Why this offseason could (and should) be different for Blackhawks

Why this offseason could (and should) be different for Blackhawks

The belief around the NHL last offseason was that the Blackhawks were going to be aggressive via free agency. They were coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign and had some cash to spend.

But it was quite the opposite. 

After John Tavares and James van Riemsdyk inked long-term deals with their respective new clubs, the ripple effects turned out to be over-payment across the board on a free-agent class that wasn't very deep. So the Blackhawks settled on a one-year deal for Chris Kunitz up front and two-year contract for Brandon Manning on defense.

This summer could be different. And it should be.

For one, the Blackhawks aren't handcuffed by a Marian Hossa contract that was moved on July 12 — nearly two weeks after free agency opened up. That didn't help their cause and didn't allow them to have financial flexibility when it really mattered.

"It was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said at the time. "It necessitated us trying to make the move we made." 

The Blackhawks are in a much better position this time around. They're projected to have north of $15 million in cap space and plan to take advantage of it.

"I would expect us to be more active in the summer free agent market than we have in years past," Bowman said on Sunday during exit interviews. "First of all, we have the cap flexibility to do that. We haven't been in this position before. This is probably the first time ever we've had this much money to spend. Doesn't mean we're going to spend all of it on July 1. We have to sort of look over the next horizon of years and plan for that but we weren't in this position a year ago or two years ago. We were shopping in a different marketplace. We have the capability to look at that and we're going to look at trades as well.

"Sometimes that's another way. Depends on what players you're looking for, if they're available in the summer, sometimes they are and sometimes you have to do it through trades. There will be some moving parts but I wouldn't expect sweeping changes. I think we've got a lot of good things here and we showed that our last 50 games we played some really good hockey. We're trying to build on that, not really change it dramatically."

Acquiring Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome from Arizona and Drake Caggiula from Edmonton in the middle of the season put the Blackhawks in a better position going into this summer than originally expected. They found a potential future second-line center (Strome) they thought they had in Nick Schmaltz, replenished a top-nine winger (Perlini) they lost in Vinnie Hinostroza and added a skilled, aggressive forechecker (Caggiula) that can play anywhere in the lineup and checks a lot of boxes the team doesn't have right now.

The Blackhawks are no longer in a spot where they're looking to subtract from the roster — only if it makes sense for the short term and long term, both financially and production wise on the ice. They want to start building around the current group, one that's led by 30-year-olds Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews who are coming off career years.

The time to capitalize is now.

"We're not going to bring the same group back," Bowman said. "That's clear. We don't do that really any year. There's changes to every team, even a team that ends up winning the Cup this year will have some different players. We're going to have some new players next year. What we're going to do is try to improve in the areas where our team needs some help and the way that looks isn't completely clear right now, but we have time over the next couple months to dive in and look at our team in greater detail and figure out how we're going to make that happen.

"There's obviously free agent signings, there's trades, there's growth from within. Those are the ways that your team improves from year to year and we're going to do that. So we're going to have some new players here next year for sure but we have a lot of players that are going to be back and I think a lot of the key guys who had good seasons they're coming back for sure, so we don't need across the board changes but we do need some new players."

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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.

What's Blackhawks' key to victory over Oilers in NHL play-in series?

What's Blackhawks' key to victory over Oilers in NHL play-in series?

If you've caught him on the NHL Network or saw him help lead the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002, you know that as an analyst and a former goalie, Kevin Weekes is dialed in to hockey and knows what it takes to win.

NBC Sports Chicago recently caught up with Weekes over the phone to get his thoughts on the Blackhawks' play-in series with the Oilers for the NHL's 24-team playoff tournament beginning on Aug. 1.

The Blackhawks are the No. 12 seed from the Western Conference heading into Edmonton to take on the No. 5 Oilers in the qualifying round.

"I think for the Hawks, they can lean on that experience, they can lean on those superheroes in their group and if they can play a tight enough game, because Edmonton has certainly improved the way they play defensively and their team defense, as (seen) in their penalty kill... But if the Hawks can play a tight enough, structured enough game and defend the middle of the ice... That's my key for the Hawks is defending the middle," Weekes, who played in the NHL for 11 years, said.

Related: How Blackhawks can beat Oilers with 'wealth of success' in qualifying round

"Because if they don't, Edmonton's speed led by (Connor) McDavid, who's basically a fighter jet on ice, the young legs of (Kailer) Yamamoto and some of the other guys they have in their group now and (Leon) Draisaitl of course... if the Hawks don't defend the middle of the ice, it could be a tougher series for them. But if they lock down and they play well defensively and they force Edmonton to have to play a game that they don't really want to play, then that plus the Hawks' experience can be the biggest advantage for the Hawks."

Related: How will long layoff affect goalies in NHL's 24-team postseason?

The Blackhawks will be back in action for training camp on Monday.

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