It's Time for the Blackhawks to Hand Some of That Valuable Ice Time Over to Their Young Defenders

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It’s Time for the Blackhawks to Hand Some of That Valuable Ice Time Over to Their Young Defenders

Chicago Blackhawks

We can all admit that the Blackhawks’ playoff hopes are dead in the water, yes? All right, good. Knowing that, I can’t seem to figure out why the Blackhawks are evidently dead-set against playing their stable of young defenseman prospects.

Guys like Ian Mitchell, Jakub Galvas, Wyatt Kalynuk, and others have spent much of the season in Rockford with occasional and abbreviated stops in Chicago produced almost exclusively by injuries or COVID-19 concerns. But it’s time for the team to start actually looking towards the future. Seth Jones, Connor Murphy, and Jake McCabe are all under contract for the foreseeable future, but beyond those three, there’s no long-term plan in place despite a bevy of options waiting in the wings for their opportunity.

Why is Erik Gustafsson Still Here?

Gustafsson, 29, was brought back to Chicago on a one-year deal worth $800,000, after having been released from the Islanders training camp without a deal. With injuries to Caleb Jones and Wyatt Kalynuk to start the season, the Blackhawks were getting thinner in their NHL-level defensive depth and, of course, thought that they were going to be contending for a postseason berth, so they opted to go with the familiar veteran over some of the available youngsters in the system.

Cool. Makes sense. I don’t necessarily agree with the move, but the logic was fair. But here we are, the Blackhawks are 18-25-7, and The Athletic’s odds machine gives them a full-stop 100 percent chance of missing the playoffs.

It’s over. Stan Bowman’s last stand, his last-ditch effort at contention, one final audible from the rebuild; it’s over, and he’s gone. So, let’s move on. Gustafsson is on a cheap expiring deal, so maybe someone throws the Blackhawks a bag of pucks for him; perhaps they just scratch him for the rest of the season. Whatever it is, the time is now. Gustafsson is just soaking up valuable ice time that should be allocated to players that will be in the fold beyond this year.

But he’s hardly alone.

Calvin de Haan is Drawing Trade Interest

Beyond parting ways with Erik Gustafsson, the Blackhawks can move veteran defenseman Calvin de Haan to clear space for some of these young defenseman prospects to get into the lineup. Again, the Blackhawks aren’t sniffing the playoffs this season, so why hold onto de Haan, who is playing pretty well and has real value to a contender playing on an expiring contract?

As Mark Lazerus wrote last month, Calvin de Haan can be moved relatively quickly, creating a roster spot for a young defenseman to get some run and a return on investment for the Blackhawks who need draft capital and future assets as they’ll indeed be embarking on an (actual, finally) rebuild under new leadership.

“He’s the quintessential trade-deadline piece — an affordable, savvy veteran defenseman on an expiring contract playing some of the best hockey of his career. Just about every contending team in the league could find a spot on their blue line for him, and it probably won’t cost much more than a second- or third-round pick to get him.”

Calvin de Haan was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks by the Carolina Hurricanes along with forward prospect Aleksi Saarela for goalie Anton Forsberg and defenseman Gustav Forsling in 2019. Forsling tallied 27 points in 122 NHL games with the Blackhawks before being traded and was a fifth-rounder by Vancouver in 2014, so if the Blackhawks could get a second or third-rounder in exchange for de Haan, then what are they waiting for? (Maybe a GM, but that’s also of their own doing).

Moving on from Gustafsson and de Haan would give the Blackhawks two spots in which they could rotate their stable of young defensemen in and out for the remainder of what has become a lost season.

Who are the Prospects?

Ian Mitchell‘s time with the Blackhawks has been a constant head-scratcher. The 2017 second-rounder out of the University of Denver made his pro debut last season with the Blackhawks making the jump straight from college to the NHL with nothing but the COVID-19 pandemic in between. Mitchell wasn’t great in his first taste of pro action, scoring seven points in 39 games with the Blackhawks with five AHL games with the IceHogs sprinkled in there.

What did they expect? They asked a 21-year-old to come straight from college to the NHL amid a global pandemic. Stan Bowman’s Blackhawks were notorious for rushing their top-tier prospects to the NHL, but what they asked Ian Mitchell to do was on another level. In any case, Mitchell has enjoyed playing nearly an entire season in Rockford this year thanks to the Blackhawks’ misguided hopes of contention, and Mitchell has put together 20 points (8 G, 12 A) in his 34 games with the IceHogs this season.

In February, Mitchell has five goals and two assists for the IceHogs and is second on the team in goals (8) and first on the team in power-play goals (4). Now is as good a time as any to let Mitchell slide into a regular spot in Chicago and continue to develop.

Wyatt Kalynuk played 21 games with the Blackhawks last season and logged nine points in his first taste of NHL action. Kalynuk seemed like a lock to make the NHL roster out of training camp until he went down with an ankle injury that sidelined the second-year defenseman into November. Despite Kalynuk logging 11 points in 22 games with the Rockford IceHogs this season, he’s only cracked the Chicago starting lineup five times.

Derek King said that all the reports on Kalynuk from Rockford have been good, so what’s the hold-up? Kalynuk can score, he can pass, and he’s been working to improve his timing and instincts defensively.

“In the ‘D’-zone, when the puck goes from behind the net to the slot, you’re always keeping your head on a swivel,” Kalynuk told Ben Pope of the Sun-Times earlier this month. “It just happens a little quicker [in the pros], and if you’re in the wrong spot or you’re late making a decision, it can cost you a lot more than it would in college.”

Kalynuk is on an expiring contract and becomes a restricted free agent after this season.

Nicolas Beaudin, like Ian Mitchell, is a former top-pick of the Blackhawks (RD. 1, Pick 27 – 2018) who just hasn’t gotten a real shot with the big club. Beaudin spent 59 games with the IceHogs during the 2019-20 season before spending 19 with the Blackhawks last season. Beaudin logged six points in his 19 games with the Hawks last season, and he’s logged nine points with Rockford this season, but he’s only seen 12:19 of ice time over two games with Chicago this season.

Beaudin is a former first-rounder, so it’s probably time to see what you have in him, one way or another.

Jakub Galvas had an excellent three-game audition in January before getting some limited run earlier this month, and he’s logged 10 points in 30 games with the IceHogs this season. The 2017 first-rounder is on a cheap entry-level deal for the remainder of this season and the next.

Alec Regula has 16 points (2 G, 14 A) in 24 games with the IceHogs this season, yet he hasn’t cracked the lineup in Chicago once. Regula, acquired in the Brendan Perlini trade with the Red Wings, played in three games with the Blackhawks last season, logging zero points in just 37:08 ice time.

Isaak Phillips made his NHL debut earlier this season for the Blackhawks, skating three games with Chicago in late October before heading back to Rockford. This season, the former fifth-rounder has 13 points in 35 games for the IceHogs.

The bottom line here is this; there’s a log jam of guys that have the potential to play a role here moving forward on a rebuilding team, so what’s the hold-up? Whether it be the high draft picks in Ian Mitchell and Nicolas Beaudin, the trade returns like Wyatt Kaylnuk and Alec Regula, or the late-rounders like Isaak Phillips and Jakub Galvas, the Blackhawks should be holding auditions for these guys for the rest of the season.

Author: Patrick K. Flowers

Patrick is a Staff Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @PatrickKFlowers.