We Need To Talk About the Blackhawks’ Current Forward Group
We need to talk about the state of affairs on the Blackhawks’ projected roster for the 2023-24 season. The back end appears to be pretty locked-up, with a few prospects matriculating their way up to the NHL full-time next season and the goaltending situation appearing to bet set.
But the forward group leaves a lot to be desired — and a lot of work for Kyle Davidson and the Blackhawks’ front office to do before training camp.
When we look at the players who are under contract for next year — not including the Blackhawks’ restricted free agents — there’s a lot missing in Chicago. Especially in the scoring department, which is kind of important.
Departures of most of the team’s established offensive players via trade or free agency leaves this roster’s scoring chance looking pretty… offensive (and not in a good way).
Players who have a contract for next season bring back a whopping total of 48 even-strength goals from last year. Total. That number is led by Taylor Raddysh‘s 12, the only returning forward in double digits.
The Blackhawks scored a league-worst 2.46 goals per game last year. They also ranked 28th on the power play (16.4 percent). Those numbers scream at us that additions are needed, even if the Blackhawks are going to continue on the slow road back to contention with internal prospects eventually filling out the roster at some point in the coming years.
I think we can safely project Lukas Reichel will be in the NHL full-time next year, and hopes are that he brings some offense with him. He scored five goals 304 even-strength minutes last year (according to Natural Stat Trick), a number that should increase with more time on NHL ice.
Cole Guttman showed some nice signs last year, but a shoulder injury shut him down early. Right now he looks like the front-runner for a middle-six center spot with Jason Dickinson being on the roster to compete with him for a second or third-line role.
The reality is most of the forwards the Blackhawks have coming back are fourth line players. With the exceptions of Raddysh, Reichel, Guttman, Dickinson and even Tyler Johnson, the options to drive offense are glaringly missing right now. And I would argue Tyler isn’t going to drive offense any longer; he’s a solid, complimentary veteran forward who’s probably best suited to at third-line role.
Connor Bedard Can’t Do It Alone
We know Connor Bedard is coming to Chicago. But reality is pretty clear that the Blackhawks’ front office is going to be patient with their prospects, meaning Bedard is likely the only player drafted this summer who will be in the NHL on Opening Night.
The Blackhawks current collection of forward prospects grew impressively at the draft last year, and a number of those picks have signed entry-level contracts. But, again, patience is now a virtue in Chicago and those players won’t be rushed to the bright lights. So we’re going to have to wait to see them at the NHL level.
Colton Dach could be in the mix for NHL ice time at some point next year, and possesses a physical skill set and size that are incredibly attractive. But, again, a conservative development plan means he’ll probably start next season in Rockford.
We might see guys like Frank Nazar or Aidan Thompson sign and get a look at the NHL after their sophomore seasons — if things play out well. But both dealt with injuries during their freshman seasons at Michigan and Denver, respectively, so there’s a lot to learn and more development needed for both.
As we’ve talked about before and others have said at length, everything the Blackhawks do from here through the next 10-20 years is about putting Connor Bedard in a position to succeed. And right now, the Blackhawks have huge needs up front and need to surround Bedard with players who can help him play his best in his first NHL season.
Beyond Reichel, reinforcements aren’t coming from Rockford. And we’re still waiting for the next wave of high-end skill that Davidson and Co. have started collecting to be NHL ready. So it’s time to hit the trade and free agent market to buy a year or two until those players are ready for prime time.
The good news: Chicago has more than $40 million in cap space to play with. The bad news: this year’s free agent class isn’t going to offer many situations that make sense on the timeline of the Blackhawks’ rebuild to make an impact signing. Frankly, I don’t see a free agent forward on the market that’s worth more than a 2-3 year contract.
The NHL world will be watching Chicago to see how the Blackhawks use their cap space and take their time to develop prospects in the coming years to surround Bedard. For the 2023-24 season, there’s work to be done. But it’s going to be as a stepping stone to the next generation, not to win big now.