CALGARY, Alberta — For the second consecutive season, the Blackhawks enter the crucial week leading up to the NHL trade deadline stuck in no man’s land.
They’re within theoretical reach of the playoffs, but they’re not close enough that the odds of getting there this spring are anywhere near 50-50. If they don’t make it, they’ll have a lottery pick. But even the most dramatic tanking in March wouldn’t land them a top-three pick, barring another lottery miracle in April.
Their five-game losing streak has caused the fan base to lose hope, but optimism still abounds in the locker room.
Amid these confusing contradictions, general manager Stan Bowman has been secretive about his own perspective and approach.
But come midafternoon Feb. 24 — a week from Monday — he’ll be forced to show his cards, if he has any. Here are the possibilities of what those cards might be:
What will the Hawks’ philosophy be?
The Hawks are close enough to playoff contention — and Bowman seemingly remains committed enough to his core — that the team is unlikely to launch an earth-shattering fire sale.
Once considered within the realm of possibility, the Hawks’ midwinter upswing (their recent struggles notwithstanding) essentially has eliminated that route.
So the Hawks likely will decide between largely standing pat — their course of action last season, when Bowman’s only moves in February were two minor-league swaps — or acquiring a few pieces to turn around the downward trajectory and excite the existing core.
With the margins around the playoff bubble so slim, the results in the final few games before the deadline might make the difference in which path Bowman takes.
The leaguewide parity this season has forced a number of other teams into the same conundrum, which has limited the usual trickle of pre-deadline trades so far. Whether mounting time pressure punctures that dam is yet to be determined. This might end up being a conservative year trade-wise around the NHL.
Whom might the Hawks trade?
Defenseman Erik Gustafsson is by far the most likely Hawks player to be traded.
He’s a pending unrestricted free agent, the Hawks probably won’t be able to afford the substantial increase on his current $1.2 million cap hit he’ll command and Adam Boqvist already has begun taking over his role as the team’s primary offensive defenseman. Gustafsson’s agent, Peter Wallen, said this week that there have been no negotiations with the Hawks about a new contract.
Gustafsson’s value has decreased since last offseason — in step with his declining production — but he still might garner a second-round pick or a solid prospect in return.
Goalies Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner also are pending UFAs with substantial value, but they’re the main reason the Hawks are in semi-contention at all, and dealing one away would represent a surprising risk on the health of the other or a surprising shift toward a selling mindset.
Furthermore, in-season goalie trades are extremely uncommon around the league. Before the Kings sent Jack Campbell to the Maple Leafs last week, the only NHL goalie dealt at either of the last two deadlines was Keith Kinkaid.
Wing Drake Caggiula is a pending restricted free agent and — given his affordability, versatility and recent strong play — would be an easy player to move. But his usefulness to the Hawks might exceed his trade value.
Wing Brandon Saad was speculated about earlier in the season, but it would take a massive package to convince Bowman to deal him a second time.
At the lower levels, Dylan Sikura and Anton Wedin are two arguably NHL-caliber forwards stuck in Rockford who might want a change of scenery.
Whom might the Hawks trade for?
If Bowman decides to commit to this season and trade away assets for players, he’ll do so from a very odd position: with a ton of salary-cap space for the rest of this season and virtually none for next season.
That’s because injuries and surgeries to defensemen Brent Seabrook and Calvin de Haan have freed up their combined $11 million-plus cap spaces, but both remain under contract for several more years and are expected to return by training camp next fall.
So the Hawks almost exclusively would be looking for rentals, pending UFAs on non-contending (or cash-strapped) teams. That’s good because rentals make up a huge portion of the annual market at the trade deadline; that’s bad because they help only in the short term.
Defense seems the most likely area the Hawks might look to bolster.
The Devils’ Sami Vatanen, the Sharks’ Brenden Dillon and the Senators’ Dylan DeMelo, Ron Hainsey and Mark Borowiecki (despite his injury this week) all fit the bill.
Vatanen and Dillon are among the top five in TSN’s trade-bait rankings, have produced solid possession stats on poor teams and sport $4.9 million and $3.3 million respective cap hits for the rest of this season, making them an easy fit for the Hawks (for now).
Offensively, the mightily dysfunctional power play is one unit in need. The Panthers’ Mike Hoffman is one of the best power-play weapons in the NHL, but he would cost quite a lot to acquire.
The Predators’ Mikael Backlund was quietly one of the better power-play playmakers the last few seasons with the Wild, but he hasn’t clicked with the Predators. He might be an intriguing buy-low candidate.
The Rangers’ Chris Kreider, the Kings’ Tyler Toffoli and the Senators’ Jean-Gabriel Pageau are other pending UFA forwards generating lots of buzz, but there’s nothing connecting them to the Hawks at this time.
Bowman also could seek to weaponize his abundant short-term cap space by taking on a contender’s bad contract and adding a draft pick for doing so. The Maple Leafs’ Cody Ceci is the most glaring example.