Read the comments from any website discussing the Blackhawks moving into 2019-20. Everyone is in unison, typing in all-caps: “WE NEED DEFENSE,” “GET SOME DEFENSEMAN.” Yep, that’s right the Hawks defense is a huge problem. Only the dumpster fire that is the Ottawa Senators allowed more goals than the Blackhawks last season.
So, go out and sign some defensemen in free agency, right? Well, that’s much easier said than done. Yes, the Hawks will have plenty of cap space this off-season. They could have around $18 million in cap space, if the salary cap does, in fact, increase to $83 million as commissioner Gary Bettman has estimated. $18 million is a lot of flexibility.
However, spending that on defense won’t be so easy. First, the Hawks are locked into five defensemen already. Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Henri Jokiharju, Connor Murphy and Eric Gustafsson are all on the books for next year and beyond. For the Hawks to improve their defense, some of these guys would need to go. Let’s assess each case.
You could make the argument that Seabrook deserves to have his #7 jersey retired along with Chris Chelios. That is how important he has been to this team. However, Seabrook is more of a problem these days. Actually, a huge, huge problem.
The contract. Brent Seabrook is on the books for FIVE more years at $6.8 million per year. Oh, and he also has a full no-movement clause, meaning that he has to approve any trade.
Look, the no-movement clause doesn’t really matter anyway because nobody is taking that contract. People have tried to draw a connection with Florida because Joel Quennville and Dale Tallon are there. Florida is in win-now mode, Tallon isn’t going to handcuff himself with that contract. The only team that might do it is Arizona, like they have countless other times, but the chances Seabrook accepts a trade to the desert are less than zero.
Verdict: Absolutely staying
Another guy who deserves to have his jersey hang from the rafters is Duncan Keith, especially after two Norris Trophies and a Conn Smythe. The decline hasn’t been to Seabrook’s level, but it has been noticeable. Keith is still very serviceable, but he isn’t a top-pair guy anymore. So, now Stan Bowman has two defensemen being paid top-pair dollars, but aren’t capable of being top-pair defensemen. Not great.
Keith’s contract isn’t nearly as bad as his former partner’s, but it’s still an issue. Keith is owed $5.5 million over the next four years. Oh, and much like anyone else Bowman has signed, he has a full no-movement clause. I could only see Keith waiving his clause for the perfect situation and the likelihood of that trade coming to fruition is also not great.
Verdict: All but surely, staying
Youth and speed are what the Blackhawks need and Jokiharju has both. He probably should have stayed with the NHL squad last season, as he was one of their better defensemen when he was here. I know, tallest midget contest, but still.
Jokiharju is a cheap and valuable option for the Hawks moving forward, as he will make just south of $1 million per year for the next two seasons. Jokiharju can be part of the solution, so unless someone knocks your socks off with a trade offer for him, I’m plugging him into your top-pair next season.
Verdict: Should definitely stay
Here’s an interesting case. Connor Murphy was pretty good this year. He’s a nice, serviceable second-pair defenseman. On a team with a solid top defensive pairing, Murphy would be ideal to round out a second pair. However, the Hawks do not have that.
Murphy has a pretty fair contract for what he brings to the table. He is slated to make $3.8 million for the next three seasons. I like Murphy, but there is a log jam on defense and he has a movable deal that doesn’t feature a no-movement clause.
If the Hawks are going to bring new blood onto the blue line, Murphy may need to be moved, as he is one of the few who actually can be. The key, of course, is that they have to find someone better than Murphy. That’s no small task.
Verdict: 50/50 chance he’s back
Gustafsson had a remarkable year, from two different angles. Gus in the offensive zone: remarkably good. Gus in the defensive zone: remarkably bad. The offense was special, Gus was sixth among NHL defenseman with 60 points on the year.
The defense on the other hand was difficult to watch. Mistake after mistake and at times, just flat out looking lost. However, with the point production, the Blackhawks will likely want him back. He’d be a fine third pair guy. He is on a cheap contract as well, with one year left at $1.2 million. That could also make him attractive on the trade market, but I think he’s more attractive to Stan Bowman and whatever his “plan” is.
Verdict: Probably going to be back
So, what now…
Well, Stan Bowman has five defenseman locked up for next season. There are only six spots on defense. Four of those five guys likely aren’t going anywhere. Maybe the Hawks move Murphy, then there’s four guys with two open spots.
Let’s look at the free agent market. Erik Karlsson is the top man, but he won’t be cheap. I think his price tag will take the Hawks out of the running. He’s also going to be 30-years old and asking for a long-term deal. Remember how bad the Seabrook deal looks?
The rest of the unrestricted free agent market is flooded with older defenseman; Tyler Myers, Niklas Kronwall, Alexander Edler, Jake Gardiner, and Ben Lovejoy to name a few. The Hawks need top pair guys, other than Karlsson, and there aren’t any on the free agent market.
If the Hawks are going to find the answer to their blue line woes, it’s probably going to have to come via trade. They could flip a forward for one perhaps, maybe Brandon Saad could be a trade candidate. They also have a plethora of young offensive defenseman in their prospect pipeline that could be trade candidates. Do you trust Stan on this front?
There isn’t a simple solution to the Hawks defensive issue. Stan Bowman is in for quite the challenge. The Hawks have Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin coming through the pipeline. Neither are going to jump in and magically fix things though. Bowman is going to have to get creative to right the ship moving forward. If he doesn’t, we are going to see the other team lighting the lamp a whole lot again next year.
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