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Blackhawks mailbag: Will Blackhawks be buyers or sellers at trade deadline?

Blackhawks mailbag: Will Blackhawks be buyers or sellers at trade deadline?

The NHL All-Star weekend has come and gone and the bye week for the Blackhawks ends on Thursday, when the team returns to practice in Arizona.

The next time the Blackhawks play a game, the calendar will have flipped to February. That means we’re down to the final two months of the regular season.

As of Wednesday, the Blackhawks sit three points out of the last wildcard spot in the Western Conference. But a lot could happen between now and then.

Let’s dive into our latest Blackhawks mailbag to kick off the back half of the 2019-20 campaign:

How will the Hawks utilize their cap space before the trade deadline?

With less than a month until the Feb. 24 trade deadline — which is a week earlier this season — the Blackhawks have a decision to make soon. Will they be buyers or sellers? Quite frankly, the answer right now is: to be determined.

GM Stan Bowman told the Chicago media on Jan. 7 that the next "five or six weeks" will likely determine the course of action at the trade deadline. He reaffirmed that last week to NHL.com.

"I think right now we've got to let it unfold a little bit more," Bowman said. "Kind of give this group a chance to continue on this push we're on."

If the Blackhawks continue to make a run like they have over the last month — they've won 11 of their past 16 games and five of their last six — and creep into a playoff spot, it's going to be awfully difficult to subtract from the roster, even if it might not be good enough to win a Stanley Cup. If they start trending in the wrong direction and slip further outside the playoff picture, the Blackhawks will likely be forced to sell some spare parts.

Another option that can't be dismissed just yet is the idea of taking on a bad contract to recoup some drafts picks or prospects. That is, of course, if the Blackhawks fall out of contention. But that's something they would have to do well before the deadline to give teams that open up cap space a chance to use it. And it would have to be a contract on an expiring deal since the contracts of Calvin de Haan and Brent Seabrook will go back on the books this summer. 

The Blackhawks have roughly $13.8 million in cap space, according to Cap Friendly.

If the team continues to go on a run after the break & Stan does decide to help the team, where do you see the most need? Scoring winger, center on bottom-6 for scoring balance? Or D-man (RHD or LHD? big physical or puckmover) to shore up our D-corps?

The obvious answer is a top-four defenseman of some sort, but here’s why that could get complicated: Five defensemen — Calvin de Haan, Duncan Keith, Olli Maatta, Connor Murphy and Brent Seabrook — are currently under contract for at least the next two seasons after this one, Erik Gustafsson is a pending unrestricted free agent, Adam Boqvist is playing top pairing minutes in the first year of his entry-level contract and Slater Koekkoek is also set to become a restricted free agent.

So if the Blackhawks want to acquire a defenseman, it must be a rental. But they're going to be competing with plenty of other playoff-contending teams and it doesn't make sense to get involved in a bidding war.

The Blackhawks, under these circumstances, would be better off adding a top-nine forward to balance out the four-line rotation. There aren't many centers available, so pencil us in for a scoring winger. 

What is the goal for this season?

At the beginning of the season, the Blackhawks would've told you that getting back to the playoffs is the main goal. And to a large degree, it still is. But they won't try doing so at any cost.

Bowman isn't the type of general manager who will mortgage future assets just to make a run this season or prevent his seat from getting any hotter. He's always weighed both the short term and the long term when negotiating deals, which is why he's going to see how the next few weeks play out before making a final decision on how the Blackhawks should approach the trade deadline.

Could you any Blackhawks player sneaking in a conversation for an award. Most notably Dominik Kubalik for the Calder or Robin Lehner for the Vezina? 

Kubalik has certainly played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion. In our PHWA midseason awards, I had him third on my list behind Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, who were No. 1 and 2, respectively. It's difficult to see Kubalik jumping them but being in the conversation is impressive on its own.

Kubalik is on pace for 34 goals, which would be the fourth-most in franchise history by a rookie, behind Jeremy Roenick (34), Darryl Sutter (42) and Steve Larmer (43). If he continues to produce at this rate, Kubalik should finish as a finalist.

As far as the Vezina Trophy, Lehner absolutely has to be in the conversation to this point. He was third on my midseason awards ballot, behind Ben Bishop and Connor Hellebuyck, respectively.

Lehner ranks fifth among all goaltenders in goals saved above average (13.3), according to Natural Stat Trick. But of the 55 goaltenders who have at least 16 appearances this season, only one of them has faced more high-danger shots against per 60 minutes than Lehner (9.89) and that’s his teammate Corey Crawford (9.92).

Let me throw this out there too: If Kane has a monster stretch run and guides the Blackhawks to a playoff berth, look for him to sneak into the Hart Trophy conversation.

Anything on Shaw's status?

Andrew Shaw’s concussion history has been well-documented. He found himself in a dark place during the 2016-17 campaign after suffering a concussion in Montreal, so he's going to be extra careful this time around and he has been. He's been sidelined since Nov. 30.

The encouraging news is, Shaw has been around the team more as of late. He was spotted several times before the break observing practice from the bench and joined the team on their latest three-game road trip.

But it doesn’t appear Shaw's return is imminent. 

Will Lehner re-sign?

Lehner has made it known that he likes it in Chicago and believes in this group. But this summer, he wants to be paid market value — both in term and dollar amount. It's really going to come down to what the Blackhawks want to do.

If the Blackhawks fall out of the playoff picture, could they make Lehner available for trade? If so, it's been reported the Carolina Hurricanes would be heavily interested in his services. And they certainly wouldn't be the only team.

If the goal is to continue making strides forward, the Blackhawks should be exploring a long-term extension with Lehner, whether they miss the playoffs this season or not. He's become a valuable piece to the puzzle.

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Stan Bowman lays out big picture plan for Blackhawks

Stan Bowman lays out big picture plan for Blackhawks

ST. LOUIS — The NHL trade deadline has passed, and the Blackhawks sold off two key pieces from their roster who were on expiring contracts to recoup some draft picks and prospects to their pipeline. They had no choice to if neither player was going to be part of their long-term plans.

The return was underwhelming in large part because of how the market played out, but that isn't the real problem. It's the fact the Blackhawks are in a position where they subtracted from the roster because they're at risk of missing out on the playoffs for a third straight season.

GM Stan Bowman met with the media in St. Louis before Tuesday's game and was asked to provide an outline of the big picture plan going forward. Here was his full answer:

"The biggest thing in today's game is having young players play an important role," Bowman said. "The last couple years we've picked in the top 10. We hadn't picked there since we picked Patrick [Kane in 2007]. So I think that's where you get some of those high-end players. The challenge is to try to get as many as those as you can and then build from that way out. Luckily, we still have some other established players that are difference-makers.

"But to answer your question simply, the way you become a really dominant team is you have some high-impact players and you need to have as many of them as you can assemble, but they're not easy to come by. Certainly hard to trade for. I guess it happens rarely when they become available. You typically have to draft them or develop them. Maybe trade for them or sign them as free agents. When you're signing a free agent, unless it's a European guy, they tend to be older and they might have some good years left, but their best years are probably behind them. There's no shortcut to it other than drafting and developing those players, so then the question is how do you acquire those? And that's what we've been trying to do.

"We've been trying to acquire either young prospects or draft choices that we can use to hopefully find that next group. And then there's a little bit of a lag where you have to allow them to develop. Some of them, obviously Kirby [Dach] is the exception to be able to come right in. Usually it takes a little bit of time. Adam [Boqvist] it took one year, now he's already in the NHL. For defensemen, that's a pretty quick ascent to the top. But we have to have a little bit of patience for those players to have time to develop. But you need to have those high-value assets, and we're trying to get as many as those as we can."

To summarize it best: the Blackhawks are in a "lag" period.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are still at the top of their games at age 31, Duncan Keith has a lot of hockey left in him and Corey Crawford is showing no immediate signs of slowing down. Alex DeBrincat is part of that second wave, and you figure Dylan Strome is too. Dominik Kubalik is playing his way into that conversation as well.

And then there's Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach, both of whom broke into the NHL this season as teenagers and have the highest ceilings of them all to turn into elite difference-makers because of where they were drafted. The challenge is balancing patience in their development while helping them get to their prime level as quickly as possible so it coincides with whatever high-level years of hockey Kane, Toews and the other core veterans have. 

There will surely be conversations within the organization over the offseason about the direction of the Blackhawks. Kane hopes the players can provide input to some degree.

"I think it's good to ask the players what they think, to be honest with you," Kane said. "We're the ones who are playing every night. We see what's going on in the locker room. We see who's tough to play against in the league, what teams are tough to play against. That would be a good road to go."

Bowman said he doesn't believe it's necessarily fair to bring the players into the decision-making process but admitted the leadership group has earned the respect to have their voices heard based on what they've accomplished in Chicago.

"If we knew exactly what the future held then you could have that conversation, but it's just a lot of guess work on everybody's part as far as nobody knows what our team's going to be year to year," Bowman said. "You have a plan on what you're doing, but then life happens, and things change. You have to have the willingness to adapt to what's in front of you, so I think that's why their job is to play hockey and they're very good at that and we let them do that.

"The other stuff, you might have conversations in the offseason more-so; day to day, talking to players about the management of the team, that's not the way sports work."

The Blackhawks are taking a long-term approach to their retooling process and it's difficult to predict when everything is going to line back up to not just be battling for a playoff berth but become perennial Stanley Cup contenders again. Are the Blackhawks on board with that?

"I mean, that’s the goal," Toews said. "Anything less than that is disappointing and frustrating."

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4 Takeaways: Blackhawks power up but fall in high-scoring affair to Blues

4 Takeaways: Blackhawks power up but fall in high-scoring affair to Blues

The Blackhawks scored three power-play goals, but lost 6-5 to the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues in St. Louis on Tuesday. Here are four takeaways: 

Crow's net

After trading goalie Robin Lehner to Vegas ahead of Monday's trade deadline, Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said Corey Crawford will be the team's lone starter the rest of the year, likely with Malcolm Subban (return from Lehner trade) backing him up.  

After a rough start to the game, allowing the Blues to draw first blood, Crawford made some big saves in the first period to keep the Hawks in it and allow them to answer back. 

Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy was tagged with a tripping penalty 11 seconds into the game that produced a Brayden Schenn power-play goal 33 seconds into the contest, which had Chicago trailing 1-0 early. 

Murphy later redeemed himself by scoring off a wrist shot at 14:09 of the first to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead. 

After a four-goal third period, Crawford finished the game with 31 saves on 37 shots. His performance wasn't indicative of the score. The Blackhawks defense had a rough game and the penalty kill went 2-for-4. 

100 for Duncs

Duncan Keith scored on a Blackhawks power play at 10:55 of the first period. 

He became the 100th defenseman in NHL history to score 100 goals. Keith joins Bob Murray, Doug Wilson and Brent Seabrook as the only defensemen to reach the milestone with the Blackhawks.

He later added two assists in the game.  

The two-time Norris Trophy winner recorded his 500th assist in Wednesday's 6-3 loss against the New York Rangers. Keith is the 40th defenseman in NHL history to reach 600+ points. 

RELATED - Duncan Keith reaching elite career milestones this season

Powerful

With Keith's marker, the Hawks picked up a power-play goal in three straight games. They were 0-for-17 on the man advantage in their previous six.

Patrick Kane added another power-play goal for the visitors, scoring 1:13 into the second period. Brandon Saad scored the Blackhawks' third power play of the game at 8:16 of the third to put Chicago ahead 5-4. 

The Hawks only had three power-play goals in the entire month of February before Tuesday. It was only the second game this season in which Chicago had at least two power-play goals. The other was against Vancouver on Nov. 7 in a 5-2 win in which they scored two. 

D breakdowns

Like the majority of the time the Blackhawks have been scored on this season, a couple of the Blues' goals on Tuesday were a result of defensive breakdowns. In the third period, St. Louis scored two even-strength goals in 16 seconds. 

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