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Yes, I understand that this 2022-23 Chicago Blackhawks season is expected to be full of doom and misery. Yes, I fully understand that the rebuilding process in the NHL is usually a dark time for a long time (see: Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings).
BUT, indulge me for a second in my deep pool of eternal optimism.
Could the 2024-25 season be the year that the Blackhawks are …”back?”
GM Kyle Davidson has talked openly about the rebuilding plan for the organization. He’s talked about how it will be a meticulous process to replenish the prospect system. He’s also remarked there could be some surprises along the way that accelerate the rebuilding process.
*cough* Connor Bedard *cough*
Players like Seth Jones, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane have all expressed the same possibility that the rebuilding process could potentially not take as long as others have in the past. Whether or not Toews or Kane are around to see the end of that process is another story.
But they are still a major part of the story.
Let’s say that one or both of them are part of the roster beyond March 3, 2023 at 3:00 p.m. CT; they’ll have to be signed to more team-friendly deals and will have had to bought-in to the messaging that both Davidson and new head coach Luke Richardson are presenting to the team. There’s value in them being in Chicago, helping mentor and guide the next wave of talent. There’s also value in them being trade pieces.
As we saw with the trades of Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat, the Blackhawks’ plan is to sell as many parts of value the organization has as possible to get future pieces to the puzzle. DeBrincat’s trade turned into Kevin Korchinski and Paul Ludwinski at this year’s draft, and Dach’s trade turned into Frank Nazar and Gavin Hayes. We don’t know exactly what trades involving Toews and/or Kane would look like, but you’d imagine there would be reasonably large return packages for Kane, and maybe something of significance for Toews on the trade market.
With both of their contracts coming off the books, either via trade or by the deals expiring in free agency, that’s an extra $21M in cap space that the Blackhawks will be working with heading into the 2023-24 season. Also consider this fact: There are currently only three players under contract in the 2024-25 season who are not on entry-level deals. Those three are all defensemen in Seth Jones, Connor Murphy, and Jake McCabe. Even then, there is no guarantee that any of those three will be on the roster by the time the season starts in October 2024.
That provides for incredible roster flexibility through the 2023-24 season and into the summer of 2024. Taking into consideration the expected $1M increase in salary cap heading into the 2023-24 season and the $4-4.5M increase from there for the 2024-25 season, the Blackhawks will have to spend about $40M between now and the beginning of the 2024-25 season to just reach the estimated salary cap floor.
There is essentially a blank canvas for Davidson to work with, hopefully with a few players in mind that have stood out over the 2022-23 and 2023-24 seasons. Players maybe like Philipp Kurashev, Lukas Reichel, and Alex Vlasic. But other than that, it is wide open for the organization to add major pieces to its puzzle, should they choose to do so.
Here’s a quick look at the potential free agents over the 2023 and 2024 summers…
Summer of 2023 free agent class (age heading into that season):
Patrick Kane (34), Jonathan Toews (35), Ryan O’Reilly (32), John Klingberg (30), RFA Mat Barzal (26), David Pastrnak (27), Alex DeBrincat (25), Dylan Larkin (26), RFA Pierre-Luc Dubios, RFA Timo Meier (26), Bo Horvat (28), RFA Jesper Bratt (24), Damon Severson (28), RFA Vince Dunn (26), Alex Kerfoot (28), Tristan Jarry (28), J.T. Compher (28), Dylan Strome (26), MacKenzie Weegar (29), RFA Roope Hintz (26), RFA Jesse Puljujärvi (25)
Summer of 2024 free agent class (age heading into that season):
Auston Matthews (26), Sebastian Aho (26), William Nylander (28), Steven Stamkos (34), Mark Scheifele (31), Brady Skjei (30), Sam Reinhart (28), Noah Hanifin (27), Jakub Vrána (28), Teuvo Teräväinen (29), Jake Guentzel (29), Tom Wilson (30), Viktor Arvidsson (31), Jonathan Marchessault (33), Connor Hellebuyck (31), Ilya Sorokin (28), Devon Toews (30), RFA Elias Pettersson (25), RFA Rasmus Dahlin (24), RFA Carter Hart (25), RFA Kappo Kakko (23), RFA Brandon Hagel (25)
Granted, not all of these players will hit to open market, but some will and with the amount of money needed to be spent and the uncertainty of who or when top prospects will be thrown into the mix at the NHL level, there’s so much Davidson could do.
The emphasis on rebuilding and replenishing the Chicago prospect system also has a huge impact on what the team could look like through the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons. As mentioned, Reichel, Kurashev, and Vlasic could be reliable and viable NHL players at that point. Young prospects like Nazar, Korchinski, Ethan Del Mastro, Colton Dach, Landon Slaggert, Wyatt Kaiser, Drew Commesso, and Nolan Allan could all be knocking on the NHL door all in their early 20’s.
The biggest accelerant to the rebuilding process and one of the biggest reasons the 2024-25 season could be the turning point in the rebuilding process: the 2023 NHL Draft Class.
The goal of the 2022-23 season is to land in the top three picks of the 2023 NHL Draft. Ideally, the Blackhawks will be drafting first overall and have the privilege of selecting Connor Bedard. If that were to be a reality for Chicago, the arrival of Bedard could take a full year off of the rebuilding timeline itself. He’s that special of a talent.
If they land with the second or third pick, the consolation prize of either Matvei Michkov or Adam Fantilli are still two players who could take significant time off the rebuilding process. To get a sense of what Fantilli brings to the table, go back and listen to our most recent chat (around the 16-minute mark) with his former Chicago Steel coach Brock Sheahan, where he is described as a new-age power forward who can do it all, play center in the NHL, and “thinks the game” better than anyone at his level. What’s not to like about that, right?
I fully understand it is hard to be optimistic at this point about the Blackhawks. I myself, as optimistic as I am in my nature, am finding it hard to always see the positives or see the plan when it comes to this Blackhawks team, right now. But we have not had a lot of practice in recent years in looking forward to the long-term future. Under a previous front office, decisions were made with short-term goals and ramifications in mind, but the long-term plan was never a clear picture. Under Kyle Davidson, the Blackhawks have a direction, a plan, and a desired outcome for not only the short-term (Connor Bedard), but also the long-term (extended Stanley Cup contention window).
With where the prospect system is headed, the plan for the development of those young players, the possibility of landing one of Bedard, Michkov, or Fantilli, the expected roster flexibility, and a willingness to make ballsy moves, it is my full belief that by the end of the 2024-25 season, the word “rebuild” will no longer be connected to the Chicago Blackhawks.
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