ANALYSIS: What to expect from the Blackhawks’ offseason


In certain ways, this summer will be like every other summer for Chicago Blackhawk fans—lots of speculation about this free agent or that, trades, the draft and the potential of a given Hawk prospect (or two).

Typically, 90%+ of the speculation is unfounded.

Still, this is an unusually important offseason for the Blackhawks. There is no conclusive evidence that the rebuild is working—or not working. The team overperformed the first half of last year (while playing a lot of games against Columbus and Detroit due to a COVID-19-dictated schedule), and then played pretty poorly from March 1 on.

Characterizing another season of not making the (actual) playoffs, the Hawks were yet again an abysmal 5-on-5 team (a much more serious—and roster-based—problem than many fans or the media seem to realize), making the possible (or not possible) return of center Jonathan Toews all the more critical to improvement in 2021–22.

So, here, based on the situation outlined above—and filtered through the lens of economics, past experience and logic—are various ways the summer might unfold for the Blackhawks, and what it all might mean.

Whither the “rebuild?”

The first—and most important—premise to understand is that the Hawks want to return to the playoffs, if not Stanley Cup contention, as soon as possible.

Rightly or wrongly, the team has committed to a “rebuild” around a few remaining (and rapidly aging) stars from the previous Stanley Cup teams. And this is really important to understand when you are considering the possibility that the Blackhawks could be trade or free-agency players for defensemen Seth Jones and Dougie Hamilton or forwards Jack Eichel and Matthew Tkachuk.

What most of the speculation around the Hawks pursuing any of these players seems to not take into account is that there will be significant markets for each of these players. Put more simply, it is not like Chicago General Manager Stan Bowman picks up the phone, calls Columbus General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen, offers Pius Suter, Ian Mitchell and a bag of pucks and magically acquires Jones.

There will be strong, league-wide interest in each of these players—which will drive up the “price” each player’s respective team is asking. Or, if Hamilton goes the unrestricted free agency route, the team that signs him will pay heavily in average annual value and term. And, if that team should be the Blackhawks, that price may be even higher, as they will be bidding against at least one or two teams that are closer to actual Cup contention.

So, if you want Jones, are you willing to give up Adam Boqvist and this year’s first-round pick (for starters)? If you want Eichel, are you willing to give up the above and Kirby Dach?

Or, say, Alex DeBrincat and this year’s first-round selection and something else.

Or Patrick Kane?

If you want Hamilton, are you willing to pay him $8–9 million a year until he is, say, 35—with a no-movement clause?

Most fans, if Hawk Twitter over the last week or so is any good metric, would balk.

Again, typically, many Blackhawk fans tend to overvalue Chicago players and prospects versus those of other teams—so we can debate whether Eichel is worth “so much” ‘til the cows come home. But, what probably is not debatable is that the price is going to be high, and it is going to mean giving up “good” players that you are currently trying to rebuild around (or with).

Setting the price aside, it also means this: Jones, Hamilton, Eichel or Tkachuk are elite or near-elite young (or “younger,” anyway) players. Each is better than Boqvist or Dach. Or DeBrincat. And odds are, each will be over the course of the players’ respective careers.

There is a school of thought that you need to acquire potentially elite, near-elite and/or already-elite players in order to rebuild into a Cup contender. So, there is an argument that packaging up pieces and parts of the recent “rebuild” to acquire a young difference-maker at defense or center—both huge areas of need for Chicago)—makes some sense. Simply stated, trade two or three good (or “potentially good”) young players/prospects for a great young player.

But, would Bowman do that? If we had to bet, we would say no. Big, bold, splashy moves have never been Bowman’s forte. Further, the Hawk organization has invested a lot of time and “reputational” capital in their “rebuild around Kane, Toews and Duncan Keith” plan.

However, there is ample evidence that the hoped-for acquisition and development of enough good young players to re-establish the Blackhawks as contenders—while Kane, Keith and Toews are still productive players—is becoming less and less likely.

And those of you still holding onto the idea that the Hawks really have improved a lot and are close to a return to the league’s elite, need to go watch more of this year’s playoff games—see and understand the speed, the depth and the physicality of teams like Colorado, Vegas, Tampa Bay, the New York Islanders, etc.—and then go hit yourself in the head with a ballpeen hammer.

That said, one of the hallmarks of a strong organization and a strong general manager is to recognize when a plan is not working and adroitly adjust course. But, this, also, has not been one of Bowman’s strong suits.

However, his 2019 draft, where he deliberately and publicly went “big” with Dach and defenseman Alex Vlasic, was a course change and an admission that years of drafting small, but “skilled” skaters was not paying off.

Eichel and Toews, Toews and Eichel

Toews has missed a full year of hockey with a mystery “ailment,” and he will be 34 years old at the end of the upcoming season. Here at The Rink, we are huge Toews fans. But, all of us need to be realistic in our expectations.

Based on the scant information anyone (beyond Toews, his agent, his doctor and the Blackhawks) has, there is a plausible scenario where Toews gets 100% “healthy,” returns to full workouts and comes back rejuvenated after a year off—giving the team a nice and much-needed lift in the face-off circle, 5-on-5, on special teams, etc.

But, there are other, perhaps more likely, scenarios where Toews cannot return—or if he does return, he is somewhat diminished due to the “ailment/injury” and/or age, or he returns, but his ability to play is sporadic for the remainder of his career.

This comes back to Eichel. Eichel is not a 1:1 “doppelganger” for Toews, but they are both No. 1 centers, team captains and somewhat similar stylistically. And, at 24 years of age, entering really the prime of his career, Eichel is in all likelihood an upgrade at the 1C position in the lineup.

In addition to the possibility Buffalo does not even trade Eichel, it is also plausible that the Hawks might only publicly “kick the tires” to see if there would be some way to add him in—along with Toews returning. But, that is almost impossible due to salary alone. Talking about going after Eichel to get some news coverage is a lot different than actually going after Eichel.

So, if you do see the Hawks (legitimately, not speculatively) make a hard move for Eichel this summer, you can pretty safely assume that the team is none too confident in Toews’ prospects going forward. And, should the team succeed in acquiring Eichel, you can also expect, along with that, a bit of a roster overhaul and overall course correction on the “rebuild.”

There is no question, even with Toews, the Blackhawks have needed much better play at the center position to get back in contention.

Some keep holding out for Dylan Strome to be part of that solution, which is probably not happening.

Many have rushed to assume that Dach solves that problem. It is way too early to say that, however, and it remains to be seen if Dach ends up over the course of his NHL career as a winger or a No. 2 center (a level he is still working toward), instead of a No. 1 center.

So, while the Hawk blueline remains a vexing and obvious problem, do not be surprised if the focus of the team this summer lies on a young, expensive center from Massachusetts.

What will happen?

Just due to the law of averages, the Blackhawks probably will not acquire any of the three or four marquee “available” players this summer. And, they will continue on their present course, draft another potentially “good” player at 12th overall, pray for Toews’ healthy (and durable) return and hope for some organic growth from their current batch of young players and prospects.

If the Hawks do not enter the Eichel sweepstakes, the next most likely target would potentially be Jones. Could Bowman craft a package that might sway Kekalainen that somehow does not strip too much of the Blackhawks’ already thin supply of good players and prospects? Would Jones commit to extend his contract in Chicago? Big questions.

Or, Bowman might swing a trade or two to “upgrade” the middle of the roster somehow. The team might even take a dip in the free agency pool, albeit shopping more on the budget rack as has become the norm in recent years.

But, this offseason, or perhaps before the in-season trade deadline, that “course correction” we suggested above could happen—where the team finally acknowledges (if not publicly, then to themselves) that Kane, Keith and Toews will not be good enough, long enough, for the young players and prospects to catch up with them.

All we have for now. Comment below.

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