Exiting the all-star break, Chicago Blackhawks star winger Patrick Kane said he's looking forward to playing "meaningful games." And despite pre-season projections, it appears that's exactly what the Blackhawks will be doing, at least for the next few weeks.
As expected, the Blackhawks struggled out of the gate with a 3-6-2 record in October and were a last-place team in the Central Division after the final month, but skip ahead to today and Chicago sits just three points back of the Vegas Golden Knights and Arizona Coyotes in the wild-card race. It's been a roller-coaster campaign, with many of the team's best players struggling to stay consistent and perform to their fullest. Right now, though, this looks like a different Blackhawks team from what we saw at the start of the season. Across their past 10 games, Chicago is 6-4-0 with one of the league's hottest attacks, and what once looked like a season that was sure to end in lottery contention suddenly looks like it has post-season potential.
But with an elevated spot in the standings, the Blackhawks enter February in a peculiar situation. Are they buyers or are they sellers? At this point, that's unclear. Even GM Stan Bowman said recently he wasn't sure of Chicago's status, and with important games against the Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers on the horizon, the Blackhawks could either fall further down the standings, prompting the team to sell and focus on 2020-21, or attempt to make a few moves that get them over the line and into the playoffs. And that makes Chicago one of the most interesting outfits ahead of February's trade freeze.
Exploring the idea of Chicago as a buyer, here's what we know about the Blackhawks: they are in possession of upwards of $13 million in cap space, there's room to add a significant salary with Brent Seabrook ($6.88 million) and Calvin De Haan ($4.55 million) not expected to return this season and there's a lack of roster depth that requires addressing if Chicago has any designs on being anything more than first-round fodder if they make it to the dance. So, bold moves? Maybe. Forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau or defenseman Sami Vatanen are additions that could make sense, and with the three-point format in today's NHL, acquiring either will likely help the Blackhawks stay in a fight for the final post-season spots until the very end.
Much more interesting, however, are the options available if the Blackhawks deem themselves sellers.
Having a strong goaltending duo has been paramount to Chicago's success this season, but with neither Robin Lehner or Corey Crawford signed beyond this season, it makes one – or maybe even both – ripe for the picking if there's a team in need of an upgrade or insurance policy in the crease.
In all likelihood, Lehner is the prized trade chip if the Blackhawks decide to sell and determine they won't be able to re-sign the pending unrestricted free agent. Among goalies with at least 20 games played, Lehner sits 14th with a 5-on-5 save percentage of .927 and has a record when facing 35 shots or more of 11-3-2. As for Crawford, he sits three SP points behind Lehner at 5-on-5 and in 21st place among qualified goaltenders, and chances are that if Lehner were to remain, Crawford would be the odd man out given his age, lengthy injury history and disinterest in being a backup.
Beyond the goaltenders, the next-most sought after trade chip is likely to be rearguard Erik Gustafsson. After a slow start, he's heated up as of late, posting six points in his past three games. As a pending UFA himself, there may be teams willing to take a chance on him, and he is one of the best puck-moving rearguards available on the market heading into the deadline. Given his drastic drop in production – he scored 60 points and .76 points per game last season, but is on pace to net just 39 points and is scoring at .48 points per game this season – he might not fetch much.
Up front, Brandon Saad stands to be the top target for potential buyers. He has one season left on a deal that pays $6 million per season, but Saad is a proven 50-point player. Returning from an ankle injury suffered earlier this season, he'll be one of the better forwards available at the deadline and capable of providing depth scoring to a contender.
With the core that remains from the Stanley Cup runs of the 2010s nearing extinction, the Blackhawks' focus in whatever they do will need to be the future. If it's buying, Chicago can't afford to give up valuable futures in any swap. And if they sell, the Blackhawks should look to recoup the second-round pick they moved to acquire Andrew Shaw last June and stock the prospect cupboard by way of acquiring picks or young players with promise.
Right now, the approach is patience. The next few weeks will tell all. But one way or another, prepare for the Blackhawks to be involved when the deadline rolls around.
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