Should the Blackhawks explore bringing back Dustin Byfuglien?

Should the Blackhawks explore bringing back Dustin Byfuglien?

After a lengthy and messy dispute, Dustin Byfuglien and the Winnipeg Jets have officially reached an agreement to terminate his contract, the NHL and NHL Players' Association announced Friday. He is now an unrestricted free agent, effective immediately, although he is not eligible to play until the 2020-21 season.

So, let's get right to the question everybody in Chicago is thinking: Should the Blackhawks explore bringing Big Buff back?

The simple answer is, sure, why not check in? But it's a complicated situation with several different layers.

First off, what kind of game shape is Byfuglien in? He last appeared in a game on April 20, 2019, almost one year ago to the day, which is the first caution flag. But since then, he underwent ankle surgery in October and, as of February, has yet to resume skating, which is more concerning. And because he won't be able to play if hockey does return this season, Byfuglien, who turned 35 in March, would go at least 16 months without participating in any sort of game action.

RELATED: 5 best undrafted free agents in Blackhawks history

The second question is, what kind of contract would he be looking for? By having his deal terminated, Byfuglien walked away from $14 million ($8 million this season and $6 million next season), which either suggests money isn't the primary motive here and fit is, or he will do everything he can to recoup as much of that as possible in his next contract.

It should be noted that because he's now 35 years of age, Byfuglien is eligible for performance-based bonuses, so that kind of structure in his contract would provide some sort of incentive for the player and be less of a risk for the team. A potential comparable would be Corey Perry's one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Dallas Stars last summer that included an additional $1.75 million in performance-based bonuses.

From the Blackhawks' point of view, they're in a challenging financial position as it is given the legitimate concern of a flat salary cap for next season and the fact that pending restricted free agents, such as Drake Caggiula, Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome, and unrestricted free Corey Crawford are due new contracts. So if there's a reunion to be had between the Blackhawks and Byfuglien, the latter would have to take the larger financial sacrifice. 

The third question is, where would Byfuglien fit in the lineup? Obviously, you would make room for a player like him if you felt he could still perform at an elite level, but that's far from a slam dunk at this point. The Blackhawks are preparing to give Adam Boqvist and recently-signed defenseman prospect Ian Mitchell larger roles going forward, and adding an aging right-handed shot defenseman to the equation only complicates matters more.

But lastly, and most importantly, does Byfuglien even want to come back? John Shannon reported that Byfuglien has "no interest of playing hockey,” suggesting that his NHL career is likely over. It would be a bizarre way to go out, but everything else is moot if Byfuglien has no desire to put on skates again. 

While it's fun for Chicago to think about Big Buff in a Blackhawks sweater again, the chances of that happening are unlikely.

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Why NHL will adjust policy and not disclose injuries in Phase 4

Why NHL will adjust policy and not disclose injuries in Phase 4

In an effort to protect the players, the NHL will not disclose injuries in Phase 4, deputy commissioner Bill Daly revealed in a Saturday afternoon video call with the league and player representatives.

"Medical privacy is important in this process," Daly said.

Normally, teams are allowed to share injury-related information but are not necessarily required to. The Blackhawks are one of the teams that have become more transparent in that area after changing their policy going into the 2018-19 season.

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In this situation, the NHL is prohibiting clubs from doing so to keep the process confidential and eliminate speculation between a hockey-related injury and positive COVID-19 test results. The NHL, instead, will release the overall number of players who test positive for COVID-19 over the course of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but will not disclose the names of those infected.

The policy is strictly for the rest of the 2019-20 season and not a new long-term policy, although it remains unclear how things will be handled for the 2020-21 campaign.

It's the right move but will obviously present challenges if a star player on a contender is suddenly not available for a series, especially once we get into the later rounds.

Why Blackhawks will face significant financial challenges for years to come

Why Blackhawks will face significant financial challenges for years to come

There's good news and bad news for the Blackhawks as the NHL and NHL Players' Association agreed to a new six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement extension that runs through the 2025-26 season and includes an escrow provision that could add one additional year to the deal.

The good news is, hockey is back and the Blackhawks have a shot at making a Stanley Cup run after the league generously included them in the 24-team Return to Play format. And if they get eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifying round, the Blackhawks will have a 12.5 percent chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick and drafting stud winger Alexis Lafraniere. Not a bad consolation.

The bad news? The upper limit of the salary cap will stay flat at $81.5 million for the 2020-21 season and remain that way until hockey-related revenue reaches $3.33 million, and only increase by more than $1 million per year until HRR surpasses $4.8 billion again, which could take several years.

For reference: One week before the league put its season on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly announced the salary cap for the 2020-21 campaign would be in between $84 and $88.2 million. Now it won't come close to the low end of that mark for at least three or four years, which is a tough pill to swallow because teams were preparing for the ceiling to reach a different level following a new U.S. television deal and the addition of Seattle as the 32nd team for the 2021-22 season.

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Only six other teams had fewer cap space available at the regular season's pause than the Blackhawks, who had $175,558 to spare. And their financial situation is about to get way more complicated.

Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome are among the most notable restricted free agents who are due fairly significant pay raises, along with Drake Caggiula on a smaller scale. And then there's Corey Crawford, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Blackhawks may have some difficult choices to make, but ones that won’t happen until the offseason.

“My conversations with them have been more checking in, see how they’re doing,” GM Stan Bowman said on June 11 of the pending RFAs and UFAs. “As far as future signings and contracts and whatnot, I’ve told their agents that at this point, it’s premature. There are too many uncertainties to know what the salary cap or what the format for the future will be. So we’re just going to wait until we have more information.

"In my conversations with other managers around the league, everyone’s taking the same approach. It’s really difficult to be signing contracts for the future when we haven’t even finished this season yet, and we don’t know what the next year’s going to look like. I imagine that’s all going to happen in the offseason, whenever that might be.”

While the Blackhawks are trying to navigate through their financial challenges for next season, equal attention must be placed on the future during these unprecedented circumstances.

Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are all scheduled to become UFAs at the end of the 2022-23 season, which is the same year Alex DeBrincat will be seeking a new deal as a pending RFA. Top prospects Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach, both of whom were slide candidates, played in more than nine NHL games this season, which means the first year of their entry-level contracts were burned and will be due new contracts following the 2021-22 campaign instead of the 2022-23 season. 

Here's another hurdle: Unlike in 2013, there will be no compliance buyouts handed out to provide cap relief for teams in desperate need of it. The Blackhawks would’ve certainly welcomed that.

Yes, it’s exciting that hockey is finally back. And yes, it’s exciting that the Blackhawks have a chance at making a Stanley Cup run, no matter how slim their odds may be.

But for the long-term future of the Blackhawks, it's more important than ever for the front office to precisely map out what the roster could look like for next season and beyond and break down how the puzzle pieces can financially fit under the salary cap for years to come.