Selling mode gives Blackhawks more options and flexibility going into important offseason

Selling mode gives Blackhawks more options and flexibility going into important offseason

Stan Bowman was in a different spot this season. For the past decade, the goal around this time of year has been to go for it and add a player or two that will enhance the Blackhawks' chances at another Stanley Cup run. 

This season? Sell whoever you can for draft picks and prospects, and reset for 2018-19.

The Blackhawks made the first big splash of the day by trading Ryan Hartman and a 2018 fifth-round pick to the Central Division rival Nashville Predators for forward prospect Victor Ejdsell, a 2018 first-round pick and 2018 fourth-rounder.

Hartman wasn't necessarily on the market, but the phone calls picked up over the last seven to 10 days after he generated interest from multiple teams and the pros eventually outweighed the cons when the right offer was presented.

"The things that were being proposed to me weren’t really appealing at all," Bowman said. "In the case of Nashville they made a really strong offer. The value we were getting for him, it was a really tough deal to pass up."

It's as simple as that. 

Hartman is a pending restricted free agent and could command up to — or even more than — $2 million per season, and a strong postseason run with the Predators would certainly strengthen his case. That wouldn't have been a problem for the Blackhawks to pay, despite having Nick Schmaltz to extend in 2019-20, with the salary cap ceiling expected to increase to $80 million. 

It's getting a first-round pick in return plus a prospect like Ejdsell, who the Blackhawks reportedly pursued last summer, that intrigued Bowman enough to pull the trigger.

"All you have to do is look back to last year’s draft," he said. "We ended up taking Henri Jokiharju at 29th overall and we took Ian Mitchell 57th. Those are two of our best up-and-coming prospects, so you can get really good players in that range. You throw in the center, Victor Ejdsell, he’s not a throw-in, he’s a very talented center, big kid about 6-5, highly skilled player.

"He’s a bit of a late bloomer. ... He’s probably closer to being an NHL player. We have high expectations for him. We have to get him over here and see where he fits, if he’s ready for the NHL next year. He could be, but we’re not trying to put too many high expectations on him. So in the short term, obviously it’s hard to let a player like Ryan go but I felt we had two really high-value assets to compliment."

The Blackhawks also traded Tommy Wingels for a conditional fifth-round pick in 2019, spreading out the wealth of their selections.

But what the Blackhawks ultimately did is give themselves more options going forward and new ideas to toss around, such as packaging some of those additional draft picks into an immediate need like, say, a Top 4 defenseman. They still haven't utilized Marian Hossa's long-term injured reserve cap space, either, which allows for more flexibility in the offseason.

The rest of the regular season will serve as as an evaluation period, maybe even more-so for the kids. Matthew Highmore was recalled hours after the deadline ended, and he certainly won't be the last.

However, it's those younger players that emerged onto the scene this season that held up their end of the bargain the most and the offseason will be a time for everyone to look in the mirror.

"We're not going to have the same exact group, that's for the team that wins the Cup and for the team that just misses the playoffs and the team that wins one round," Bowman said of next season. "There's changes for sure. The magnitude of the changes, we're gonna have to see how that goes over the next couple months.

"But the players that are here right now that will be back, they've got to find a way to grow their games. If they're young players, they've got to find a way to expand their arsenal. And for the veteran players who were better in previous years, they've got to find a way to get back to that level. I'm looking at improvement from across the board."

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space


Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

The Blackhawks had cap space to use this summer but elected to shore up their depth rather than make a splash when free agency opened up on July 1. Perhaps a large reason for that was because Marian Hossa's $5.275 million cap hit over the next three years complicated what they could do exactly in the short term without jeopardizing the long term.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted Tuesday that they had had discussions about moving Hossa's contract for a year now. But it finally reached a point where they simply needed to get it off their hands, even if it meant giving up Vinnie Hinostroza as a sweetener.

"We tried to make that deal work in every other way possible but they obviously said he had to be in it," Bowman said of including Hinostroza.

That's how important it was to free up even more cap space. By trading Hossa's contract in a nine-piece trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it created more options for the Blackhawks and financial flexibility going forward.

"It was a difficult trade from a sentimental perspective, because we'd love to not have to do that," Bowman said. "But on the practical matter, it was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here. It necessitated us trying to make the move that we did make. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come to try and make that type of a move. ... When this presented itself, we talked it through and got to the point where we thought it was something we had to take advantage of."

The problem for the short term is, it's mid-July and the big-name free agents are off the market. There's not much the Blackhawks can do to improve their roster externally unless they make a trade, which would require dipping into the pipeline.

And it's unfair to put a grade on the Hossa trade as a whole without seeing how they utilize that extra cap space. Could that be before the 2018-19 season starts?

"It's an option if we can find the right player or the right situation," Bowman said. "We certainly have more options now than we did before. I wouldn't say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along maybe in the summer or maybe in the beginning part of the year where teams have a couple players that make their team unexpectedly and that makes some other players more expendable. In the past we probably haven't really been a good match for those types of situations because we didn't have the cap room at that time, so now we're going to be in the mix for those types of things.

"Whether we use it right away or whether we use it during the season, I think the nice thing is we have the flexibility now going in to the coming years where we're going to need cap room, all that and more, to sign the young players."

It doesn't sound like there's much urgency to pull something off between now and when training camp rolls around in September. At least for now.

That doesn't mean there won't be once the market picks back up again. 

"Each year teams have surprises, good and bad, in camp," Bowman said. "Our team’s the same way. You have ideas on how your lines are going to look or how your players are going to be ready. Sometimes guys surprise you in a good way, sometimes it’s not what you think. There’ll be some adjustments around the league, but probably not a lot of activity.

"If you look back the last couple of seasons, late July and August are quieter as far as transactions. But there are some arbitration cases coming up around the league; those may get settled ahead of time. But if they do go to arbitration, if the number's not the way the team likes it, they may look to do something. There’s the possibility of moves, but probably closer to training camp is more when changes may happen."

All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens


All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens

The second wave of Blackhawks defensemen is on the way. That's exactly where all the attention was when prospect camp opened up Monday at MB Ice Arena.

Nicolas Beaudin. Adam Boqvist. Henri Jokiharju. Ian Mitchell. Call it the Big Four. Where are they all at in their development? When will they be ready to make an NHL impact? Who's the most pro ready? 

Lots of questions. Those will slowly start to get answered and it begins now.

While there may not necessarily be an open competition among the group right away, there's certainly a desire to make a strong first impression in front of the upper brass that included Stan Bowman, John McDonough and Joel Quenneville watching on Day 1.

"Every NHL team has a lot of good defensemen prospects, so I mean obviously when you want to go out there you want to showcase yourself as best as you can," Mitchell said. "Obviously you want to be the best defenseman here so that's my goal going into this, I want to prove to everyone that I'm a good defenseman, I deserve to play at the next level. Obviously there's lots of good players here, but you're trying to all succeed."

Said Beaudin: "There's a lot of competition. There's a lot of good, young defensemen. I think you just need to be different when you play when you show what you can do."

Said Boqvist: "I'm trying to be better every day. Of course I will play in the NHL one day and win Stanley Cups, so that's my mindset."

The theme? Focus on your own game, take what you learn out of this week and apply those tools in your game when advancing your development next season. The rest will take care of itself.

Mitchell will go back to Denver for his sophomore campaign to continue his development. Beaudin is expected to return to the QMJHL with the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Boqvist signed with the OHL's London Knights, where he will look to get accustomed to the North American style of play.

For Jokiharju, the goal is different. This is his second development camp. He signed an entry-level contract in June. Making the big club is a real goal and a legitimate possibility for a Blackhawks team looking for young, impact defensemen immediately.

"I think if Henri has a really good summer of training, comes into camp, I certainly thinks he gets a good look," Blackhawks vice president of amateur scouting Mark Kelley told NBC Sports Chicago last month.

Jokiharju showed poise and confidence with and without the puck during drills, like someone who knows this is only the first step towards that ultimate goal.

"Yeah," Jokiharju responded when asked if the expectation is to make it to the NHL this season. "You want to set the bar high, you don't want to set the bar too low. I want to dream big and that's the dream."

That's the dream for everyone. When that happens, it's up to them. This week is a chance to set an early tone.