Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has had to make some tough decisions during his run at the helm of the organization, but none have incited as much second-guessing or as much vitriol as the decision to trade away Brandon Saad just one day before NHL free agency is set to begin.
On its face, the situation is a tough pill to swallow. Saad is still incredibly young, coming off of a postseason where he was one of the most dominant players on the ice for the Stanley Cup champions, and best of all, he is capable of filling numerous roles and playing in all sorts of situations because of his on-ice intellect and skill set.
Those qualities are all really hard to find in a single player, and when looking at the Hawks’ current roster, there isn’t anyone that has that kind of potential. Sure, there are players like Teuvo Teravainen with the offensive skillset, and players like Andrew Desjardins (assuming he comes back) could help fill in the gaps on the penalty kill, but when it comes to the total package, there isn’t a ready made replacement among this group.
Ultimately though, that’s not how Blackhawks fans should view this trade. Looking at it through the prism of what Saad brings to the table makes it a difficult swap to justify, but when looking at the broader picture, it quickly becomes clear what was at stake if the Blackhawks decided to run the risk of letting the situation continue.
For starters, there was the compressed time frame that the team was dealing with. Teams were allowed to begin talking to restricted free agents on Tuesday afternoon, and starting with NHL free agency’s opening on Wednesday, teams can sign players to offer sheets. That means that the Blackhawks were potentially less than 24 hours away from having Saad exposed to that kind of enticement, and it seems certain that at least one team would have pounced to try to either pry Saad away from the Blackhawks, or to cause the team to go through an even more difficult salary cap crunch in order to keep him.
In addition to the time issue, there was also the matter of fair compensation if they ended up losing Saad to free agency. Bowman said all along that the team’s goal was to re-sign Saad, but what if a team had ponied up with a contract just south of $7 million per season? There’s no way that the Blackhawks could have matched that kind of contract with their current salary cap situation, and the compensation (a first, second, and third round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft) simply would not have been enough to justify losing him.
Instead, Bowman did what any responsible executive would do: he recognized that a shift was about to happen in the market, and he made sure to cover the team by making a trade to avoid a really tough situation. Some have been critical of the haul that Bowman got for Saad, but with the way the trade bolsters the team’s center depth with Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano, and with extra wingers in Corey Tropp and Jeremy Morin that will compete hard for roster spots, the Hawks got a group of players that gives them a much surer chance of success than a smattering of draft picks.
Ultimately, this trade was one that enabled Bowman to make the best of a tough situation. The Blackhawks were caught in a really difficult spot thanks to the tanking Canadian dollar (which suppressed the salary cap and made contract extensions for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews more difficult to work around) and the fact that Saad had such a huge postseason (which also further compressed the amount of time the team had to negotiate with him).
Those factors led us to where we are now, with Saad sent away to the Eastern Conference and the Hawks looking at addressing the questions that are now facing their roster. The situation is far from ideal, and anyone suggesting that Saad will be easy to replace is either delusional or way too eager to sugarcoat things, but the fact remains that Bowman was put in a difficult position, and he ended up making more of it than could have been reasonably expected.