The Chicago Blackhawks are in for an eventful offseason. General manager (GM) Kyle Davidson has already kicked off the team’s rebuild with several trades, and there should be more on the way. Yet, that does not mean that the team should be quiet during free agency. They should be looking for some additions this offseason, and one position that Davidson should focus on is defense. With this, these three pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) defensemen could be a good fit for the team moving forward.
When it comes to the right side of the Blackhawks’ defense, they have Seth Jones and Connor Murphy as a very good one-two punch. However, it wouldn’t hurt to add one more solid right-handed defenseman this offseason. Looking at this year’s pending UFAs, one player who could be a perfect fit for the team’s bottom pairing is the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Ilya Lyubushkin.
Lyubushkin has quietly emerged as a very effective shutdown defenseman over these last few seasons. As a result of this, the Maple Leafs acquired him earlier this season to help strengthen their defensive group. Overall, it’s been a very good year for the 28-year-old, who has one goal and 11 assists in 71 games between the Arizona Coyotes and Maple Leafs. Before this campaign, he never had more than four points, as he is becoming more of an offensive threat.
Yet, Lyubushkin’s true value comes from his powerful physicality. The 6-foot-2 defenseman has an impressive 174 hits on the season. He is also excellent on the penalty kill, so he would be a great addition to special teams. Although the Blackhawks are rebuilding, he would be a good fit for their roster.
The left side of the Blackhawks’ defensive group is not particularly strong, and players like Calvin de Haan and Erik Gustafsson are pending UFAs. This is an area that the team should be focusing on this summer, and Will Butcher of the Buffalo Sabres is an interesting UFA target.
Butcher has had a fairly quiet first season with the Sabres with two goals, six assists, and a minus-10 rating in 37 games. Yet, the 27-year-old has shown in the past that he can produce offense from the point. As a rookie in the 2017-18 season with the New Jersey Devils, he recorded 44 points in 81 games. Although he has not been able to replicate those totals, he recorded 11 points in 23 games with the team last season. Thus, perhaps he could bounce back next year with a change of scenery.
The Blackhawks are in a position to give players like Butcher a shot to rebound. If the 2017 Hobey Baker Award-winner signs a cheap deal with the team and finds his old scoring touch, his trade value would increase significantly by the deadline. Considering Chicago’s depth on the left side, he might also compete for a spot in their top four. An increase in playing time would offer more chances to succeed, so this could be an avenue worth exploring.
Finally, the Blackhawks should take a look at Robert Hagg. Like Lyubushkin, he is a defensive defenseman who does not produce much offense. In 59 games this campaign between the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers, he has one goal, eight assists, and a minus-4 rating. With that, he also has a solid 126 hits; he plays a heavy game, too.
If the Blackhawks were to sign Hagg, he would likely play on their second or third pair. He would also be utilized on the penalty kill, as he’s the perfect player for this role. Although he will never impress with his scoring ability, his solid, defense-first style makes him a reliable player.
Yet, Hagg also has shown in the past that he can contribute a bit more from the point. During the 2019-20 season with the Philadelphia Flyers, he had a solid 20 points in 82 games. If he could get back to those totals while maintaining a solid defensive game, he would end up being a very solid addition to the Blackhawks’ lineup. This is especially true if they can sign him to an affordable cap hit.
Nevertheless, it will be worth watching what the Blackhawks do this offseason to improve their defense. Although they are not pushing to be a playoff team in 2022-23, it’s still important for them to have some experience on the blue line. This is especially true if they feel that prospects like Nicolas Beaudin and Alex Vlasic are not ready to be full-time NHLers. We’ll see if any of these players become Blackhawks this summer, but they all would be beneficial to the team going forward.