The Blackhawks are descending the stairs to the basement seemingly every day, and that includes their most recent loss to the New Jersey Devils, one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference. That was after they traded their best player in Taylor Hall, as well. So it becomes natural at what point the Blackhawks do as the Devils did, and begin selling off attractive (or, in one case, not as attractive) pieces.
The Blackhawks have also lost their second pair of defensemen this season after Calvin de Haan and Brent Seabrook were placed on long-term injured reserve, and both of them will get shoulder surgery (with Seabrook also getting two hip surgeries). Yet, the Blackhawks should remain sellers and not buyers.
A list of the pieces that could bring the most in return must begin with the Blackhawks’ two goaltenders, as both Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford have largely been excellent this season (some rough games aside) and both are on expiring deals. Erik Gustafsson is also somebody the Blackhawks likely want to get a return for, and the time to begin discussing trading off the “Cup core” is rapidly approaching as well. Why not trade your best players to contenders who need them, should they bring the right return? It would mean the Blackhawks committing to the rebuild, something they should have done long ago.
So, below, is the case for trading each of the players the Blackhawks could look to trade, as well as a list of potential suitors and realistic returns.
While the case for trading the Blackhawks’ goaltending duo is the same — they’re both on expiring contracts and could bring back excellent returns from teams looking for goaltending help — they would mean drastically different things.
Trading Lehner would mean getting even more of a return on a smart investment from the Blackhawks’ end, but that it wasn’t the right time for Lehner to join the Blackhawks. After all, he’s a goaltender who’s proven to be able to get teams to the playoffs — he was a Vezina candidate for the Islanders last season, and helped them get to the second round — and could be traded for a massive haul on a one-year deal that’s affordable (and could be made even more affordable).
Trading Crawford would mean a good return, although his six-million dollar contract is less affordable for teams looking at potential deadline pieces. But it would mean trading what, by all rights, is a franchise legend, the guy who helped the Blackhawks win two Stanley Cups and should be considered a hall of famer as a top two goaltender from 2012 until Evgeni Malkin skated right into him in 2017 (people, never forgive Malkin, please).
But trading both would mean a better tank for the Blackhawks, and if you’re trading both, it’s gotten desperate. Kevin Lankinen would likely take on starting goaltender duties, and he’s proven himself to be above the AHL this season, and the Blackhawks can likely get a backup goaltender in return in one of the trades.
The Blackhawks could trade Crawford or Lehner to Edmonton, Buffalo, Nashville, Calgary, or Carolina, all of whom are in contention but could use a first or second goaltender. The Sharks are no longer one of these teams, as it seems like regardless of any moves, they’re not a team that’s been well built this season. The only team who could realistically afford one of these goaltenders without much hassle is Nashville, although they seem to be the least realistic of these options, with both Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros having another year on their contracts after this one (although it would seem like a larger trade built around Saros and one of the Blackhawks’ goaltenders could work).
If the Blackhawks trade their goaltenders to one of those other four teams, they will need to retain salary or bring a bad contract back. Buffalo currently has no cap space, Edmonton has a little under $700K in space, Carolina has around half a million, and Calgary has $19K. Bringing back a bad contract or retaining salary would only increase the value in return, however. The bad contracts would be Brandon Manning from Edmonton, Zach Bogosian from Buffalo, or Cam Talbot from Calgary. All of these are fine, though, if the Blackhawks get the reasonable first round draft choice (and more) they could get from any of these teams.
Gustafsson is far off the 60-point pace he set last season, and the power play, with him as quarterback, has not done exceptionally well this season. His value is much lower than it could have been this summer or at last season’s trade deadline, as his lack of defense is not being offset by his offense so far this season. There’s signs he could improve — his shooting percentage is four points below last season’s, for instance — but right now, the Blackhawks have a hole in their defense when he’s on ice.
But the Blackhawks may still be able to get a return from a team in need of a better power play going forward, as Gustafsson has demonstrated a clear offensive ability, and maybe it’s just the Blackhawks’ general bad power play and power-play coaching that is holding Gustafsson back. Maybe he’ll do better on a better team, albeit one that needs a better quarterback for their first or second unit.
There are several teams that fit this description. The Penguins are one of the best defensive teams in the league this season, but their power play ranks 22nd, despite a hefty heaping of offensive talent. Minnesota is very similar, although their offensive stars are substantially less magnificent than Pittsburgh’s. The Avalanche have a natural power-play quarterback in Cale Makar, but with him out of commission, they’ve fallen to 16th in the league. Finally, Winnipeg is winning on the back of a Vezina-worthy performance from Connor Hellebuyck, but their lackluster blue line is in need of more offensive talent.
Two of these are divisional opponents, yes, but if the Blackhawks are tanking they shouldn’t care about divisions, and having Gustafsson drive a divisional opponent’s power play may help the Blackhawks lose. Gustafsson could still bring back a second or third round pick, depending upon if he can get back to his shot production rate from last season (more than two shots per game, he’s currently at 1.78) and if he can produce a few more points in quick succession before February.
The Cup core
Stay with me here, because this is unpopular: if the Blackhawks are going to become contenders again, with a core built around Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist, with Brandon Saad and Connor Murphy being the elder statesmen, it might not be with 30 somethings like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith being their highest earners in terms of salary.
Those three have won three Cups already. They’ll be appealing to other teams as leadership and as talent, as Toews is getting back on track offensively recently, Kane has always been one of the best offensive wings in the league, and Keith can still be a productive member of a blue line and play first-pairing minutes. They’ve been to the end of the playoffs time and time again, and they have an understanding that a young team looking for their first long run, like Buffalo, or like Edmonton, or like Arizona, could use.
There are natural fits for each of these teams as well. Keith and the Maple Leafs match up well, as do Toews and the Blue Jackets and Kane and almost any team in the league, but especially the New York Islanders, who could use more help putting pucks in the net (the Islanders have allowed the fewest goals against this season, but have scored just the 23rd most goals; Mathew Barzal and Patrick Kane as a duo could fix that).
They would all be required to waive their no-movement clauses, but at this point, if any of them believe the Blackhawks will be in contention again any time soon, that might be a miracle larger than Lake Placid in 1980.
In conclusion, trading players this season would be good. It’s time, unfortunately, and the expiring contracts might not be the only ones to go.
This opinion article does not reflect the opinions and views of other Second City Hockey writers.