Blackhawks get younger and more stable, but did they get better?
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There are only a handful of people in the world who can do the things Artemi Panarin can do on the ice. His vision, his creativity and his one-timer are all world-class. He helped Patrick Kane to new heights and brought Blackhawks fans out of their seats.
But he doesn’t kill penalties. He doesn’t make much of a difference in his own end. He doesn’t have the size to be a menace on the forecheck.
Brandon Saad does all of those things. And he has quite a bit of skill, too. And he helps fill the void left by Marian Hossa’s sudden departure. And he’s a year younger than Panarin. And he’s signed for four more years at the same cap hit as Panarin. And he’s the one that got away — for the Hawks, and for Jonathan Toews.
In short, Panarin is a more exciting player than Saad. But Saad is a vastly better all-around player.
The Hawks dramatically reshaped their roster and reframed their championship window Friday with a pair of blockbuster trades in about a 30-minute span. They traded Panarin, Tyler Motte and a sixth-round pick in Friday’s draft to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Saad, goaltender Anton Forsberg and a fifth-round pick in next year’s draft. That came right on the heels of a deal that sent three-time Stanley Cup champion Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Connor Murphy and forward prospect Laurent Dauphin.
The moves made the Hawks younger and bigger and gave them much more cost certainty. Both Panarin and Hjalmarsson were signed for just two more years and would be due significant raises, while Saad is signed through 2020-21 and Murphy through 2021-22.
“The cost certainty is another big factor for us,” general manager Stan Bowman said. “It’s a challenge when you have contracts that you know are going to be expiring in a year or two, and those guys are going to be due for some pay increases. And at that time, you’re looking around and figuring out how you’re going to replace those players.”
But did the moves make the Hawks better? Hard to say. Murphy is in the same mold as Hjalmarsson — a defensive defenseman with little offensive upside — but he’s no Hjalmarsson. He has been a medi-ocre player on a bad team in Arizona for four years. But he’s young and the Hawks like him, so maybe a change of scenery and structure will help. Regardless, the Hawks’ blue line is a lot thinner now than it was a few days ago, with Hjalmarsson in the desert and Trevor van Riemsdyk landing in Carolina. And Murphy does very little to alleviate the Hawks’ salary-cap woes
The key here, though, is Saad. For two years, the Hawks have been trying to replace the “Man-Child,” who was dealt to the Blue Jackets as a restricted free agent in the spring of 2015 in a deal that brought Artem Anisimov to Chicago. Saad is the left wing Toews has been craving — and needing — for two years. In Saad’s three years with the Hawks, Toews averaged 0.89 points per game (with Saad on his wing in 2013 and 2014-15, and with Patrick Sharp on his wing for most of the 2013-14 season). In the two years since losing Saad and Sharp, Toews has averaged 0.76 points per game as the Hawks tried anybody and everybody in that spot — from Ryan Garbutt and Viktor Tikhonov to Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz.
How does this top six sound? Saad, Toews and Richard Panik, and Alex DeBrincat (eventually, if not right away), Anisimov and Kane. You have Schmaltz and Hartman anchoring a young and exciting third line and Tanner Kero ready to take over at fourth-line center whenever Marcus Kruger is finally dealt. The blue line’s a concern. The forward group is awfully intriguing.
What it comes down to is that Toews needs Saad more than Kane needs Panarin. And the Hawks really, really need Toews to be Toews again. (It’s worth noting that Kane and Saad were very close as teammates.)
The fact that Saad — a big, fast, responsible two-way player who’s hard to knock off the puck — has been drawing comparisons to Hossa since his rookie season only makes him that much more valuable compared to Panarin. Replacing Panarin’s 31 goals is a lot easier than replacing all the things Hossa does, and all the things Toews can do with Saad at his side. Besides, Saad himself scored 55 goals over the last two seasons — just six fewer than Panarin.
Saad is younger. He’s more rounded. He’s locked up for longer. And he makes the Hawks better. No, he might not be as exciting to watch as Panarin is. But the Hawks won two Stanley Cups and 10 playoff series in Saad’s three years. What could be more exciting than that?
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.