The Chicago Blackhawks have a lot of decisions to make over the next few months leading up to the trade deadline on Mar. 21, 2022. It’s pretty clear their playoff hopes are a long shot this season. Meaning they should look to the future and be sellers. Whichever current players can net a good return in the way of picks and prospects should be on the market. With that said, who will the franchise invest in right now? In other words, who will the team look to build around for the future? Here are six key players the Blackhawks should retain as they look towards success in the long run.
I don’t think this name comes as a surprise to anyone. His name was NOT on the list of untouchables NHL Insider Frank Seravalli recently reported on Sportsnet 650. But let’s face it; Alex DeBrincat’s untouchable. The return would have to be pretty astronomical for the Blackhawks to part with their star 24-year-old winger. To me, it’s a no-brainer to keep DeBrincat in the fold.
We’ve had a front row seat here Chicago to witness The Cat, as he’s affectionately called, develop into an all-around player and superstar. He’s the real deal. DeBrincat’s in his fifth season with the Blackhawks, and currently in the second year of a three-year contract with an annual $6.4 million cap hit.
Sure, he will demand a hefty raise come the 2023-24 season. But this is also when Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane’s matching $10.5 million annual contracts expire. They might both re-sign, but not for as much money. Allot some of the extra funds towards DeBrincat’s new contract and keep him around.
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I mean, come on! He’s currently leading the team in goals (24) and he’s second on the team in points (33). And let’s not forget about those 28 goals in his rookie season, 41 goals in his sophomore campaign, and 32 goals in the 2020-21 shortened season. DeBrincat is an alternate captain. The organization has been selling his smile as the future face of the franchise practically since he got here. I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Every team needs a dependable utility guy that can play up and down in the lineup. Someone with enough smarts, skill and speed to complement the top players. But also enough grit and physicality to be a constant threat if needed farther down in the rotation. Brandon Hagel fits the bill in all categories.
Most pundits had the 23-year-old pegged as a solid member of the bottom-six when he broke into the league last season. He’s proven he can be that and much more. Hagel’s currently being deployed on the top line with Kane. He’s second on the team with 10 goals, and fourth on the team with 20 points.
On top of all this, Hagel is signed through the 2023-24 season for a very reasonable $1.5 million. He’s an energy guy that never stops moving and working out there on the ice. He plays on the power play and the penalty kill. And he appears to just be getting started on a solid and productive career. I don’t see any reason why the organization wouldn’t want that to be in Chicago.
Drafted 17th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, Lukas Reichel is really the only promising forward prospect in the system right now. Hopes are high he will live up to expectations in the NHL. The 19-year-old certainly looked the part in his two-game stint in mid-January. He was placed at the center position on the top line with Hagel and Kane, and he didn’t look at all out of place. Head coach Derek King had this to say about the Blackhawks’ top prospect.
King on Reichel: "I really liked his pace of play. He can skate, and you could see it."— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) January 14, 2022
"He pushes everybody back and frees up space for other guys. You see him dishing to Kane, [then] Kane gets the puck and there’s nobody in his face. I really liked watching him."
The Blackhawks appear to have a plan in place for the Reichel. They gave him a look, and he might get a few more games with the big club before the season is over. But they do not plan on burning the first year of his contract, meaning he won’t play more than nine total games this season. But be ready for him to be an integral part of the plans in the 2022-23 campaign, and a piece of the future.
Let’s move on to some key defensemen to build around. Former general manager Stan Bowman pretty much made this decision for us when he traded for Seth Jones from the Columbus Blue Jackets. He then immediately signed Jones to a mega eight-year contract extension with a $9.5 million annual cap hit (and a full no-movement clause). Bowman likely overpaid for the 27-year-old, and this contract might not look very pretty down the road.
But the commitment was made. Jones is here to stay and we might as well embrace him, for better or for worse. So far he’s lived up to expectations, taking on the No. 1 defenseman role and playing big minutes in all situations. He currently ranks second on the team with 23 assists and third with 26 points. He’s obviously a driving factor on offense, and certainly holds his own defensively as well.
The Blackhawks are banking on Jones having his best years still ahead of him. Let’s hope they’re right.
While Jones might be the No. 1 defenseman for the Blackhawks, Connor Murphy is the glue that holds it all together. He’s a defensive defenseman, but he’s a smart player that will jump in offensively when needed. He can be counted on to take on the opponent’s toughest competition, and is trusted to be on the ice to help win tight games.
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Murphy could likely deliver a nice return on the market right now, but the Blackhawks appear to have already invested in him for their future. This past August they inked him to a four-year contract extension with a $4.4 million cap hit. With the exception of Jones, no one else on the team is signed longer.
The 28-year-old has established himself as a leader in the locker room, and he often speaks to the media after tough losses. His honesty and willingness to take accountability is refreshing. There’s a reason he holds an alternate captain title. Someone with all this to offer seems like the right kind of player to keep in the fold.
Kevin Lankinen was arguably thrown into NHL duties too soon in the 2020-21 season after the Blackhawks decided not to re-sign Corey Crawford. Even so, the Finnish netminder emerged as the clear starter over Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia. He did begin to struggle as the campaign progressed, but the Blackhawks were prepared to give Lankinen the starting role again. Until Marc-Andre Fleury fell into their lap.
Because of that, Lankinen hasn’t seen much time in net this season, and therefore hasn’t been able to find his groove. But he’s had the opportunity to be mentored by one of the best in Fleury. He’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, but I believe it would behoove the Blackhawks to sign him on for another one or two years. He’s only 26 years old, he’s solid fundamentally, and he could arguably develop into a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. He could also be re-signed for relatively cheap while the Blackhawks determine if he’s the real deal or not.
Now that I’ve identified my top six players to build around for the future, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address some of the names I left off the list.
What About Dach?
I’m sure one of the biggest surprises is my omission of Kirby Dach. I have to be honest, this article was almost named “7 Key Players”, with Dach included. But I’m just not sold that the young center is going to pan out. He was the third overall pick in the 2019 Draft, and he’s simply not living up to this pedigree. Granted, Dach’s short NHL career has been waylaid by injuries. But this was the season where that was all behind him; where he was supposed to blossom. He hasn’t really done that.
There are some great things about Dach’s game. He physical and strong on the puck. He’s has a ton of skill and a high hockey IQ. He creates chances for himself and his linemates. But he can’t finish, and he can’t win faceoffs. He was brought on to essentially be Toews’ heir apparent. I think if that was the case we would have known it by now.
Perhaps I’m being unfair by giving up on him too soon, or by calling him a bust for not living up to the very high standard of Toews. He could still become a really good hockey player. But he also is one of the biggest names that other teams would jump at. If the Blackhawks can net a good return for him, I say they do it.
Kubalik and Kurashev
I really like Dominik Kubalik and Philipp Kurashev, and I hope they both remain with the team. After all, it takes more than six key players to formulate a successful hockey team. But neither of these two has stepped up enough this season for me to say they are necessary to the future. In other words, they’ve become dispensable.
Kubalik was a hidden gem the Blackhawks’ scouts found over in Europe from the Swiss league. He signed a one-year entry level contract at the age of 23, and then proceeded to score 30 goals in his NHL rookie season in 2019-20. This earned him a 2-year extension with an annual cap hit of $3.7 million.
Unfortunately, it’s gone downhill from there. The Czech native scored 17 goals in the 56-game campaign last season, and has accumulated only nine goals in 41 games this season. It’s not for lack of trying, but Kubalik does seem to have lost some of his finishing touch. Perhaps it will turn around. Or perhaps a fresh start with a new team is in order. I’m sure we’ll know his fate soon.
Kurashev has shown some potential since joining the Blackhawks last season. The 22-year-old registered eight goals and 16 points in the 2020-21 season, playing mostly at the center position. He was even given some time at the top center spot alongside Kane. This season, he’s credited with just three goals and 11 points in 35 games.
The Swiss forward has had to fight for his ice time this season with a more well-rounded group than last season. He’s been deployed mostly on the third line. Could Kurashev transition to a member of the top-six? Would he be more effective at the center position? Or should he be traded? He really just hasn’t established himself one way or the other.
Like with Dach, both players provide enough value that they could be good trading chips for the long-term improvement of the team. So whether either player remains a Blackhawk would depend on the return.
Honorable Mentions for the Blackhawks
Shout outs to some of the prospects who show potential and could easily be penciled in as building blocks for the future. Forward MacKenzie Entwistle boasts four goals and nine points in 26 games this season. It’s safe to say nobody expected him to have this kind of production.
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There are numerous defensive prospects that could take that next step sooner rather than later. Wyatt Kalynuk, Jakub Galvas, Ian Mitchell, and Nicolas Beaudin are all names to keep an eye on.
Kane & Toews’ Future Fit
Where do Kane and Toews fit in? This is an excellent question. In his report, Seravalli named Kane, Toews and Jones as the only Blackhawks’ players who are untouchable right now. Kane and Toews both have full no-movement clauses, so they would have to want to leave for it to happen. Apparently neither has indicated this is their desire, and the organization doesn’t plan to broach the subject with them unless they initiate it.
I’m certainly not opposed to keeping one or both of Kane or Toews with the team if they wish to retire as Blackhawks. They are each still very serviceable players, and their experience and leadership would be invaluable. Their big contracts expire after next season, so they will both be forced to sign more reasonable deals. But they’re basically just along for the ride at this point. Let’s face it; they’re not the cornerstones of the franchise anymore. They would simply be part of the supporting cast.
It’s going to be an interesting couple of months as the Blackhawks determine their future path. Who will they choose to build around? Who will they part ways with? I believe the above six players would make a solid start towards a successful future. Time will tell what decisions the Blackhawks will make.