The Chicago Blackhawks have an iffy relationship with free agents. Like any other team in the NHL, free agent signings are a gamble. They can end up being good or terrible. Unfortunately, the free-agent market has not been kind to the Blackhawks for the last few years. I don’t think Chicago fans have seen a worse year in the market than in 2018. That was the year when the Blackhawks needed a big shakeup having missed the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade the year prior. General manager Stan Bowman answered the call by signing goaltender Cam Ward, defenseman Brandon Manning, and forward Chris Kunitz. Bring back fond memories? It still gives me shivers thinking about how big of a miss that was.
Fast forward to the 2020-21 season, the team finds themselves in a similar situation. They needed change to truly advance in the rising Central Division. Bowman responded in free agency with signings that seemed lackluster but ended up being the team’s blessing in disguise. While we’re halfway through the regular season, let’s take a look back at Chicago’s free-agent signings for this season and grade Bowman’s work.
1. Mattias Janmark- A
I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t crazy about the Blackhawks signing Janmark to a one-year, $2.25 million deal. I didn’t think he would provide much because he only had six goals with the Dallas Stars last season. But, he has quickly proved me wrong. He has been an asset at every position he has played this year. Whether he is playing center, wing, on the power play, or penalty kill, his presence is felt every shift. He has done a fantastic job of creating scoring opportunities for himself and the players around him.
With him being a 28-year-old veteran, that is exactly what you would hope for out of a player like him. He has 10 goals, eight assists, and 18 points in 34 games this season. That ranks him fourth on the team in goals and points. His play makes you wonder why Dallas wouldn’t push harder to re-sign him in free agency. But their loss is Chicago’s gain. That was a sneaky good move by Bowman and deserves an ‘A’.
2. Dylan Strome- B
I’m including Strome in this list because he was re-signed by the Blackhawks as a free agent in January. I have very mixed feelings about this move. I don’t think he would have been re-signed if Kirby Dach and Jonathan Toews were not placed on the Injured Reserve (IR) to start the season. But, the team was in a bind and Strome was available. This season, he has five goals, four assists, and nine points in 23 games. His faceoff percentage (FO%) is at 45.7%. He ranks at 11 on the team in points and eighth in goals. Granted, he missed some time after sustaining a concussion in late February. So that definitely has an impact on his stats. However, he can be very streaky. When he is ‘on’, the team benefits significantly. When he is ‘off’, it is painfully noticeable.
Strome has great offensive ability, but again, it seems to come in waves. I don’t view him as an irreplaceable piece to this rebuild. I think the Blackhawks would be fine with or without him. I don’t fault Bowman for re-signing him. He was needed. But now that Dach has slotted back into the lineup, that pushes Strome to wing, which is a position that he does not succeed in. So, this may not be a match made in heaven going forward. I’m giving Bowman a ‘B’ because of my conflict.
3. Pius Suter- A+
I cannot say enough good things about the signing of center Suter.
The Blackhawks signed him to a one-year, $925,000 deal in July 2020. He came in as the MVP of Switzerland’s National League- A with leading the league in goals and points. He had offers from more than 10 NHL teams, but the Blackhawks won the sweepstakes and have won-out ever since with that signing. With him being 24-years-old, he is considered to be a staple piece for the team’s future. He provides the offensive depth that they desperately need. His FO% is 43.04%, but he is improving as games go on.
This season, he has 11 goals and six assists for 15 points in 34 games. His 11 goals are tied with Minnesota Wild forward, Kirill Kaprizov for the most by a rookie. He is tied with Janmark for fourth on the team in goals and is fifth on the team in points. He is currently on a three-game goal streak. Better yet, he is also seeing time as Chicago’s top-line center alongside Patrick Kane.
Suter is a serious Calder Trophy candidate for the best rookie in the league. I have absolutely nothing negative to say about this signing. The Blackhawks front office did an amazing job with this find and with guaranteeing he signs here. I think I speak for most Blackhawks’ fans when I say I can’t wait to see how he progresses because he is just scratching the surface with his potential. It’s an ‘A+’ all around!
4. Lucas Wallmark- D-
Wallmark was signed to one-year, $950,000 deal in October. He filled two boxes of need for the team: center depth and team defense Before landing with the Blackhawks, he had a career FO% of 50.9% and was also deemed a great defensive player. However, I think it’s safe to say that he hasn’t fit here as hoped. It’s not a knock on him, it’s just the way it it turns out sometimes. Mostly, he has been used at wing. But he keeps getting shuffled in and out of the lineup for Matthew Highmore and Reese Johnson. He has been getting very limited ice time. His average time on ice is 11:36. Limited ice time aside, he hasn’t made much of the opportunity. He only has three points in 16 games. His FO% is 39.2%. He is 25-years-old and would be a nice addition for another club, but I don’t think he has much of a future in this organization. He has certainly become an “odd man out.” Therefore, Bowman gets a ‘D-‘ for this one.
5. Carl Soderberg- A-
Out of the five free agents that were signed, Soderberg brought a new element. As a 35-year-old, nine-year veteran of the game, the name felt like it carried the most security. Because he has been in the league for a while, you know what to expect from him at this point. The Blackhawks signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal in December. He had a slow start to the season registering one point in his first 10 games. But now, he is caught up to speed. He has six goals, eight assists, and 14 points in 30 games. His FO% is 50.7%, which is the second-best percentage on the team from the center position- David Kampf is first with a FO% of 54.4%.
Soderberg’s strength has been the power play. 66% of his goals have come from the power play. With Andrew Shaw placed on IR with a concussion, he has done a good job of taking on Shaw’s role. He is a good net-front presence that packs good insurance goals. He has also found his role on the third and fourth lines, which has worked out well for the Blackhawks. This is a move I would give an ‘A-‘ to. He’s not a flashy player, but he has done everything the team could possibly ask of him.
Considering Bowman’s sketchy track record, this was probably one of his best free agency years. 80% of the signings he made have panned out, which is pretty darn good. The important thing to note about these signings is that the Hawks would not have been able to defy expectations this season without these players. In a lot of ways, free agency deals can make or break a team. This definitely made the team. The other important thing to note is that all of the players mentioned, besides Suter, could become trade deadline casualties come April 12. That is something to keep an eye on.
Overall, it may not look the prettiest on paper, but it works. And that’s all you need in this league.
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