rebuilding” process was over and went for it hard this summer with the additions of Seth Jones, Jake McCabe, Tyler Johnson, and Marc-André Fleury. Those additions are a big part of the reason why there is optimism that the Blackhawks can return to being Stanley Cup Playoff contenders this season. But starting in 2022-23, Seth Jones’ contract extension (an eight-year deal with a $9.5M AAV cap hit) kicks in and things start to get tight financially. Even with a reported possibility of the league’s salary cap increasing by $1M next season, Chicago is still going to be forced into some difficult decisions.
The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn released his annual “10 Worst Contracts in the NHL” article earlier this week, with Jones’ extension landing high on the list. Now today, according to his model, it shows the Blackhawks are one of the worst team’s in the NHL when it comes to being efficient with their spending.
You’re going to be scrolling for a bit.
Grading (almost) every contract in the league and measuring each team's overall contract efficiency.
Unsurprisingly, it's Colorado with the best cap sheet in the league.https://t.co/4JeJLFtpyA pic.twitter.com/ZItrY0NBjk
— dom at the athletic (@domluszczyszyn) August 12, 2021
As Luszczyszyn points out, the Blackhawks were heading in the right direction this offseason with their roster moves. They did not over-pay Nikita Zadorov and they moved Duncan Keith to the Oilers. While Keith was far from the problem defensively in the past few seasons for the Blackhawks, his production and value weighed against his contract wasn’t favorable to Luszczyszyn’s models or to the Blackhawks. They added a more effective defensive-minded player in Jake McCabe at a reasonable rate, as well.
Then came the Seth Jones trade and extension.
Then they signed Seth Jones for eight more years, whose contract singlehandedly dropped the team 12 spots in these rankings. Without the Jones extension, Chicago’s cap sheet looks pretty pristine relatively speaking, with the recent Brandon Hagel extension looking solid too.
I understand the Jones discourse is nauseating for many. He’s better than his numbers say, he’s worse than his eye test suggests. Let’s live in that middle ground and simply appreciate that Chicago gave him the the third highest salary for a defenseman, for eight years, that starts in 2022-23, the year after his worst season, before he’s played a single game for the team.
It’s a major gamble for the Blackhawks to rest nearly $10M on a player like Jones to be one of the catalysts of change for the franchise that has fallen from the top of the NHL mountain swiftly since the end of the 2015 season, as Luszczyszyn points out about Jones’ deal:
A $9.5 million deal carries an expected value of about 2.2 wins, the benchmark for an elite defenseman. Not top pair, not number one, but elite. It’s a benchmark Jones hasn’t hit since the 2017-18 season according to GSVA. In the two seasons afterward, he was close enough that it was fair to argue he qualified given the likelihood he was underrated by the numbers. Last year? He wasn’t even close, struggling to control play and establishing a rather concerning trend line: Three straight seasons with a consistently negative relative expected goals rate. That means the Blue Jackets have earned a better chance differential over each of the last three seasons with Jones on the bench. Given how poor the team was last year, that’s a concerning sign.
Jones’ best season in his eight-year career in the NHL so far came in that 2017-18 season, finishing tenth among defensemen in points (57) and fourth in Norris Trophy voting behind P.K. Subban, Drew Doughty, and Victor Hedman. The Blackhawks are putting a lot of stock in the fact that with a change of scenery and system, he can return to that 2017-18 form. The likelihood of that turnaround happening and Jones being back to his top-tier, elite level self this season or next season is much better than after he turns 30-years-old during the 2024-25 season.
As it stands right now, the two longest-term Blackhawks on the books are Jones and fellow recently added defenseman Jake McCabe. Chicago is going to have to be smart and tough with their financial decisions moving into the summer of 2022. They likely will not have Marc-André Fleury returning and Andrew Shaw’s contract expires after this season, so there will be flexibility available to them. But decisions will have to be made about Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalík (arbitration-eligible), Philipp Kurashev, Kevin Lankinen, Malcolm Subban, Collin Delia, Dylan Strome (arbitration-eligible), and Connor Murphy to name just some of the players who are on UFA and RFA expiring deals.
Not to mention that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be entering the final years of their current deals. What do the Blackhawks do with the last two remaining members of the “One Goal” era of Chicago hockey and two members of the “Mount Rushmore” of Chicago Blackhawks hockey?
This is why I’m not envious of being a general manager.