When the Chicago Blackhawks removed the interim tag from Kyle Davidson and made him their new general manager, it ushered in a new beginning. We can officially close the book on the Stan Bowman era, which ended in disgrace after bringing the city three Stanley Cups in six seasons. This current Blackhawks team is a far cry from the 2015 version that skated the greatest trophy in all of sports around the United Center ice.
Davidson did not shy away from his plans. He was direct when he said this was a complete rebuild, moving in the opposite direction of his predecessor, who tried to hang on to the last gasps of a championship era.
“We’re going to look at more of a rebuild here,” Davidson said during his March 1 press conference. “There are some things that we really need to fix that are going to take time. We’re not going to put a timeline on it; whether it’s three, five [years], I don’t have that answer right now. That will be determined as we proceed.”
Rebuilding this franchise will be a daunting task for the NHL’s youngest general manager. There are glaring holes up and down the roster, and there is not a lot of help on the way. One of the biggest areas of need is in between the pipes. Goaltending was an area that Bowman invested very little in during his tenure.
It was easy not to worry about the goaltending while Corey Crawford became one the best netminders in franchise history. The team even caught lightning in the bottle with guys like Antti Niemi, Antti Raanta, and Scott Darling. Crawford is gone, and now the Blackhawks need to figure out who the goaltender of the future is.
Bowman drafted 10 goaltenders while at the helm of the Blackhawks, and they have gotten a grand total of one NHL game (Kent Simpson) out of that group. Outside of Simpson (second round, 2010) and Wouter Peeters (third round, 2016), seven of those picks were made in the sixth or seventh round. In 2020, he invested his second-round pick (46th overall) in Drew Commesso, the top goaltending prospect in the system but he is still years away from competing for a roster spot.
A key for Davidson this offseason will be to find his goaltender for “right now” while also building up the crease for the future. Wins and losses will not matter much in 2022-23, so the team should not invest a ton of cap space in the position. It will be fascinating to see how things shake out in the Blackhawks’ crease between now and next October.
Heading into this season, many felt Kevin Lankinen was the future in net. After an All-Star season with the Rockford IceHogs in the American Hockey League (AHL), he emerged as the number one goaltender during the crazy shortened 2020-21 season. He went 17-14-5 with a .909 save percentage (SV%) and 3.01 goals-against average (GAA). His numbers took a dip after a fantastic start to his NHL career.
This season has not gone well for Lankinen. Injuries and the arrival of future Hall of Famer Marc-Andre Fleury have limited the 26-year-old to 13 starts. His .885 SV% and 3.57 GAA don’t exactly inspire much optimism for the future. However, he will be an unrestricted free agent at the season’s end. Davidson will need to decide if he wants to give the Finnish netminder another extended look or let him pursue a new opportunity.
Lankinen is a good fit for a rebuilding team, as he will come on the cheap and can still earn his way into the long-term plans. Pairing him with prospect Arvid Soderblom next season might be the best option as it will accomplish two things. It will give you a long look at two young goaltenders and will likely ensure you get a higher pick for an absolute stacked 2023 draft class. Next season is the perfect chance to give these two youngsters a crack at the big time.
Soderblom, the only goaltender under contract for next season, has been solid in his first taste of the North American pro game. The Swedish rookie is 9-10-1-1 with the IceHogs, posting an impressive .918 SV% and 2.80 GAA. He is used to being under heavy fire as he is facing just over 34 shots per game on average. He wasn’t spectacular in his three NHL appearances, but in what has been the case with all Blackhawks goaltenders the past few seasons, the team in front of him didn’t do him any favors.
Some of you might be asking where Collin Delia fits into this. The 27-year-old is having another good year for the IceHogs, but it is pretty apparent that he is not in the long-term plans for the franchise. He had to suffer through being the taxi squad goaltender for much of last season, barely seeing any playing time. He will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and a change of scenery is likely in order for him at this point.
Another option is to pair a veteran goaltender with either Lankinen or Soderblom. If you believe Soderblom has a real future with the club, then another season being the number one netminder in Rockford would serve better than being a backup in Chicago. The Fleury situation could go a long way into who is in the net next fall.
It is no secret that Fleury will be Davidson’s biggest trade chip heading to March 21 deadline, but we still don’t know if he will be moved or not. We do know he has a 10-team no-trade list, but other than that, his status is up in the air. Potentially, he could finish the season with the Blackhawks and be approached to return for one more season. Of course, he would have to agree to a significant pay cut from the $7 million salary he is currently taking home. Plus, if Fleury wants one more season before calling it a career, he may want to seek out one more run at a Stanley Cup, which won’t be happening here.
As mentioned in recent episodes of the CHGO Blackhawks Podcast, the rumors of Fleury being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs have picked up steam. Throw in today’s news that starter Jack Campbell will miss the next couple of weeks with a rib injury, and those rumors are gaining even more traction. The Maple Leafs need a goalie and some defensive help. The Blackhawks have Fleury and expendable defensemen like Calvin de Haan.
One player who could come back in a possible trade with Toronto is veteran netminder Petr Mrazek. The 30-year-old has two seasons left on his current contract at $3.8 million AAV. That is about the max the Blackhawks should invest at the position during the rebuild. Mrazek has struggled in Toronto but has proven he can be a quality NHL starter when healthy. He would be a suitable “place holder” as Davidson builds for the future. Plus, if he regains the form he had while with the Carolina Hurricanes, he could be a nice trade chip to add even more assets to the cupboard down the road.
The free-agent market is not great this summer, but plenty of veteran goaltenders out there fit into what the Blackhawks are looking for right now. Mikko Koskinen, Darcy Kuemper, Thomas Greiss, Joonas Korpisalo, and Braden Holtby top the list. None of those guys inspire visions of a Stanley Cup parade down Michigan Avenue, but that is not the goal of the 2022-23 season.
Davidson has a ton of work ahead of him. He must put some time and effort into securing the Blackhawks crease. They have a good start with Commesso but need more prospects at the position. The 2022-23 season will be the first step in identifying who will be part of this team when it is ready to contend again. It is not a season to put a lot of cap space into the crease. There are plenty of options on how to handle the goaltending, and it will be interesting to see which path he decides to take. Does he go young? Does he bring in a savvy vet to hold down the fort? Time will tell.