After Tuesday and Wednesday’s NHL crapshoot, otherwise known as the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman had a busy end to the week. His recent moves included the signing of goaltender Malcolm Subban to a two-year contract with an annual cap hit of $850,000 as well as the more popular inking of winger Dominik Kubalik to a two-year contract with an annual cap hit of $3.7 million. The unpopular move? Saying goodbye to long-time goaltender Corey Crawford, who on Friday night signed a two-year contract with the New Jersey Devils.
The main offseason priority of signing Kubalik has been accomplished. The cap hit and contract length is appropriate for his services as a player, and the term is the best part. With a two-year bridge deal, when Kubalik’s contract expires following the 2021–22 season, he will remain a restricted free agent. Bowman did a nice job of partially controlling his investment in that regard.
It is sad that the Crawford era in Chicago has come to an end. It really is. Losing a member of the core and the face between the pipes during the best era in the history of Blackhawk hockey is tough to swallow. He was a tremendous performer in the Windy City, a luxury of a backstop and they do not win two Stanley Cups in three seasons without him. He is not done either, and hopefully will have a nice two-year stint in New Jersey.
This week, the Blackhawks essentially got weaker defensively when Bowman traded Olli Maatta in an effort to give themselves more cap space, and possibly pave the way for younger prospects to step in. In addition, the Hawks declined to qualify a pair of more notable restricted free agents in bottom-pairing defender Slater Koekkoek and winger Drake Caggiula.
Was now really the time to part ways with Crawford? Yes. He is injury prone at this stage of his career, as he will turn 36 on New Year’s Eve. Paying him top dollar while asking him to make 50-plus saves a night on a team in transition with a young and inexperienced defensive unit is ill advised.
So wait, weakening the team on defense as well as in the net is a good thing for the Hawks? Well, if you believe that this team was truly close to making a long Cup run this summer, then stop reading. The reality is they were not, and the Hawks need to find out if their stock of young defensive prospects is for real. Granted, Bowman is not finished making moves and additions, but as it stands right now, prospects Ian Mitchell, Lucas Carlsson, Nicolas Beaudin and Wyatt Kalynuk could all see NHL minutes in 2020–21, and perhaps more than any originally thought. Mitchell and Carlsson are solid prospects and could be regulars if not this coming season, shortly after. Beaudin still has some skating to work on, but stylistically his game is similar to that of Boston Bruins rearguard Matt Grzelcyk. Can Beaudin be that good? It is too early to tell. He is only 20, but he will get a look. Bowman believes he has a steal in Kalynuk, and while many are skeptical of that, myself included, it will be very interesting if the rearguard can live up to the hype.
So hold up. The Hawks are just going to put these young guys out there to get ambushed without a seasoned goalie behind them? It is very possible, maybe likely. After showing Crawford the door, and re-signing Subban, the Hawks have a choice. Do they take a leap of faith with Subban, Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen as their goalies, or do they try to usher a trade for a veteran like Marc-Andre Fleury as a last resort, considering most No. 1 free agent goalies have already signed elsewhere? Given the state of the defensive unit, the latter does not make a whole lot of sense. Is it the in the best interest of young player development to trot out a goaltender that will bail them out with 50 saves each night, all while the team is a fringe playoff team at best? Or do the young players need to learn how to defend at the NHL level, knowing they cannot leave their goalie hung out to dry? Yep, Adam Boqvist, this applies to you, too.
If you look back at the rookie seasons of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the team was dismal. The 2005–06 Blackhawks were not easy on the eyes, and though they had a name in Nikolai Khabibulin as a backstop for 50 games that season, his .886 save percentage was not exactly dashing. So for first-time NHLers Keith and Seabrook, it was, “Guys, here is the fire hose, drink it.” And while I am not suggesting for a second that any of the Hawks’ current prospects will turn into Keith, a future Hockey Hall of Famer, or Seabrook, a long-time Hawks icon, if you were to ask those two about their early years, I would imagine they would indicate they learned a lot during that time. If these young defensemen are fighting for their futures and if they feel they need to take care of their own end of the ice on every shift just to survive night in and night out, thus consequently putting in extra work in practice and off the ice, you cannot tell me that is not good for them. And we will find out one way or the other who can play and who cannot. So, if Bowman does not add to his goaltending depth, I will accept that. If this stands, in one year the Hawks went from having $11 million in rostered goaltending to just under $2 million. Call it a partial, full or whatever kind of rebuild tag or not you want to put on this team, not paying for a big-time goalie, considering the current make up of this group, should not be scrutinized. In the end, it is money saved.
The outlook and the eventual results for the 2020–21 Blackhawks will not be good. In fact, it could get real bad. It could be painful to watch. But, they were not a legitimate Cup-contending team at the beginning of this week. If the coming season is the imminent bomb that it appears to be trending toward, veterans may finally see the writing on the wall, and realize their days of winning in Chicago are over. Players like Keith, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews may consider waiving their no-movement clauses and the golden era will come to an end. It will be sad, but it is ultimately necessary, and truthfully, that era has ended already.
I am typically one of the first out of the gate to criticize Bowman for his latter-day sins, but thus far, since the draft, his maneuvering has been responsible, which is encouraging to see.