Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson begins his first offseason in the role with a fascinating set of circumstances.
On the one hand, he has some flexibility underneath the salary cap, which, before last summer, hadn’t been available in Chicago in a decade (and with the cap still going up only minimally because of the pandemic, any space could be a blessing). But on the other hand, last summer, Stan Bowman threw his rebuild plan in the recycle bin and went with the Oprah “everyone gets some” approach to adding veterans.
Bowman added five veteran defenseman between the deadline and through the summer — Riley Stillman (at last year’s trade deadline), Caleb Jones (for Duncan Keith), Jake McCabe (via free agency), Erik Gustafsson (via the scrap heap) and Seth Jones — and extended Connor Murphy.
Bowman also added forwards Brett Connolly and Henrik Borgström (with Stillman from Florida) and free agent Jujhar Khaira. Connolly has one more year at $2.375 million and spent all but nine games buried in Rockford this season. Borgström appeared in 52 games this season, largely because he was in the doghouse of coaches Jeremy Colliton and Derek King. And Khaira appeared in just 27 games because of injuries.
Bowman acquired Tyler Johnson to get Brent Seabrook’s contract off the books. The good news: Seabrook isn’t playing any more and had a massive cap hit. The bad news: Johnson has three more years remaining on his contract at a $5 million AAV and was limited by injuries all year.
The approach Bowman took to the cap last year at the deadline and during the summer provides not-too-subtle context to what Davidson had to say about his ability to spend this coming summer during his end-of-year comments to the media on Tuesday.
“We’ve been in a situation for so long that we’ve had [no cap space]. It would be nice to have some and really be able to dictate how we use our budget and use our salary cap dollars from a strategic standpoint rather than just being reactive to it.”
Read: the team has in-house free agents and prospects to potentially pay/play and holes on the NHL roster to fill. (We’ll get to the free agent piece in a bit.)
“I don’t want to go out and take on a quote-unquote ‘bad contract’ if it puts us in a tough spot just because we get an asset.”
Read: Tyler Johnson and Brett Connolly. Of course, there’s the flip side of this coin that could ultimately benefit the Hawks; the “asset” they traded to Carolina to dump Bryan Bickell’s contract was Teuvo Teravainen, who’s a star. Because… of course he is.
“[The] one thing we do want to put in place is playing a more up-tempo style of hockey, and if we need to go find a player or two on the market to help drive that philosophy and style of play, then we’ll definitely consider it.”
Read: some of the boat anchors the team has up front aren’t going to be around next year. Unfortunately, that likely impacts the future of Khaira (who has one more year at $975,000 on his contract), who was useful before the injuries cut his season short but the emergence and acquisitions of other forwards may mean he longer has a spot in Chicago.
“I’m not going to rule out anything. I would say it’s unlikely we’re going to sign some long-term deals. Very unlikely.”
Read: another Seth Jones-like eight-year extension isn’t happening for a free agent this summer. For Alex DeBrincat, with whom Davidson can begin negotiating an extension when the league year turns over, however…
“Any time a player is due for a raise or a new contract, you have to be looking not just for the next season but for the seasons moving forward. That definitely goes into the decision-making process when it comes to any RFA or UFA or player you’re going to bring in or contract you’re going to sign.”
Boy, this one’s loaded… but let’s focus on the pending restricted free agencies of Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome for the sake of this conversation because they were the focus of the question receiving the response above.
Dominik Kubalik: I’ve seen enough from Kubalik to move on. He was terrific as a rookie, but he was riding shotgun with a healthy Jonathan Toews. His play was so inconsistent this year that I don’t think he’ll receive a qualifying offer; his expiring deal has a cap hit of $3.7 million.
If Kubalik had much trade value one would think he would have been traded at the deadline; he somehow, miraculously didn’t get a no-trade clause from Bowman. But he has scored 62 goals in 202 regular season games and someone, somewhere might think he’s worth taking in a deal around the draft in mid-July.
Dylan Strome: maybe the most significant contract Davidson will consider this summer (though the futures of Toews, Kane and DeBrincat will be in play). Strome, 25, coming off a contract that had a $3 million cap hit. He’s coming off two years in which he couldn’t get out of Jeremy Colliton’s doghouse (which we’ll excuse because Colliton was a waste of 2+ seasons for the franchise) but still found himself getting scratched by Derek King before he found some mojo and was fantastic the second half of the season.
What Davidson does with Strome will be the strongest indicator to fans, potential coaching hires and veterans on the current roster (read: 19 and 88) of how long he thinks this rebuild needs to be to get the organization back to where it needs to be.
If Strome gets a modest bridge deal (read: three years, $4.5-5 million per), the Hawks are looking to be competitive in the short-term while building organizational depth to sustain winning.
If Strome gets traded/doesn’t get qualified and then signs a deal with a cap hit comparable to the above, Davidson wants to burn this thing to the ground and start over. And the departures of other veterans could follow.