Blackhawks

Blackhawks offseason priorities begin with a top-four defenseman

Stan Bowman is almost always on the phone. Whether the Blackhawks general manager is walking the halls of the United Center, hanging out in the lobby of MB Ice Arena, watching a morning skate, or strolling through an NHL press box, Bowman’s phone is pretty much plastered to his ear. It’s his natural, resting state.

And this time of year, in the anything-can-happen period between the Stanley Cup Final and the official opening of free agency on July 1, every other general manager is doing the same.

Spitballing. Kicking tires. Gauging interest. Feeling out agents, feeling out each other.

“Probably 90 percent of the discussions you have don’t go anywhere,” Bowman said. “So we’re having a lot of dialogue even the last 10 days to two weeks, we’re very active in conversations. But most of them don’t lead anywhere. You have to put in the time. So we’re going to talk to some people and see if there’s a fit there.”

St. Louis Blues goalie Carter Hutton blocks a shot by Ryan Hartman during the third period of a preseason game on Oct. 8, 2016. (AP Photo)

Well, the Hawks have needs, and they also have cap space. Sunday’s swap of minor-league centers with Vancouver — Tanner Kero for Michael Chaput — certainly won’t be the only deal the Hawks make. But they won’t be able to solve all their problems in one swing, either. So here’s a look at Bowman’s priorities, in order of need.

1. A top-four defenseman
Bowman’s decision to extend Erik Gustafsson and Jan Rutta for a combined $3.5 million next season sent a curious message near the end of a rather miserable defensive season for the Hawks. It meant the Hawks have nine defensemen with NHL experience signed through next season. And that’s not counting 2017 first-rounder Henri Jokiharju.

Yes, Gustafsson made strides. Yes, Rutta briefly formed an effective shutdown pairing with Gustav Forsling. Yes, Connor Murphy was surprisingly good on his off side and yes, Brent Seabrook was perfectly fine in a slightly more limited role. But Bowman can’t possibly think it’s OK to bring this blue line back intact.

“I’m not trying to shake things up just to shake things up,” he said when asked about the defense. “If we can find a way to improve our team, then we’re going to look at that — whether it’s a defenseman or a forward or a goaltender.”

So does he try to deal away a player like Murphy, who carries a $3.85-million cap hit, to clear a roster spot for a free agent such as Calvin de Haan or Ian Cole? Does he trade for a guy like Carolina’s Justin Faulk — an ideal top-pairing partner for Duncan Keith — and bury a few guys in Rockford to make room? Does he do both?

The only thing he can’t do is nothing.

2. Find a goalie
The Hawks don’t need a backup goalie. They need a co-goalie. A contingency plan. A 1B. And neither Anton Forsberg, J-F Berube nor Jeff Glass showed they were up to the job. Maybe Collin Delia becomes that guy eventually. But for now, the Hawks simply must find an external option. A source said they were one of many (one report had it as high as 10) teams that reached out to St. Louis UFA Carter Hutton (a former Hawks farmhand) as the free-agent interview period opened on Sunday. He’d be the best option after posting a .931 save percentage in 32 games with the Blues. He’s good enough to hold down the No. 1 job, but not experienced enough to necessarily be handed a guaranteed No. 1 job elsewhere.

Other options include Robin Lehner, Cam Ward (or, yes, Scott Darling via trade), Ondrej Pavelec, Jaroslav Halak and Kari Lehtonen. None of those guys is an elite netminder, but each is an improvement over the current Corey Crawford contingency committee.

3. Find a scorer
The Hawks can score. With Nick Schmaltz, Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza and Dylan Sikura joining the veteran core, they have plenty of firepower. But given the state of the defense and the uncertainty in goal, they can never have enough.

And someone needs to play left wing on Patrick Kane’s line.

So if you can get UFA James van Riemsdyk for about $6 million a season, you do it. If you can take Max Pacioretty off Montreal’s hands in a favorable deal, you do it. If you can get Jeff Skinner — long a Bowman favorite — out of Carolina, you do it.

4. Find a taker for Hossa
If the Hawks never move Marian Hossa’s contract, it’s not the end of the world. Long-term injured reserve is always an option. But if you can unload his $5.275-million cap hit on another team without having to throw in too sweet a sweetener, all the better. It means more cap certainty, more in-season flexibility, and less paperwork.

The work has already begun. Bowman’s phone had better be charged.