Blackhawks gamble future on defenseman Seth Jones with blockbuster trade

Jones reportedly will sign an eight-year, $76 million extension with the Hawks next week, making him the NHL’s third-highest-paid defenseman.

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The Blackhawks acquired Seth Jones on Friday.

AP Photos

The Blackhawks’ pursuit of a No. 1 defenseman culminated Friday with the acquisition of their No. 1 target: Seth Jones.

In a draft-day blockbuster, the Hawks acquired the 26-year-old Jones from the Blue Jackets. They’ll sign him next week to an eight-year, $76 million contract extension, according to multiple reports, and make him the centerpiece of their defense in the post-Duncan Keith era.

To make it happen, however, general manager Stan Bowman surrendered a massive package of assets.

Adam Boqvist — a 20-year-old heralded for the last two years as the Hawks’ top defenseman-in-grooming — went to the Blue Jackets, along with the 12th and 44th overall picks this year and a first-round pick in 2022. The Hawks received the 32nd overall pick this year and a sixth-round pick in 2022, along with Jones.

Bowman also committed a massive chunk of the Hawks’ future salary-cap space to Jones. With a $9.5 million cap hit, Jones will become the NHL’s third-highest-paid defenseman, behind only the Sharks’ Erik Karlsson and the Kings’ Drew Doughty — two players considered among the most overpaid in the league.

The contract drastically reduces the Hawks’ financial flexibility not only now, when they do have a relatively decent amount to work with, but also for years down the line, when their situation might be far different.

It’s a gamble that might define Bowman’s post-Stanley Cup-era tenure as GM — if his possible involvement in the alleged sexual-assault cover-up in 2010 doesn’t end it soon — and determine whether the Hawks can return to contention in the next half-decade.

Jones has established himself as one of the NHL’s most prominent defensemen in his eight seasons and counting, averaging more than 25 minutes a game in each of the last three with the Blue Jackets.

He became a face of the otherwise-obscure Blue Jackets after they acquired him from the Predators in 2016, finishing fourth in Norris Trophy voting in 2018 and helping them win a playoff series for the first time in 2019. At his best, Jones’ size (6-4, 209 pounds), athleticism, poise and mobility give him the tools to be an All-Star.

But his results turned downward in 2021, both in terms of points — 28 in 56 games — and especially in terms of his underlying numbers. His even-strength scoring-chance ratio, which had been higher than 51.5% in six of the last seven seasons, declined to 46.8% — 128th out of 174 defensemen leaguewide. And his expected-goals ratio, which had been around 50% in the last four years, dropped to 42.8% — 168th out of 174.

While the Blue Jackets’ off-ice dysfunction and on-ice struggles certainly contributed to that, Jones fared poorly even compared to his teammates, especially fellow top-pairing defenseman Zach Werenski.

The Hawks’ courtship of Jones nonetheless began early this offseason and gradually intensified this week, despite the prospect of another No. 1 defenseman, Dougie Hamilton, hitting free agency next week.

With Jones down to one year left on his previous contract (at a $5.4 million cap hit) and planning to test free agency in 2022, the Blue Jackets were eager to move him. The Hawks’ recent addition of Jones’ younger brother, Caleb, in the Keith trade with the Oilers vaulted them to the top of his wish list.

Boqvist, meanwhile, might explode into a dynamic, top-pairing-caliber defenseman with the Blue Jackets or stagnate as more of a power-play specialist. The eighth overall pick in 2018, Boqvist slowly seemed to be learning how to thrive against larger, stronger pro opponents, although coach Jeremy Colliton mentioned concerns about his conditioning late in the season.

The rebuilding Blue Jackets, flush with three new top-25 picks from Friday,happily will wait to find out. Why the Hawks weren’t willing to wait any longer forever will be a mystery.

After all, the Hawks sent a letter to fans less than a year ago announcing a rebuild and youth movement, signaling they finally had abandoned their one-foot-in retooling strategy of 2018 and 2019. They followed that new plan wholeheartedly for one season, leading the NHL in games played by rookies.

Then they abandoned it, tempted by a player so expensive to acquire and sign that even a one-piece-away team would have a difficult time justifying it.

The Hawks’ 2021-22 defense isn’t entirely set in stone yet, with a decision still to be made on pending restricted free agent Nikita Zadorov, but Jones safely can be penned into the top pairing.

Whether he can deliver anything close to top-pairing-caliber results, however, remains unclear.

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