The Blackhawks will enter the offseason with millions of dollars in cap space for the first time in years. But if anyone’s dreaming of them going out on the free-agent market and drastically overhauling a blue line that has struggled mightily this season, general manager Stan Bowman seems to have other plans.
The Hawks signed Jan Rutta to a one-year contract extension Thursday worth a hefty $2.25 million. This, two days after they extended Erik Gustafsson for two years with a $1.2 million cap hit. So the Hawks have Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Connor Murphy, Jordan Oesterle, Rutta and Gustafsson signed to one-way contracts next season, at a cost of more than $20 million (the cap is expected to rise $5 million to $80 million). Gustav Forsling and 2017 first-rounder Henri Jokiharju figure to be in the mix, too.
There still could be room for a big free-agent addition, and Oesterle and Gustafsson could have their contracts buried in the minors (they’d have to clear waivers first). But it seems unlikely that there will be a dramatic change on the blue line now.
“There’s changes, for sure,” Bowman said of the roster as a whole at the trade deadline. “The magnitude of the changes, we’re going to have to see how that goes over the next couple of months. But the players that are here right now that will be back, they’ve got to find a way to grow their games. If they’re young players, they’ve got to find a way to expand their arsenal.”
Coach Joel Quenneville acknowledged that his constant tinkering with the pairings this season — the Hawks carried eight defensemen for the first few months — hasn’t helped the players get settled in their roles.
“I think we’ve had stretches where we’ve been pretty responsible, we’ve had some good defense and some offense from the back end, as well,” Quenneville said. “But consistency [has been the issue]. We’ve been mixing pairs up through most of the year, and having that stability and dependability is what we always talk about.”
Rutta, who signed a one-year, $925,000 deal with the Hawks out of the Czech League during the offseason, is thrilled to be back in the fold. He has six goals (the most among defensemen on the team) and 13 assists in 44 games. As a pending unrestricted free agent, he was a candidate to be dealt at the trade deadline Feb. 26.
“During the deadline, things were kind of crazy,” said Rutta, who returned to the lineup Thursday against the Hurricanes after missing four consecutive games and 12 of the last 14 with injuries. “I survived the deadline, and I’m here. . . . Really excited about the contract and to [be in] the lineup again.”
Hall of a streak
New Jersey’s Taylor Hall did not have a point in the Devils’ 3-2 loss Thursday to the Jets, ending his consecutive-game point streak at 26, the longest in the NHL since Patrick Kane’s 26 during the 2015-16 season, setting a record for Hawks players and American-born players. And Kane, who consumes more hockey than just about anybody, has been watching.
“It’s impressive,” Kane said. “Every time you look at the box score for the Devils, he’s producing. [He’s] far and away leading that team in points. He’s had a great season, and when you’re producing every night and your team’s in the hunt to make the playoffs, he could be one of those guys you maybe start thinking about for an MVP candidate.”
Climbing the charts
Thursday’s game was the 1,607th regular-season game in Quenneville’s coaching career, tying him with Al Arbour for second.
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