While scouting Ian Mitchell at University of Denver games in 2017-18, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman also kept noticing Mitchell’s teammate Henrik Borgstrom.
“Henrik was a dominant college player,” Bowman said. “One of the best college players I’ve seen the last 10 years. [He has] really high-end skill. He did it all in college. He seemed destined for greatness in the NHL.”
So when Bowman saw the opportunity Thursday to acquire the rights to Borgstrom — the 23rd overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft — as part of a five-player trade with the Panthers, he didn’t pass it up.
The Hawks received Borgstrom’s rights as well as forward Brett Connolly, defenseman Riley Stillman and a 2021 seventh-round pick for forward Lucas Wallmark and defenseman Lucas Carlsson.
Borgstrom and Connolly are the two main pieces and, even though both are coming to the Hawks, represent the offsetting values that made the swap even.
That’s because Connolly’s contract — with a $3.5 million cap hit through 2023 — and performance this season (just four points in 21 games) were bad enough to make his value negative. Borgstrom is the Hawks’ reward for taking him.
Neither are in typical situations, though.
After his tremendous collegiate career, Borgstrom produced a decent 2018-19 NHL rookie season — 18 points in 50 games — but has seen his career veer off track since. He spent most of 2019-20 in the AHL, then played in his native Finland this season.
Connolly’s value, meanwhile, had been solid until last spring. He scored 15, 15 and 22 goals in three seasons with the Capitals, then 19 in 2019-20 with the Panthers.
Unlike other viable bad contracts the Hawks could’ve acquired — such as the Canucks’ Loui Eriksson’s or the Islanders’ Andrew Ladd’s, the 28-year-old Connolly isn’t completely dead weight. The Hawks think they can revive his career.
“Brett’s contract, I look at it as a manageable amount for a pretty consistent goal-scorer in the league,” Bowman said. “Not so much this year, but his role hasn’t been that consistent this year.
“The thing Brett [can do] is tough to do in this league, which is score goals. He has a great release on his shot, and he’s a big body, which we don’t have a lot of. It’s a nice situation to be in, to add someone like him and add a couple of other assets.”
Carlsson and Stillman are both 23-year-old defensemen, making their inclusions largely a wash. Stillman has teetered on the NHL-AHL borderline the last three seasons in Florida, much like Carlsson in the last two with the Hawks, and both will be restricted free agents this summer.
But the Hawks think Stillman’s physical, gritty, defense-first style will prove more unique among their preexisting defensive corps than Carlsson’s puck-moving, offense-first style.
“It’s a nice complement to the young defensemen we have here,” Bowman said. “We’re trying to build that group up.”
Wallmark never clicked with the Hawks this season, and his departure keeps them one man away from the 50-contract limit.
Bowman is fond of gambling on the Hawks’ ability to rejuvenate former first-round picks who fell out of favor with their original teams.
Dylan Strome in Arizona and Alex Nylander in Buffalo were two recent examples. Borgstrom, a 6-3 center, is now the latest. He wasn’t initially part of the trade, according to a source, but was added late in the process in place of a higher draft pick.
“We’ve been watching him play in Finland, and his skill set is very noticeable,” Bowman said. “He can do a lot of different things with the puck. There’s tremendous upside. Obviously, he has to turn that potential into reality. But he’s the kind of player you get excited to work with.”
Borgstrom will need a new contract before joining the Hawks, and both his agent and Bowman said that won’t happen until this summer.
He could enter next season penciled into a top-nine role. But first, he’ll require protection in the expansion draft, which might displace someone like David Kampf from the protected list.
More trades possible
Bowman said he fielded “several calls” Thursday unrelated to the Panthers trade and could make more deals before the deadline at 2 p.m. Monday.
“If we can make a move or two more, I would not hesitate to do that,” he said. “But it has to fit into the puzzle. We’re in a good place now, and we’ve got some more assets. If we can do more of that, we’ll look into it.”
Bowman said Tuesday that he was considering three types of trades: acquiring a young player with future potential, receiving assets for absorbing a bad contract and trading away a pending unrestricted free agent for assets.
Thursday’s deal fits into both the first and second categories but doesn’t rule out more moves in those categories. And the third category is still wide open. The Hawks have two UFAs who fit the bill: forwards Mattias Janmark and Carl Soderberg.
“Right now, [those players] are part of our team and . . . there’s a scenario where they would remain with us,” Bowman said. “When we’re in a position like we are and they’re not signed beyond this season, sometimes in those cases teams are actively pursuing those guys. There’s been no definitive decisions made on them.”