Though they won’t be competitive at all in 2022-23, the Chicago Blackhawks have remained relatively active in free agency. Back on July 13, the team signed veteran forwards Andreas Athanasiou and Max Domi to identical one-year, $3 million deals while also adding depth forward Colin Blackwell and goaltender Alex Stalock.
Because developing young talent is a priority for the Blackhawks, it wouldn’t be shocking if the current roster remains as is come opening night. However, while Chicago general manager (GM) Kyle Davidson has been transparent about his team’s long-term goals, he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of adding more depth in the short term (from ‘Everything Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson said about Kane, Toews, free agency and more,’ The Athletic, 07/14/22).
While Chicago isn’t trying to win right now, I don’t think it would be a bad idea to pursue another free agent or two, both for depth as well as to potentially help gain assets come next year’s trade deadline, which could be the case with Athanasiou and Domi. With approximately $10.6 million in cap space, here are five remaining free agents the Blackhawks should consider signing before the season begins.
Just a few years ago, some viewed Sam Steel as a potential centerpiece of the Anaheim Ducks’ current rebuild. After a remarkable junior career, though, Steel’s had a pretty underwhelming start to his NHL career. The Ducks’ 2016 first-round pick has posted only 65 points through 197 regular-season games while struggling to find consistency, leading Anaheim to not re-sign him.
At this point in his career, it’s possible Steel just won’t find a way to thrive in the NHL despite his junior success. However, he’s only 24, and a fresh start could be what he needs. He has time to grow, and while he probably won’t become much of a scoring threat long-term, I still think it’s possible he emerges into a solid middle-six forward with some two-way ability.
Now, it’s worth noting the Blackhawks have a recent history of taking on struggling former top prospects, specifically Dylan Strome and Alex Nylander. Strome, for the most part, flourished in Chicago after facing adversity with the Arizona Coyotes. On the other hand, Nylander never quite found his groove. All that to say, it could go either way with Steel.
Having said that, I wouldn’t see much risk with adding Steel despite his inconsistencies. Unlike when they added Strome and Nylander, Chicago isn’t looking to compete. This may lessen the pressure with adding someone like him, and he’d provide a modest boost to the middle-six forward group even if he doesn’t become a fixture of the team’s long-term plans.
It was a little strange to see Jonathan Dahlén not receive a qualifying offer from the San Jose Sharks. While the Ottawa Senators’ 2016 second-round pick is a bit of a late bloomer, having just completed his first full NHL season at 24, he had a respectable rookie campaign with 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists) in 61 regular-season games.
Unlike Steel, Dahlén was never as highly regarded offensively. After struggling to adapt to the North American game during his time in the Vancouver Canucks and Sharks’ organizations, Dahlén played for Timrå IK in Sweden from 2019-2021, where he led the club in scoring both seasons. Though this success didn’t immediately translate to San Jose last season, he emerged as a solid middle-six contributor there.
Given the inconsistencies he’s faced, it’s a little tough to project Dahlén’s future and what exactly his ceiling is offensively. That said, he’s still in his mid-20s. Like Steel, he’d be a low-risk and likely inexpensive addition to Chicago’s top-nine forward group. While he probably wouldn’t make the Blackhawks more competitive than they already are, he’d add some depth and could emerge as a decent trade chip if the team doesn’t view him as part of their future.
At 36 years old, Anton Strålman isn’t the type of contributor now as he was during his time with the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning in the mid-2010s. However, he posted respectable numbers last season (23 points in 74 games) while averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per night with the Coyotes. A 15-year veteran with 930 NHL games under his belt, Strålman remains a reliable defenseman with good shutdown abilities.
With Seth Jones and Connor Murphy leading the back end, along with Ian Mitchell, Alec Regula, Alex Vlasic, and others in the fold, the Blackhawks don’t necessarily need Strålman. I still think there’s an argument for adding a player like him, though. Should they sign him to a one-year deal, he’d be a good mentor in the team’s locker room like he was in Arizona, even with knowing he could become a trade chip.
Something to consider here is Strålman just spent the last year with the Coyotes, who aren’t in much of a better place than the Blackhawks. Being in his mid-30s, would he want to spend another year on a bad team? For a player of his age, that might not be the case, but there’s no doubt Strålman would be a great addition to Chicago from a mentorship perspective. He’d also shore up the club’s defense, albeit slightly.
Through his first three NHL seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes from 2014-2017, Victor Rask tallied 126 points through 242 games. Since then, he hasn’t been the same player at all. Rask spent time between the Minnesota Wild and the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Iowa Wild last season before Minnesota traded him to the Seattle Kraken at last year’s deadline, where he played 18 regular-season games.
Over the past few seasons, inconsistencies and injuries have plagued Rask’s career. Offensively, the Hurricanes’ 2011 second-round pick has gradually seen his production drop since his first three NHL seasons, so his future may be in doubt. He couldn’t find a full-time role in Minnesota’s lineup last year and simply wasn’t able to live up to his former contract, where he had an average annual value (AAV) of $4 million a year.
Given all his inconsistencies, it’s fair to wonder why the Blackhawks would even bother signing a player such as Rask. From Brett Connolly to Zack Smith, Chicago has had an unsuccessful time reigniting struggling veteran forwards over the past few seasons. Although Rask’s NHL career has fallen off a cliff since his early days with Carolina, it may not be a bad idea to get a player like him for cheap, veteran depth.
As the forward group currently stands, Chicago doesn’t need Rask, but he’d be an extra piece and potentially a decent fill-in both on center and wing. With this type of signing, the worst that could happen is Rask continues struggling and simply doesn’t give Chicago enough production, which I don’t think would be a significant issue right now.
Man, this would be fun, right? Why not think outside the box a bit?
After three seasons with the Coyotes, Phil Kessel remains an unrestricted free agent (UFA). This is a little surprising because even though he is far past his prime, he remains a solid top-nine forward with two Stanley Cups and 16 seasons of NHL experience. A three-time All-Star, Kessel has tallied 956 points in 1,204 NHL games, including a career-high 92 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017-18.
Now, the Blackhawks are rebuilding. Why would they want to add Kessel, who is a productive forward but is 34 years old and nowhere near the player he was with Pittsburgh and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2010s?
Here’s the thing: bringing in Kessel wouldn’t be about making the Blackhawks better, and he wouldn’t change their long-term approach. Instead, he’d be a solid veteran and mentor for the team’s young players, much like Marc-André Fleury last season And yes, by signing him to a cheap, one-to-two-year deal, Chicago could probably flip him at the deadline or even next offseason.
After three seasons with the Coyotes, much like Strålman, Kessel has paid his dues. I doubt he’d want to come to another struggling club such as the Blackhawks, but stranger things have happened. With Strome, Alex DeBrincat, Dominik Kubalik, and others all gone, Kessel would also sell some tickets given his resumé and high profile across the league despite his recent drop in production. I don’t think Chicago ultimately signs Kessel nor do I think the Blackhawks would be his first choice, but it would be an interesting move.
Blackhawks Shouldn’t Feel Pressured to Make Another Move
Look, Chicago isn’t going to be good for a long time. Davidson has referred to his team’s current approach as a “five-year plan,” and whether or not that becomes a success remains to be seen. While they won’t admit it, getting a top-three pick in next year’s draft sure would be nice for the team, and that seems like a good possibility right now.
With that in mind, the Blackhawks don’t need to make another signing this offseason. Restricted free agents (RFA) Philipp Kurashev and Caleb Jones aren’t yet signed, but it’s reasonable to think both will come back next season as they’re both in their mid-20s and are probably the type of players Chicago wants as part of its supporting cast. Other than that, though, it would be understandable if Davidson keeps his current roster as constructed knowing there isn’t any pressure to win.
Even though the Blackhawks aren’t trying to be good, it’s always nice to have some additional depth. By adding one of these five players or possibly others, it would give Chicago some flexibility, and, in the case of Strålman or Kessel, some much-needed mentorship. If the Blackhawks stay quiet for the rest of the offseason, that’s totally fair and understandable, but adding another player wouldn’t hurt either.
Connor Smith covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers. He is from Naperville, Illinois, and recently graduated from Ball State University in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, earning summa cum laude honors. This fall, he plans to attend the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago to further his studies and earn his master’s. Along with The Hockey Writers, he’s written and edited for The Ball State Daily News, Ball State’s on-campus student newspaper, and has interned for Best Version Media (BVM) Sports and Jersey Column, a Georgia-based sports blog. You can find more info about Smith and his work through his online portfolio, connornsmith0719.wordpress.com.