(For those following along at home: that means “trade deadline to-do-list”)
Unlike past trade deadlines, we don’t have any information on which way the Blackhawks are leaning—just reading the tea leaves of an organization in flux. As we were this past June, when it was The Rink, and onlyThe Rink, who theorized (on the RinkCast) that the Blackhawks might go after a No. 1 goaltender via the free agency route, which they then did.
Based on the same or similar lines of logic, here are some things you might expect the Blackhawks to accomplish over the next 30 days.
- Robin Lehner is a Blackhawk for the next handful of seasons, at minimum, with average annual value on the deal of $7-7.5 million.
Some have assumed that Lehner was signed to be this year’s Cam Ward. He wasn’t. The Hawks could have signed another Ward for less money, or even Ward himself, to be, well, Ward. Lehner was signed because the team had serious concerns over how effective Corey Crawford would be and how much load he could carry, this season and going forward. And to take a trial run with Lehner as the team’s future No. 1.
Crawford has been able to split duties with Lehner, and while he has shown flashes of the old Crawford, he also hasn’t been really in the same ballpark as Lehner. Who is much younger, already a fan favorite, and by all accounts really does want to be in Chicago—if he is properly paid.
Shouldn’t be a problem, but extension negotiations and dopey fan narratives being what they are, Lehner’s future in Chicago is somewhat in question.
Some want to trade Lehner at the deadline, either because he potentially returns more than Crawford does, or because they haven’t given up the dream that the oft-concussed Crawford, at age 35, is going to return to Stanley Cup form (probably not happening). But here are the problems with that argument.
First, both players are on expiring contracts, both are healthy for the time being—so the difference in the return on one versus the other is not significant. Second, another argument for dealing Lehner is “why do we need him—we’re rebuilding.” Well, you can sign the 28-year-old Lehner—a legitimate top 10 goalie in the league—and rebuild from the net out (as you’re supposed to), and when you’re contending again in three or four years, you’ve got your goalie. Or you can roll the dice on Collin Delia, Matt Tomkins, Kevin Lankinen or some kid who is 17 years old right now. Feeling lucky? Buy a Power Ball ticket while you’re at it.
- Erik Gustafsson is in another sweater
Gustafsson is also an impending free agent. So, you really have to either deal him and get what you can, or re-sign him for a lot more money than he’s making now. It should be an easy choice, and if Bowman makes the wrong one, it ought to be grounds for his dismissal.
Some fans love what Gustafsson brings: flash and dash, exciting three-on-three overtime goals, slick passes and a big shot. But the fact is, Gustafsson’s regular season game is a big, fat tease—and completely ill-suited to playoff hockey—where there’s little open ice, few penalties called, no three-on-three overtime and games and series are won through hand to hand combat along the boards and around the net. One mistake—which Gustafsson is always prone to—and you’re on the first tee. Remember Chris Campoli?
Get what you can. Now.
- If you’re “buying,” buy draft picks and quality prospects for the future, not a veteran “for the playoffs” this year
Some higher-profile Chicago beat writers have theorized that Stan Bowman will be a “buyer” at this year’s deadline—which typically means he would be looking to add a veteran player or two to upgrade the roster for the playoffs. While some writers and fans might espouse such nonsense, it would be GM malpractice.
First, what exactly do the Hawks have to trade that brings back any meaningful value—that doesn’t also simultaneously hurt the team or cut away at a still thin prospect pipeline? No one really has an answer for this. Well, not a realistic answer. Some say, “Saad! Trade him.” Sure, but I’d much rather try to win a playoff series with a Brandon Saad than without one. Some say, “Gustafsson.” Okay, but how much does he bring back? Dylan Sikura, at this point, returns very little. If Bowman really wanted to be a buyer of a quality NHL veteran at the trade deadline, other teams are going to want Kirby Dach, Adam Boqvist and/or a first-round draft pick—not the rest of Gustafsson’s deal.
And here’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Let’s say Bowman does the incredibly foolish thing and takes his eye off the future at the deadline, adds a veteran or two (probably on expiring deals), and the Hawks squeak into the playoffs—they are exceedingly unlikely to win more than a game against the top seed in the West. This team is old, slow, banged up and soft—for the most part—and with a terrible defense, which is not a recipe for playoff success, even though some keep tapping their slippers together and saying “anything can happen.”
Bowman had a good spring and summer last year as far as meaningfully rebuilding the Blackhawks toward playoff contention. But there is a lot more work to be done. He needs to continue that progress. Look for—no, hope for—the above to keep the momentum.