Blackhawks Have High Expectations for Kurashev & Jones

The Chicago Blackhawks were very particular regarding their restricted free agents (RFA) because they wanted to ensure flexibility within the salary cap. Out of the eight RFAs they had going into the offseason, only forward Philipp Kurashev and defenseman Caleb Jones were tendered qualifying offers on July 11. As a result, some say the negotiations for their new contracts took longer than expected. But the Blackhawks officially announced one-year deals for them on Aug.12. With the contract formalities out of the way, the focus can be shifted to how they will fit in with the roster next season and what to expect from their respective games.

Kurashev Must Have a Breakout Year

Kurashev has been with the Blackhawks since 2020. He signed a three-year, $2.775 million deal in 2019 and was touted as one of the Blackhawks’ prospects to watch.

When Kurashev made his NHL debut in 2020, he showed flashes of potential. He got his first goal and point in his third NHL game against the Florida Panthers on Jan. 15, 2021, and since then, the Blackhawks have boasted about his skill set, as he is known for his speed and playmaking abilities. After making his NHL debut, former general manager Stan Bowman described his game well, stating: “He has the tendency and the skill to be able to slow the game down, draw players to him, bide time and find the open man.” Bowman also added, “He has great vision, creativity, skill, a lot of patience with the puck. He’s able to make plays [and] create offense, which is something that’s important in today’s game (from ‘Philipp Kurashev’s autumn in Switzerland fueled his Blackhawks breakthrough,’ Chicago Sun-Times, 1/20/21).

Philipp Kurashev, Chicago Blackhawks
Philipp Kurashev, Chicago Blackhawks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kurashev had a fine rookie season in 2020-21 with 8 goals, 8 assists, and 16 points in 54 games. Last season, he had 6 goals, 15 assists, and 21 points in 67 games, which was the 10th-best on the team. However, he faced difficulties in a season he was supposed to break through. In the first 24 games of the season, he had seven points. Furthermore, he went five straight games without a point five times throughout the season, so he was very hot and cold. He also faced some healthy scratches throughout the season, but former head coach Derek King has a lot of faith in him. Both he and Kurashev believe he has what it takes to be a top-six player, mainly because he mentioned he has played in the top-six most of his life but has to figure out his consistency issues to earn more playing time there (from ‘Blackhawks still waiting for Philipp Kurashev to show what he could be,’ Chicago Sun-Times, 4/11/22). Until then, he will likely continue playing a third-line role.

Kurashev brings a lot of value to the Blackhawks, as his skill sets him apart from most of the current forwards on the roster. He is fun to watch when he is producing because of that, and at 22 years old, he can only get better. He got a one-year, $750,000 deal, more than $100,000 less than he made on his entry-level deal. This seems like a “show me” deal from general manager Kyle Davidson. From a business standpoint, saying he has “potential” only lasts for so long, so he has to start breaking out soon. He is in a great position to do that next season on a roster where everyone has something to prove, and having roster competition can only make him stronger. The Blackhawks believe in him, and he believes in himself, but now the pressure is on him to prove he can a long-term forward option for the rebuild.

Caleb Jones Must Maintain Late-Season Success

Caleb Jones was one of the more pleasant surprises on defense. The start of last season was rocky for him because he missed the first six weeks of the season with a left wrist strain. When he returned in November, he didn’t get off to a roaring start, as he had four points in his first 24 games and averaged 14 minutes of playing time. Then, late February was the turning point for him when his average ice time increased to over 19 minutes. At one point, he even averaged 26 minutes against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 25, which was a career-high. As a result, the coaching staff started to take notice and trusted him more as the season progressed.

Caleb Jones Chicago Blackhawks
Caleb Jones, Chicago Blackhawks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Jones’ production also increased from February onward, with 11 points in his last 24 games. His stats were 5 goals, 10 assists, and 15 points, along with a minus-3 in 51 games. He ended the year as the fourth-best points leader on defense and tied his brother Seth with five goals on the team, leading the defense. Although he started the season slowly, his stats finished at a new career-high. He ended up being everything the Blackhawks’ hoped he would be when he was included in the trade package that sent Duncan Keith to the Edmonton Oilers in July 2021. They wanted to see the potential on the blue line, and they certainly got that from him.

Jones plays with an edge and showed a more scrappy side last season. He caused disruptions for opponents, which is an excellent quality to have on defense, and it’s what the Blackhawks want to see more of. It’s debatable whether he has a long-term future in Chicago, considering that they have a lot of defensemen in the pipeline that they will want to give opportunities to next season, including Ian Mitchell and Isaak Phillips. Still, Jones’ roster spot is solidified. Because they will likely interchange defensemen all season to give their prospects adequate looks, he gives their core some stability. He will be looked to as a depth presence that can be versatile in different pairings. He’s not what you would consider a first-pairing defenseman, but he was occasionally paired with Seth in that role last season. I don’t know if he will see that spot a lot next season, but it’s a good option to have, considering he and his brother play well together and have some chemistry.

Jones can also be a mentor on the third pairing with some new players who make their way to the team. He will be entering his fifth NHL season, and the Blackhawks hope he can build off his late-season success. The expectations are for him to continue to grow his game and show that he can do better than last season, which doesn’t seem too big of a stretch. With a cap hit of $1.35 million, it’s a great value for him. There is also a chance that the 25-year-old could outplay some of his d-partners and be the hidden gem on defense next season. As such, it’s a good gamble to take for the Hawks.

Both Kurashev and Jones are low-risk, high-reward signings for the Blackhawks. They have nothing to lose by giving them a chance. If they don’t pan out, they’re not stuck with them and could be used as trade deadline assets. Both players have high expectations to take their games to the next level, and they are perfect fits for the team’s rebuild at the moment. It could add some excitement to this season because of the unknown aspect; they could grow or regress. It’s something to keep an eye on in 2022-23, but I believe they will have big seasons as they are due for it.

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