What Will The Blackhawks’ Blue Line Look Like Next Year?
With nine games left in the regular season, the Blackhawks have a number of players looking to make a good impression on the organization. In the cases of a few pending free agents, they’re also looking to show well before hitting the market as they look for their next gig.
General manager Kyle Davidson has been steadfast in his commitment to proper development throughout this season, but has already acknowledged that it’s time to take a step forward next year. That’s true for a number of prospects who’ve paid their dues in Rockford and are ready for more regular NHL action. One area where that’s especially true is on the back end, where the Blackhawks have drafted heavily in recent years and have some exciting players coming.
What will the Blackhawks’ group of defensemen look next year? There are going to be some decisions that might not be easy this summer.
Here’s who the Blackhawks have signed through at least next year on the blue line at the NHL level:
- RD: Seth Jones, Connor Murphy, Nikita Zaitsev
- LD: Wyatt Kaiser* (entry-level contract)
And here’s who the Blackhawks have under contract beyond this season who have spent this entire season in Rockford. Their career NHL games played are in parenthesis:
- RD: Louis Crevier (0)
- LD: Alex Vlasic (15), Isaak Phillips (20), Filip Roos (17)
It feels pretty easy to put a hypothetical blue line together based on the players who are just under contact for next year. Three left side players who are ready for a full-time promotion and three right side veterans. There’s a chance the Blackhawks look at Kaiser spending next season in Rockford despite burning the first year of his ELC; they did that with Vlasic a year ago. And it makes sense if they’re going to remain committed to an intentional development plan that he would get more regular reps at the professional level.
But there are also some internal free agent options that might be interesting as possibilities to return next season.
As I wrote when we looked at the Blackhawks’ free agents with something to prove down the stretch, there are a number of notable free agents on Chicago’s blue line who are also interesting when considering the depth chart for next season. Here are the skaters who are free agents this summer:
- UFA: LD Jarred Tinordi, LD Andreas Englund, RD Andy Welinski*
- RFA: LD/RD Caleb Jones, RD Ian Mitchell, RD Alec Regula*, LD Jakub Galvas*
* — Rockford this season
Caleb Jones departing as a RFA is a complicated concept because a) he provides versatility the Blackhawks have appreciated this season, and b) his brother is the highest paid player on the roster. He only received a qualifying offer from the Blackhawks last summer, and the organizational depth that’s coming make it interesting to see if the front office would commit to him for much term at this point, however.
And then there’s the curious case of Tinordi.
It feels like the 31-year-old defenseman has been hurt every other game this season, and we learned on Sunday night that he has a hip issue that might require a more formal fix during the offseason. Even though the Blackhawks claimed him off waivers from the Rangers just before the season began, the way head coach Luke Richardson has talked about his presence on and off the ice all season certainly makes it sound like he would love to have Tinordi back next season.
“He’s really important to us, not just on the ice with his physical presence but just his voice in the room and on the bench,” Richardson said after Sunday night’s loss. “His mannerism, he brings everybody along and keeps everybody on their toes. He’s really missed when he’s out.”
I’ve said it a few times since he joined the Blackhawks following the trade deadline, but I’ve seen enough from Zaitsev. The 31-year-old has a $4.5 million cap hit (for one more year) and is just good enough that the Senators paid the Blackhawks a second-round pick to get him off their books.
Yes, Chicago needs to get to the salary floor for next season. But the front office has also shown a willingness to make players who don’t fit disappear; they bought out Brett Connolly and Henrik Borgström last summer.
A buyout of Zaitsev would carry a $2,833,334 dead cap hit next season and a $833,334 dead cap hit the following season. The Blackhawks have plenty of space for both of those numbers to not hurt their ability to do what they want/need. I’m on board with moving on from Zaitsev to make room for someone else next season. And I doubt there’s another team out there that’s willing to take his contract (Ottawa tried to dump him for a while before the Hawks stepped up).
There’s a chance the Blackhawks are open to trade offers for either Seth Jones or Murphy, but moving either of them out would necessitate the team spending more money next season to reach the floor. They would also need to bring in a completely new leadership group; Murphy has been especially vocal and visible while Jonathan Toews has been out of the lineup.
What about the prospects?
The biggest question — maybe the most important for the rebuild — is what the Blackhawks do with their top prospect: Kevin Korchinski.
Korchinski, the seventh overall pick in last summer’s draft (with one of the picks the Blackhawks received from Ottawa in the Alex DeBrincat trade), has had a terrific season for Seattle in the WHL. He has 11 goals and 62 assists in 54 games, both career highs. He also skated with Canada on the winter WJC roster.
But Korchinski can’t play for Rockford next season because of his age; it’s the NHL or back to Seattle. And the Blackhawks might see their depth as an opportunity for him to go back to Seattle for one more year (sliding his contract again) and play a more significant role for Canada at the World Juniors this time around.
Korchinski plays the left side, so he might be in a battle with some more established AHL veterans for a role in Chicago.
Ethan Del Mastro plays the both sides and looked great in preseason action for the Blackhawks in September and October. He also played a top-pair role for Canada at the winter WJC after serving as the seventh defenseman in the August edition of the tournament. He is eligible to play in Rockford next season.
Nolan Allan, the Blackhawks’ top pick in the 2021 NHL Draft who has also played both sides, is also signed and could push for a longer look this coming season. He joined Del Mastro and Korchinski on the winter WJC roster for Canada and was one of the more impressive players on the team given where he started the tournament coming out of camp. Allan turns 20 on April 28 and is eligible to play for Rockford next season.
So what’s the answer?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Blackhawks walked away from Zaitsev, brought Caleb Jones and Tinordi back on short-term deals, and promoted the three youngsters from Rockford to fill out the NHL roster. Which would have the Blackhawks’ defensive group looking something like this on Opening Night in October:
Alex Vlasic — Seth Jones
Isaak Phillips — Connor Murphy
Filip Roos/Jarred Tinordi — Caleb Jones
If that’s the Blackhawks’ blue line, what would it look like in Rockford next season? That’s the entire left side of the IceHogs’ defensive group matriculating to the NHL. Thankfully, there are reinforcements coming. And the Blackhawks surrounded their young defensemen with AHL veterans this season, including the likes of Adam Clendening, Cliff Watson, Andy Welinski and (briefly) Koletrane Wilson. I would expect the organization to look for some older players to skate with their next wave that’s making the move to the professional ranks.
Wyatt Kaiser — Ethan Del Mastro
Nolan Allan — TBD
TBD — Louis Crevier