Canceled NHL season would make Blackhawks’ deadline trades look smarter in hindsight

Vegas and Calgary thought they were getting 20 or so games, plus a playoff run, out of Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson. It turns out they may have only gotten a few meaningless weeks.

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Robin Lehner played in only three games for the Golden Knights before the season stopped.

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In an alternate, coronavirus-free reality, the Blackhawks would’ve finished their regular season — and likely their entire season — Saturday afternoon against the Rangers.

Instead, they’re now more than three weeks removed from their most recent game, and the odds of the 12 remaining scheduled ones ever being played are decreasing by the day. Most of the team also has left Chicago to ride out the pandemic in their respective hometowns and home countries, Jonathan Toews said earlier this week.

But two players — goaltender Robin Lehner and defenseman Erik Gustafsson — left Chicago a few weeks earlier.

As the trade deadline approached on Feb. 24, the NHL had successfully concluded the last 100 seasons it had begun. So the league conducted its newsiest day in typical chaotic fashion, and for the Hawks, that included shipping off Lehner and Gustafsson, pending free agents, for rebuilding assets.

The trades were criticized at the time — not that they took place but rather for the meager returns they brought.

A Vezina Trophy-caliber goalie for a second-round pick, average prospect (Slava Demin) and throw-in backup (Malcolm Subban) wasn’t a fair trade. A sometimes-elite offensive defenseman, although not so much this season, for a mere third-round pick wasn’t, either.

“The we-might-as-well trades Monday must not be interpreted as we-had-to trades — or, worse yet, it’ll-fix-things trades,” I wrote at the time.

Yet unbeknownst to Lehner, Gustafsson and Hawks general manager Stan Bowman, the season would be paused just over two weeks later.

The NHL still has not officially canceled the rest of the regular season or provided any deadline by which the postseason would need to begin, but given cancellation trends around the rest of the sports and entertainment industries, an eventual resumption feels tenuous.

Lehner, for one, has mentally written it off.

“You can’t turn 180 degrees and start playing again,” he told a Swedish newspaper last week. “I see a zero percent chance that you can save this season. Now I hope that next season can start as usual in October.”

So the roughly 20 regular-season games and hopefully multiple playoff series that the Golden Knights and Flames thought they’d get out of Lehner and Gustafsson, respectively, might end up being only a handful of meaningless games.

That would make the tepid prices they paid feel like exorbitant wastes of assets in hindsight, especially if one or both choose not to re-sign as unrestricted free agents whenever the offseason occurs. And, in turn, that would make Bowman’s decision to sell low on both players seem wiser, simply because he sold at all.

In the end, Lehner made only three appearances for Vegas before the shutdown. He was characteristically stellar in those games — going 3-0-0 with a .940 save percentage — but still barely had time to debut his new gold-and-black pads, much less make an actual impact on the franchise.

Gustafsson played in seven games for the Flames, with no goals and three assists, and made even less of an impact. His average ice time dropped from 20:40 with the Hawks to 18:01 with Calgary, and his shot-attempt (Corsi) ratio was an ugly 42.5 percent in those seven appearances.

The Hawks could even bring back both as free agents, although Gustafsson didn’t appear to be in their long-term plans and Lehner had harsh words for the Hawks’ front office — a recurring habit when discussing his former teams — after his trade.

Even if the Hawks don’t, however, they still come out of this strange, messy spring looking — albeit inadvertently — shrewder than they did a month ago.

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