Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman isn’t ready to commit to stocking up or giving up on the season.
In a long media session Tuesday, Bowman said he’s just beginning preliminary chats with other GMs ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline, but a course of action has yet to be determined.
“Right now, we’re not chasing down any trades,” Bowman said. “Part of this time of the year is to have some conversations with other managers to see where they’re at. I think everyone’s trying to assess their team. It’s been half a season. Some trends have emerged. Some teams are struggling in certain areas. We’ve had some injuries that we’ve been able to get through.”
Bowman is in that group trying to his assess his team, and with the Blackhawks 6-2 in their previous eight games before Tuesday’s loss to the Flames, he was largely positive in his evaluations.
He predictably raved about the Robin Lehner signing, again endorsed polarizing coach Jeremy Colliton — “Jeremy’s done a very good job this year of making little changes to help our team,” he said — and offered a bullish, albeit not definitive, prediction about the Hawks’ postseason chances.
“We’re right there,” he said. “We’re a little bit behind the pack, a couple of points. But it’s a pretty tight pack.
“The biggest way our team’s going to improve is for [the young] players to continue to progress in their careers and help the veterans. The veterans know what it takes to get into the playoffs and make a push because they’ve done it before. The young guys don’t, but if they keep on their path forward, I think it bodes well for the team.”
Behind the scenes, however, Bowman finds himself in a challenging situation this winter, one that is — in many ways — at odds with itself.
With Brent Seabrook and Calvin de Haan on long-term injured reserve for the rest of the season and Andrew Shaw out long term, as well — although Bowman said “there’s no reason to think” he’ll miss the rest of the season — the Hawks have more than $11 million in salary-cap space, according to CapFriendly. Bowman admitted that would give him flexibility.
But they’re also facing a worrisome cap crunch this coming summer, with Lehner, Dylan Strome, Erik Gustafsson and Dominik Kubalik among those on expiring contracts. Bowman said it wouldn’t be “fair to the process” to disclose if he has begun negotiations with any of those players.
And equally unclear is whether the Hawks should commit to this season or prioritize the long-term future. Their middling 19-19-6 record hasn’t helped the selling pitch for either viewpoint.
“We’ll just assess that as we go,” Bowman said. “I don’t think you can have just one approach. Part of my job is to look at all the different options out there. If it makes sense to add a player for adding assets, we’ll look at that. But we’re also looking at the team on the ice. It’s been nice to see some of the younger players come up from Rockford and fill in.”
Bowman must take one of three paths.
First, he could double down on his optimism by sacrificing prospects and/or picks to acquire rentals to supplement his injury-riddled roster. Defense is the area most in need, and the Devils’ Sami Vatanen, the Senators’ Mark Borowiecki and the Sharks’ Brenden Dillon are all worth a look.
Second, he could let the deadline pass relatively quietly and let the team as currently composed determine its own fate. That’s exactly what he did last season, making no NHL-player trades in February. That obviously didn’t work out too well, though.
Or third, he could begin the process of rebuilding (or at least retooling), dealing away the obvious trade candidates — Gustafsson, Olli Maatta, Zack Smith, even Corey Crawford — to bolster the AHL and prospect pool, which is improving but still lacks depth.
He also could look to take on a bad yet expiring contract from a cap-strapped contender — such as the Sabres’ Zach Bogosian or the Hurricanes’ Trevor van Riemsdyk — and get a draft pick as payment, although that pick would probably be in the later rounds (expiring contracts, no matter how excessive, are never that difficult to move).
Bowman, naturally, offered little indication of which path he’s leaning toward.
“Financially, we can fit some other players in,” he said. “Whether we’re going to make moves or not, we’ll just have to see what comes down the pipe.”
He did nonetheless offer a timeline for a decision, even though it roughly aligned with the obvious trade deadline, which awaits in less than seven weeks.
“The next five or six weeks are pivotal leading into that stretch run,” he said. “The goal is to put ourselves in a good position between now and then, and then evaluate what options we have to improve our team.”
During that time, the Hawks and their fans will have several milestones to enjoy — Patrick Kane’s impending 1,000th career point, Joel Quenneville’s Jan. 21 return to Chicago as Panthers coach, the All-Star break — but what they’ll really need is a convincing winning (or losing) streak.
Only that would absolutely make Bowman’s plan clear. For now, it remains frustratingly hazy.