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Blackhawks offseason updates: NHL free-agent market still flooded with quality players

Ex-Hawks Slater Koekkoek and Drake Caggiula sit among the lengthy list of free agents still looking for jobs.

Ex-Blackhawks defenseman Slater Koekkoek is one of many NHL-caliber players still looking for a job this offseason.
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Seven weeks after NHL free agency opened, the market is still crowded with quality players looking for jobs — the reality created by flattening the salary cap but not allowing teams to shed players through compliance buyouts.

To be fair, most of the upper-tier unrestricted free agents were snapped up long ago. Game-changing top-six forwards and top-four defensemen are still valuable enough that teams found ways to fit them in. Forward Mike Hoffman, most recently with the Panthers, is the exception, but he reportedly has been weighing a number of competitive offers.

But for bottom-six forwards, third-pair defensemen and other depth players — even clearly NHL-caliber ones — it has proven difficult to convince general managers to meet their, say, $2 million salary demands when AHL players already under contract and making less than $1 million could be used to fill those spots instead.

As a result, tons of players who carried significant value less than a year ago are now patiently trying to find a home.

Among them are ex-Blackhawks Drake Caggiula and Slater Koekkoek, whom the Hawks let walk not because of poor play but to open up spots for newly committed, younger prospects. Caggiula, despite scoring only 15 points in 40 games last season, is a well-rounded wing who can capably play up and down the lineup. Koekkoek’s second half in 2019-20 was perhaps the most consistent stretch of his career. But so far, they remain unemployed.

Caggiula is one of 13 unrestricted free-agent forwards who scored 15 or more points last season but still is unsigned. The others are Hoffman (59), Anthony Duclair (40), Carl Soderberg (35), Derick Brassard (32), Mikael Granlund (30), Andreas Athanasiou (26), Ilya Kovalchuk (26), Erik Haula (24), Conor Sheary (23), Corey Perry (21), Brian Boyle (15) and Riley Sheahan (15).

The list of unrestricted free-agent defensemen without a team isn’t quite as remarkable, but Koekkoek is nonetheless joined by Sami Vatanen, Travis Hamonic, Ben Hutton, Madison Bowey, Michael Del Zotto and familiar face Jan Rutta. Longtime Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, 43, is also technically an unrestricted free agent, but that’s reportedly because he hasn’t decided yet whether he’ll return.

A few of those guys might sign contracts over the next few weeks, but many more will have to grind their way onto rosters via training-camp tryouts — whenever camps finally happen — or sign with Russian KHL teams.

Furthermore, 25 restricted free agents also haven’t signed, including centers Dylan Strome (Hawks), Mathew Barzal (Islanders), Pierre-Luc Dubois (Blue Jackets) and Anthony Cirelli (Lightning) and defensemen Ethan Bear (Oilers) and Vince Dunn (Blues).

There likely will be more movement among restricted free agents once the owners and the players’ association hammer out an agreement on a salary deferral rate. V

More Hawks-related updates this offseason:

  • Part of the holdup with Dylan Strome may be that his now-former agent, Mark Guy, left the hockey industry this week. Guy also represented Hawks goalie Malcolm Subban. General manager Stan Bowman and coach Jeremy Colliton both said recently that the Hawks still plan to re-sign Strome.
  • After a coronavirus outbreak, Hockey Canada put its entire World Junior Championships selection camp team into a 14-day quarantine, with Hawks center Kirby Dach among the group. Dach was dominating the camp before the shutdown, tallying two goals and a beautiful spin-o-rama assist in an intrasquad scrimmage last weekend — impressive work on a team loaded with first-round picks.
  • Two other Hawks prospects have been equally dominant while on loan with Swiss teams this fall. Forward Brandon Hagel, whose loan to Thurgau took some serious string-pulling to execute, has made the most of the opportunity, racking up 10 points (five goals, five assists) in eight games so far. Center Philipp Kurashev, meanwhile, has 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 12 games with Lugano.