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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