Hawks try to pry open title window

By Robert Zeglinski 

Following the sweep of his Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 2017 NHL postseason, a perturbed general manager in Stan Bowman vowed for major changes during Chicago’s season-ending press conference.

“There will be change. Change comes in many different ways. So the specifics of how we’re going to change things into next year are not really meant for this forum,” said an irritated Bowman then.

A little over two months later, surrounding the hoopla of this year’s NHL Draft in Chicago – and with some circumstances out of his control and some wholly initiated by shocking aggressiveness – Bowman lived up to his bold frustration. A team that wasn’t good enough to compete for a Cup despite a stellar regular season is now embroiled in an unprecedented effort by their personnel men to potentially make the Blackhawks a true contender again.

Makeovers aren’t always pretty, but can happen in a split second.

In the span of an approximate three days, the Blackhawks sent the hockey world into overdrive and stole the show of the draft they were hosting before it happened, with major roster developments almost no one saw coming.

First, came the news of what seems like retirement for Marian Hossa, one of the Hawks’ true linchpins since 2010, due to an allergy induced by his hockey equipment. The medication the future Hall of Famer took to be able to play was according to doctors, serious enough to warrant regular blood tests. There’s a lot to unpack with this dramatic situation.

With Hossa sitting at 38-years-old, having played 20 seasons in the NHL and accomplishing everything you could imagine, it’s likely the veteran didn’t want to keep risking his health, as his immune system simply couldn’t keep this battle going the more he aged. Hossa will miss the entire upcoming 2017-2018 season and it’s unclear whether he’ll ever play again.

His legacy as one of hockey’s all-time greats is cemented though, even if it leaves a huge gap in both the Blackhawks’ line-up as well as creating salary cap complications.

As is often with long-term injured players, NHL teams have the option to place their sidelined veterans on injured reserve to preserve cap space and maintain roster flexibility should it be needed. With Hossa and his approximate $5.275 million dollar cap hit, the limited Blackhawks have the option to either place him on long-term injured reserve now and hamstring themselves while knowing their roster is in place, or using the in-season option similarly deployed on Patrick Kane before the 2015 playoffs after training camp has settled to create as much breathing room as possible.

It’s more likely Chicago will choose the latter for trade deadline mania but every door is open when one of your core pieces such as Hossa may never hit the ice as a professional again.

After sorting through Hossa’s dynamic, the Blackhawks then sent their next shockwave by trading the 30-year-old, key defensive stalwart Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for the younger Connor Murphy and center Laurent Dauphin.

Hjalmarsson of late was Chicago’s second best defenseman after Duncan Keith with a precipitous decline from Brent Seabrook, so it was perplexing for many to see the Hawks trade away of the few aspects the organization they could count on. Hjalmarsson himself described his departure as a “pretty weird feeling” to the Chicago Sun-Times.

While the skepticism surrounding this move is evident, the Blackhawks’ logic here is also transparent.

Hjalmarsson is known for being able to take punishment, block an immeasurable amount of shots, and sacrifice everything for the team. Yet, these kinds of defenseman don’t age very well. At 30, the veteran is likely headed for a decline soon, one that the Hawks would prefer to be prepared for with contingencies. When considering his team friendly contract with two years left that pays him just $4 million, Hjalmarsson was also due for a major pay raise – one Chicago logistically couldn’t pony up for a 31 or 32-year-old.

So, instead of standing pat, the Blackhawks traded Hjalmarsson – who likely has his best days behind him – for a 24-year-old in Connor Murphy on a slightly cheaper contract at $3.85 million for five more years. The former first-round Murphy hasn’t shown the capability to be the kind of player he’s replacing yet, but Chicago is betting on his upside in their system with their remaining core.

The Blackhawks’ window to win a title is likely going to settle in the very near future i.e. next couple years or so with Keith and Seabrook only getting older while Kane and Jonathan Toews near their 30’s. Banking on Hjalmarsson versus Murphy is a huge risk, an incredibly dangerous move in that light. But one Chicago had to make.

Finally, after the dust was still settling on said previous trade, Chicago then sent former Calder Trophy winner and one of the league’s top scorers in Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

For primarily who you may ask? Why none other than 2013 and 2015 core Cup Hawks piece, Brandon Saad, as both the Blue Jackets and Blackhawks seek a new element.

When it comes to Chicago’s perspective, this was all about helping Toews re-ignite his career.

With Saad previously in tow, Toews played at his very best, helping form one of hockey’s best first lines. Without him, you’ve seen a first line center that’s barely gained any traction in each of the past two postseasons while enjoying meager production in the regular season by his own standards.

Saad’s ravenous two-way play was and still is an excellent pairing for the Hawks’ captain as a player who can both pot 30 goals while also helping lock down an opposing top line. Since Hossa will be out of uniform this year, that may also have been a motivation to bring Toews his old friend back.

Yes, the second line will arguably be weaker with Kane having his running mate Panarin jettisoned. The two in tandem helped make Kane a Hart Trophy level player points-wise during the regular season, but the Blackhawks were ousted quickly each postseason journey with this relationship.

When the Hawks were at their peak, Toews always had consistent partners, while Kane proved still capable of producing – albeit at a lesser rate – with sometimes less-than-adequate linemates. This is all about switching back to that familiar formula.

Beyond any on-ice changes, Saad is also under contract for four more years as opposed to Panarin’s two. If Panarin continues to score at his current trajectory, there was almost no chance the Blackhawks would be able to afford him at a reasonable price when time came for renegotiation. Saad’s deal tables all of these discussions in comparison.

None of these moves were the noise the Blackhawks originally hoped to make in June, nor are any of them guaranteed to work out. However, as the franchise begins to enter the twilight years of a once sprightly core, a shake-up of this kind of proportion was necessary.

Only time will tell whether these risks for Chicago proved to be well calculated, or panicked shots from the hip before the end of an era. R.

Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for SB Nation and managing editor at No Coast Bias. Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.

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