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While the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers battle it out for the ultimate goal they set out to achieve this season, Kyle Davidson and the Chicago Blackhawks have already won their top prize. Most teams entered training camp with visions of being handed Lord Stanley’s Cup at center ice. Davidson and the Blackhawks were among a handful of teams racing to be the first on the stage at the Draft in Nashville. After a season full of losses, trades, and growing pains, the lottery balls bounced the Blackhawks into the number one overall pick, with Connor Bedard waiting to alter the trajectory of this storied franchise.
Before we go any farther, there is no galaxy-braining this pick. While they can’t say his name until June 28, Bedard will be the pick. In moments following the Blackhawks’ lottery win, we have constantly heard two things; Bedard needs a “mentor” and a “protector.” Jay Zawaski wrote about the veteran presence that is already in the locker room, so the mentor role may already be filled.
The “protector” is a whole other issue. Any time you have a superstar on your team, there is a call to bring in a physical player to help prevent other teams from taking runs at your franchise player. We saw it in Chicago during the 80s when Al Secord served as Denis Savard’s personal bodyguard on the ice—two things about that. First, Secord was a very productive player as well. He had three seasons of at least 40 goals and scored 54 during the 1982-83 season. Also, back then, teams like the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota North Stars had more goons in their nightly lineups than are in the entire NHL today.
Many fans still feel having a bruising brute on the ice will prevent your stars from getting hit. Just remember, Brandon Bollig was on the ice when Raffi Torres tried to end Marian Hossa’s career in 2012, so that is just a myth. If a dirty player wants to take out your star, he will deal with the consequences to do so.
Today’s game is all about skill and speed, which is why the classic enforcer is nearly extinct. There is still a place to play a physical game, but you also must be productive. Michael Bunting in Toronto and Tom Wilson in Washington are two players who have recently excelled at this role. However, both players have become liabilities on the ice because of their antics. You can’t protect the star players or rack up points when you’re in the penalty box or suspended.
One name that has been consistently mentioned in our chats is Tyler Bertuzzi. Yes, he is coming off a great run with the Boston Bruins, but I want nothing to do with him being on the Blackhawks. Maybe it’s PTSD of the last name, but there are other reasons for my distrust of him. First, he walks the fine line between being physical and dirty and crosses over with both feet from time to time. He was suspended two games in 2018 for throwing a sucker punch from the bench. He was forced to miss nine games during the 2021-22 season because he was the only player in the NHL who did not get the COVID-19 vaccination, thus making him ineligible to play in Canada. In a game that prides itself on being the ultimate team sport, this was an odd move by Bertuzzi.
But the biggest red flag for Bertuzzi is that the Detroit Red Wings moved on from him at the trade deadline. Steve Yzerman is one of the most respected general managers in the game. If he was willing to cut ties with the 28-year-old forward just as his team is on the cusp of competing again, that tells me a lot. Also, Bertuzzi will look to cash in on his success with the Bruins with a multi-year contract, which the Blackhawks should not be doing at this stage of the rebuild.
Another name that has come up is soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Milan Lucic. There are numerous reasons to say no to this idea. First and foremost, he just doesn’t fit Davidson’s vision. He is a slow and lumbering player and does not bring the speed or skill the young general manager craves for his roster. Plus, Lucic, who turns 35 next week, had a career-low 43 penalty minutes last season with the Calgary Flames, which tells me that his physical play is being turned down too. So, if he isn’t fast, can’t score, and doesn’t provide the physical edge we are used to seeing, then what’s the point?
Another veteran tough guy on the market is 36-year-old Ryan Reaves. He’s an attractive player to those who desire an old-fashioned enforcer on next season’s roster. He played great for the Minnesota Wild after being acquired from the New York Rangers, but again, he doesn’t fit the mold of a Davidson-built team.
Now, I’m not totally against bringing in another physical player. One option I’d look at is calling Reaves’ former team, the Golden Knights, and inquiring about Keegan Kolesar. The 26-year-old winger plays the game like Lucic and Reaves but is more productive, faster, and a decade younger. The Western Conference Champions will be in a salary cap crunch heading into next season and could be willing to part with Kolesar if the Blackhawks are willing to take on a bigger contract.
The other option I’d fully support is bringing back Max Domi. He can play with an edge, and as he proved last season, he has the speed and skill to play alongside elite talent. He quickly came to the defense of Patrick Kane on more than one occasion while being one of the team’s top scorers. With the Dallas Stars, he was the first to go after the Wild’s Matt Dumba after his questionable hit on Joe Pavelski.
When Domi was traded to the Stars in March, it felt like a return to Chicago was in the cards. He loved the city, he has a great relationship with head coach Luke Richardson, he was productive, and the Blackhawks could afford to overpay him. However, his performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs might have contending teams giving his agent a call on July 1. With Domi, much like with Bertuzzi, this might be his last chance to get a contract with term on it, so if that isn’t something Davidson wants to do, then this reunion won’t happen.
Physical play and hard hits happen all the time in hockey, but how many protectors did Kane have during his Blackhawks career? Not many. He was good enough and smart enough not to put himself in vulnerable positions for much of his career. I have little doubt that Bedard will do the same once he adjusts to the speed of the NHL. Most injuries happen in the heat of a regular hockey play, not on some dirty hit with intent to injure.
Several national pundits and local fans, and writers said the Blackhawks need to change their outlook on free agency the second they landed the first overall pick. The one person who seems stubborn in sticking to Davidson’s plan is Davidson himself, which is good! There is no need to stray from the plan because you will draft Bedard.
I get the need to want him protected, but that isn’t a reason to try to fit a square peg into a round hole. There are already some physical players on the roster. Guys like Jarred Tinordi, Connor Murphy, and Reese Johnson will have no problems sticking up for Bedard or any other teammate. Guys like Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk are bigger players who can be physical when the time comes. You don’t need to waste a roster spot on an aging tough guy who likely won’t prevent anything in the first place. Now, if you can find a younger physical player who has speed and skill and won’t be a liability, then, by all means, go for it.
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