The Chicago Blackhawks were gifted with an opportunity to participate in playoff hockey this season, but now their attention will turn to the future after their Game 5 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday night.
The Blackhawks, who finished the regular season in 12th place in the Western Conference, were still able to get into the postseason thanks to the NHL’s play-in tournament, but they still face numerous questions about the direction of the franchise as their core continues to age and some of their young stars become eligible for potentially lucrative contract extensions.
So what will the Blackhawks have to do this offseason? Here are five questions that the team will face heading into the fall.
How Will the Leadership Roles Shake Out?
The Blackhawks already have at least one high-profile vacancy after team president and CEO John McDonough was relieved of his duties earlier this year, but could there be more changes on the horizon in the coming days and weeks?
While the changes with the team’s leadership will start with that president’s role, there are also questions about other spots in the pecking order as well. General Manager Stan Bowman’s job does appear to be safe, as the team has recently indicated that he remains under contract for several more seasons, but it’s less clear whether head coach Jeremy Colliton’s spot is safe after his season-and-a-half on the job.
With some high-profile free agents, including Gerard Gallant, currently on the market, the Blackhawks could conceivably try to bring in a veteran coach to get the most out of what remains of the team’s Stanley Cup-winning core, but they could also keep Colliton around in hopes that he can be a good developer of talent for some of the young players that will be making their way to the NHL next season.
Is It Time to Start Trading Away Members of the Team’s Core?
With the salary cap remaining flat and with several big contracts still on the books, the Blackhawks are going to have to get creative with their handling of their roster this offseason.
The first place to look on that horizon will be whether it’s time to part company with some of the team’s biggest name stars. Players like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane likely won’t be moved because of their $10.5 million cap hits, but players like Duncan Keith could potentially garner some interest, even if his age and his $5.3 million price tag potentially drive down any asking price.
Players like Brandon Saad, who is under contract for next season for $6 million, could also be on the trading block if the team feels the need to shed some salary.
These are big questions for the team to consider, and those decisions could come down to the mentality of the person who takes over McDonough’s chair on a full-time basis.
How Will The Team Handle a Big Crop of Restricted Free Agents?
While the Blackhawks only have one significant unrestricted free agent hitting the market, the team has a ton of players whose fates they still control, even though those players are all eligible for new contracts.
Tops on that list is forward Dominik Kubalik, a Calder Trophy-finalist who showcased his offensive acumen and puck-moving skills throughout the regular season and playoffs. He’ll likely be in line for a tidy little raise in the coming weeks, and the Blackhawks will likely want to hold onto one of their best offensive weapons moving forward.
Two other forwards also fall into the “it would be nice to keep this guy” camp, as Dylan Strome and Drake Caggiula will both require new deals to stick around with the Blackhawks. Strome went from being an indispensable top-six forward last season to an inconsistent performer this year, especially in the postseason, but his chemistry with Alex DeBrincat can’t be denied.
Strome’s salary demands could ultimately be the determining factor in whether he stays, and that could also hold true for Caggiula, who showcased some great versatility with both his physicality and offensive upside. He proved that he could play in the top-six or the bottom-six depending on need, and players like that are rare in the NHL.
Finally, the Blackhawks will have to decide about the future of Slater Koekkoek, who emerged as a solid player on the blue line towards the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. He might be pushed out of the mix because of the sheer number of defensive prospects that are likely to make their way up to the NHL level next season, but he at least has forced a conversation to be had about his future.
Who Will Be in Net to Start Next Season?
Probably the question that will drive the most conversation over the offseason is what to do in net for the Blackhawks. With Robin Lehner likely out of the picture after his trade to Vegas, the Blackhawks are left without a long-term in-house solution, with Crawford’s contract now expiring.
Crawford could conceivably come back on a cheap deal if the Blackhawks don’t want to aggressively hit the free agent market, but it would seem likely the team will insist on getting some type of reliable veteran help, as there’s seemingly no chance that the club would want to go into next season with Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen as their primary netminders.
Will Buyouts be Part of the Equation?
To help save some salary cap room next season, the Blackhawks could potentially be forced to use buyouts more than they have in the past, with several players potentially in line to have their contracts bought out by the club.
Those players include defenseman Olli Maatta, who has two years left on a deal that pays him a shade under $4.1 million a season, and Zack Smith, whose $3.25 million contract would come off the books after the 2020-21 season.
It wouldn’t appear likely that the team would be able to use buyouts on Brent Seabrook, who still has four years left on his contract, or on Andrew Shaw, who seems eager to return to the ice next season.
The trouble for the Blackhawks with their buyout situation is that they would incur a cap penalty for each of the next four seasons on Maatta’s contract, and would stretch out Smith’s hit for two years instead of the one remaining year if they go in that direction.