Considering the Blackhawks’ Internal UFAs
Last week, Matt took a look at the free agent crop of 2023 to see if there were any names that got our interest for the Blackhawks this summer. How focused on free agents outside the organization, even if a couple names mentioned — Patrick Kane and Max Domi — were Blackhawks a few short months ago.
Chicago has its own group of unrestricted free agents to consider as well. We already discussed the team’s restricted free agents; the Blackhawks have some level of control with those players. UFAs are going to hit the open market in July and can go anywhere, so there’s more to consider here.
Unfortunately, this list doesn’t give us much to consider outside one forward. Here’s the complete list of Blackhawks unrestricted free agents this summer:
- Jonathan Toews
- Andreas Athanasiou
- Jujhar Khaira
- Andreas Englund
- Alex Stalock
- Anton Khudobin
- Buddy Robinson
- Andy Welinski
So, we already know the Blackhawks aren’t brining Toews back. On the rest of that list, there’s very little reason to get excited about the return of any outside of Athanasiou.
Khaira was a serviceable veteran but can be replaced internally. Englund was acquired for Jack Johnson before the deadline and, though he plays a physical game, doesn’t have a role here with Jarred Tinordi already re-signed. And, with four goaltenders already signed, it’s hard to imagine a path back to the organization for Stalock — though he would be awesome to bring back — or Khudobin.
So let’s talk about Andreas Athanasiou for a moment.
Like Domi, Athanasiou bet on himself in signing a one-year, $3 million contract with the Blackhawks. And, again like Domi, it paid off for him. After a couple tough seasons in LA, Athanasiou appeared in 81 games for the Blackhawks this season and returned to the 20-goal club, reaching exactly 20 for the season.
He plays with the level of speed the Blackhawks like, so that’s a plus. In fact, his speed is elite, and putting him on a wing with Connor Bedard and, possibly, Lukas Reichel could be a nice situation for all three. And that speed played a factor in him leading the Blackhawks with 67 even-strength high-danger scoring chances last year (according to Natural Stat Trick).
There are a couple other factors that intrigue me as much or more than his speed, however.
Athanasiou moved to center down the stretch when, frankly, the Blackhawks were out of other options. And he performed admirably in a role he wasn’t used to earlier in the season. He finished the season winning 46.6 percent of 174 faceoffs, but showed signs of improvement as he spent more time in the position.
He averaged 1:55 per game on the power play. When you look at the forwards who are signed through next year, only three forwards come back with more ice time while on the advantage: Taylor Raddysh, Tyler Johnson and Reichel. Obviously the addition of Bedard will change the dynamics of that unit dramatically, but it’s easy to see a scenario where he could move up to the top unit with Raddysh and Bedard.
The Blackhawks had limited offensive options last year, especially after the trade deadline, but Athanasiou showed the ability to make things happen. Eight of his 13 even-strength assists were primary helpers. And he scored 14 of his 20 goals at 5-on-5 as well.
The money isn’t a problem; Chicago has plenty of cap space to play with. However, you don’t want to give him too much AAV; that could impact a potential trade market during the contract, but if the focus is on insulating some of the younger players he’s a guy that’s worth having back.
Here’s the rub: Athanasiou played well enough that someone out there might be willing to give him a nice, multi-year offer. And at this point in his career, he should be looking for stability. Is that stability longer than three years? And do three years make sense at this stage in the life cycle of the Blackhawks’ build? Those are questions for the front office to answer.
Considering some of the inconsistencies on the back of Athanasiou’s hockey card, I’m a little shy in giving him a deal longer than two years. And someone out there might make him a bigger, longer offer than Chicago is probably worth considering at this point.
So consider me in the “sure, if the contract term/money makes sense” camp when thinking about the Blackhawks bringing Athanasiou back, but with the caveat that he might have played himself out of the best case scenario for Chicago.