Given that we're in the first soft section of the NHL offseason (after the playoffs have concluded, but before the draft and free agency begin), we figured it would be a good time to get together and prognosticate about what moves Kyle Davidson might make this summer.
One of the interesting things about the Blackhawks going forward the next few years will be that every offseason should be somewhat unique in its purpose. Last summer was about tearing the roster down to the studs. The focus this summer will most likely just be draft and development. And then the Blackhawks should absolutely be involved in trying to sign multiple free agents from the historically good class that will be available next summer.
For now let's turn our eyes toward the future, and take a stab at what some of the components of next season's opening night roster might look like.
Who will be the Blackhawks' second line center?
Eric: This is absolutely where I have Stan Bowman PTSD (SBSD?) and a part of me is terrified they'll overpay J.T. Compher in both money and term. Local guy coming off a career year because he was over-slotted on a really good team due to injuries? Check and check. I'm going to give Kyle more credit than that, though (fingers crossed).
Dave: I could get on board with Compher in the 2C role for next season on a one or two-year deal but no longer than that. But it also seems like it'd be weird for a 28-year-old forward who probably has one last crack at a big payday to settle for a short-term deal. There's reported mutual interest, though, so it's a name to watch for sure.
Eric: Connor Bedard should get every single crack at being the No. 1 center, so I'm going to say the No. 2 center is already on the roster. I would be A-OK with a second line of Lukas Reichel, Andreas Athanasiou and Philipp Kurashev where they all can take faceoffs and have a shot at winning the job. Reichel and Athanasiou found some solid chemistry together at the end of last season (and AA seemed to improve just about every game after being moved to center), and Reichel and Kurashev also seem to play off each other really well.
I am zero percent interested in a Max Domi reunion – especially after he's earned some nice paper for himself due to a strong playoff performance and will require a multi-year deal. And if the team feels like Frank Nazar will be joining them after his upcoming season ends at Michigan, there's no point in signing someone that would effectively just block him – unless you overpay that someone on a one-year deal with an eye toward flipping them at the deadline (a la Domi last season).
Betsy: Honestly, who knows at this point? Of the guys on the roster right now, it's got to come down to Tyler Johnson and Kurashev. I lean more towards Kurashev because of the potential chemistry with Reichel, who should probably start on the second line so that the top two young player – him and Bedard – are separated a bit. Kurashev had the second highest TOI among centers last season, behind Domi, though caveat that Kurashev did play wing some and Tyler Johnson was injured for almost 30 games. Now, why not Reichel at center, you ask? It's where he played in Rockford, but I'm not convinced he's wouldn't be better off on the wing with more freedom, and it's where Richardson slotted him last season in Chicago. Cole Guttman is also an option for 2C, another player with chemistry with Reichel. Davidson could pick up at least one more veteran, likely a center, so it might be some unknown dude at this point.
Dave: I could get on board with that second line of Reichel-AA-Kurashev for next season. It still feels like Athanasiou is very much a short-term option here but he's at least a proven NHL-caliber player, and he could at least be good enough that he'd help both Reichel and Kurashev, who each have steps forward to be taken in their NHL careers. Last season was such a throwaway but the upcoming season is when it'll be damn near required that young players start taking more steps forward in their developments and having this trio together – at least to start the season – feels like as good of a situation as the Hawks can muster for Reichel and Kurashev.
As for a long-term option at 2C, this notion will continued to be spoken into existence for three more years:
Who will be the Blackhawks' top defensive pair?
Eric: Kevin Korchinski and ... who cares? Let's go!
Dave: Now we're talking.
Eric: Actually, my ideal scenario would be to just pair Korchinski with Isaak Phillips, let them run wild, play 20 minutes a night, and make a million mistakes so they can learn from them and establish themselves as legit NHL defensemen moving forward. More realistically though I'm going with the classic "put a kid with a vet" down the line and saying the top pair should be Korchinski and Connor Murphy. There's no point in pairing Seth Jones with Korchinski as that's a redundancy and you probably want your two best (only?) offensive defenseman spread out to maximize their impact. Pairing Korchinski with Murphy is more due to process of elimination than anything else, but also it just kind of feels like it should work. I'm guessing they buy out Nikita Zaitsev and don't re-sign Caleb Jones or Ian Mitchell – so that leaves them with a defensive core of Seth Jones, Murphy, and Jarred Tinordi. Give each of them a prospect – and I would love to see Filip Roos get a serious look with Jones as all of Jones' best numbers happen when he's paired with another mobile defenseman – so they can start to figure out what they actually have in some of these D prospects.
Betsy: It depends on what you mean by top-pairing. Seth Jones is going to play the most minutes, so whoever is paired with him is de facto top pair, but unless a kid really impresses out the gate, Murphy is likely going to get the next most minutes despite being on a different pair. As for who will play with Seth Jones, well, there are options. I think I'd rather Korchinski play softer minutes to start in the NHL, and I'd honestly love to see him with Alex Vlasic because the pairing of defense-first guys acting as a springboard for an offensive guy is often a good combo. But those same reasons could be why Vlasic is on the top pair with Seth Jones. Another option: they only played 25 minutes together at 5-on-5, but Seth Jones and Wyatt Kaiser owned 54.8 percent and 58.7 percent of the shots on goal and shot attempts, respectively, so that'd be a neat pair to try for more time. Ultimately, I do want a kid getting most of the time with Seth Jones because it's time to really start investing in the youth movement, especially on defense.
Dave: As I sit here, over three months before the start of the season, I'm trying to temper expectations for all the Blackhawks young blue-liners. It feels like the trio of Korchinski, Vlasic and Kaiser will be the youngsters who get the most NHL time among the under-25 crowd this season. But the Hawks have been leaning so hard into this idea of not rushing prospects that I'd be surprised if any of them ended up over 20 minutes of average ice time. Vlasic was at 19:38 in six games last season, so he seems to be the most likely candidate here. All of this is a long way of saying it's some combination of Jones/Tinordi/Murphy who eat up the biggest chunk of ice time and become the de facto top pairing.
As I re-read the portions above, it feels like the Hawks may even nab another veteran blue-liner in free agency and throw him onto the top pair with Jones – the Jack Johnson Experience™ all over again.
What will the Blackhawks' top power play look like?
Eric: This could end up being a lot of fun as Connor Bedard played all five positions on the power play for the Regina Pats last season. I would love, LOVE, to see the Blackhawks utilize him the same way to start and my fear is that they'll want to just plant him on the dot (Ovechkin's Office) and run everything around him to set up one-timers over and over (although in fairness it's worked spectacularly for the Caps and Ovi). Not only will Bedard be their best player, but he's incredibly offensively gifted both with and without the puck, so give him the space and the freedom to make some plays. Reichel and Korchinski are no doubters if they're on the roster – and from there it can go all sorts of ways. Taylor Raddysh could be a decent bumper with some size and the ability to score up close, and Tyler Johnson played that position relatively well on the top unit to start last season before he got hurt. I think Seth Jones has to QB the second unit (who else could?), so he's out. I'm guessing the Hawks will bring in another forward at some point this summer as more of a playmaker/high hockey IQ guy to pair with Bedard on the first line, so we'll add that mystery guest to the top unit as well. So I'm going Bedard, Korchinski, Reichel, Raddysh and mystery guest.
Betsy: If Korchinski is on the team, he should be the quarterback for the first unit as much as possible, but it's most likely still going to the Seth Jones in that role – at least for a while. Bedard and Reichel should be no brainer additions. Raddysh was on the top unit last year, so he'll probably be back there again. Unless another center with better faceoff stats is picked up, the last should probably be Tyler Johnson. He's not a bad bumper guy anyway.
Dave: You mean "when" Korchinski is on the team, Betsy. When.
Korchinski, Bedard and Reichel seem like no-brainers for this. Seth Jones will probably be there just because. Ideally, Kurashev would be the fifth player here but part of me feels like Richardson would balk at the idea of having so many youngster on the top power-play unit. So, it's probably safe to assume that Tyler Johnson or Taylor Raddysh would be on PP1. It does seem like there's, at least, enough talent on the roster for next season that they could actually have five offensively competent players on PP1, which is a massive change from last season – especially the end of it.
Who will be the Blackhawks' starting goalie?
Eric: It's the year 2023 and no team in the NHL is still able to properly evaluate the goaltender position – which is reinforced by the fact that a goalie (who was acquired for a fourth-round pick at the deadline) that made two million dollars per season just defeated a goalie that makes ten million dollars per season in The Stanley Cup Final. Obviously there's a few slam dunks here and there, your Vasilevskiys and Marc-Andres and Carey Prices, but even this year's Vezina finalists were drafted 78th overall, 150th overall, and 163rd overall. So nobody has any idea what they're doing (remember when we all thought Kevin Lankinen was awesome for half a season?). Arvid Soderblom should get every opportunity to cement himself as the team's starting goalie while Petr Mrazek backs him up and Drew Commesso gets a year's worth of professional seasoning in Rockford. If the Hawks were further down the line on the rebuild, and Nashville was really listening on him, Kyle should be calling Barry Trotz about Juuse Saaros every day – but there's really no point in giving up capital now to get a top tier goalie to play behind a team that's going to have significant defensive issues for at least another season (or two). So let's see what you got, Soder.
Betsy: I think the goalie tandem needs to be pretty evenly split this season between Mrazek and Söderblom, at least to start. Söderblom will have just turned 24 when the season begins with two seasons of AHL experience, and that's still young for a player who wasn't drafted with high expectation. Remember, Corey Crawford didn't become the Blackhawks undisputed starter until he was 26 with five AHL seasons under his belt – and then he was still somewhat rocky for those first two years before the Crow we know and love emerged consistently in 2013. Next year's Blackhawks are probably still going to be a defensive mess – albeit, hopefully a work-in-progress that we can root for – so not rushing or putting Söderblom in a position to burnout is key. If he goes on a tear, then sure, keep him as the starter and ride the hot goalie, but patience and looking at long-term development without overworking Söderblom is really the most important things right now. On top of that, the Blackhawks still need to draft high-ish in 2024, so while they don't need to tank, giving Mrazek half (or a little under) isn't a bad thing in the long run.
Dave: The starting goalie will be Mrazek. The most ideal situation is Söderblom playing so well that he supplants Mrazek as the unquestioned starter by the end of the season. That's probably not going to be happen, but it'd be nice. Feels like the main goal for Söderblom this season is continue on an upward trajectory: play well enough to keep the Hawks in games most of the time without any consistent blunders and that'll be enough to keep him in the rotation heading into the 2024-25 season.
One big surprise move/trade/salary dump the Blackhawks could make?
Eric: I wish the offer sheet was utilized more. Not only can it be an ultimate middle finger move (that totally backfired for Carolina), but it would also encourage player movement – while creating some naturally great storylines for the league – in a way that simply does not currently happen in the NHL. That being said, who would actually be worth it out of this crop of RFAs for the Hawks? I would definitely be interested in K'Andre Miller or Bowen Byram (make it right!), and a giant offer to Trevor Zegras would burn the league down to the ground, but I just don't see it happening.
So how about a significant trade that no one saw coming? The Jets are allegedly blowing it up so the Hawks should see what it would cost to get Kyle Connor. He's only 26. He's already had five 30-goal seasons (including a career high 47 in 2021-22). He's signed for three more years at a reasonable hit. He's lethal on the power play and could immediately slot in as the left wing on the top line next to Connor Bedard to give him someone to pass to, or get passes from (Connor actually has more assists than goals in totality for his career). While I have yet to see anyone mention anything about Connor actually being available, this is the type of move the Blackhawks should be after if they want to do something significant. It's a move meant for now and the future. I appreciate the prudence of taking on a player like Brock Boeser or Connor Garland or Anthony Mantha if they come with a quality pick, but generally there's a good reason why a team is so desperate to rid themselves of a player they're willing to include additional capital in the first place.
Betsy: It's hard to imagine any major, swing for the fences type of trades or moves right now, though I like most of the ideas Eric threw out. Offer sheets really should be done more, for sure. It'd be neat for them to sign someone like Vladimir Tarasenko to play with Bedard, but he's going to want more term than the Blackhawks should provide.
I think, most likely, we're looking at moves that help the Blackhawks out longer term by weaponizing their massive cap space. Could the Blackhawks package the No. 19, some combination of other picks, and take back a Connor Garland or Tyler Myers from the Canucks to get the No. 11? The Canucks aren't as desperate after buying out OEL, though, and they need the pick a lot as well, so this feel more unlikely now. The Bruins are another team tight to the cap and rumor is that Taylor Hall could be a player moving out due to having a bad season. The issue is there might be a team willing to give to get Hall, even with Boston having little to no leverage, but he wouldn't be bad to have next to Bedard.
Dave: A quick trip down memory lane before this point is made. When Toews and Kane arrived back in 2007, that Blackhawks team had some other veterans on the roster who played fairly significant roles in the 2007-08 team that didn't make the postseason but flirted with a playoff berth near the end of the season. Forwards Robert Lang, Jason Williams and the unfortunately oft-injured Martin Havlat were not around for the Cup runs but did handled decent minutes while the younger players found their NHL footings.
The Blackhawks do have some of those guys again, such as the aforementioned Athanasiou and Tyler Johnson up front along with Connor Murphy and Seth Jones on the back end, but it does feel like there's still a significant dearth of talent on this roster again. This is where I may depart in philosophy from the rest of the group but it is a firmly held belief that the Blackhawks should be trying a bit harder to actually win games this season without sacrificing the future. So, yeah: go ahead and throw a one or two-year deal at Compher or James van Riemsdyk or Jason Zucker with a slight overpay that Chicago can afford in the short-term. Ivan Barbashev would be cool, too, but he's probably priced himself out of reasonable price terms with his postseason play.
Bedard's here now. Time to start winning some games. They could very well end up in the draft lottery again but that's not the primary goal here anymore.