After an eventful trade deadline day that included the departures of goaltender Robin Lehner and defenseman Erik Gustafsson, the Chicago Blackhawks are still left with several pending free agents. With today’s salary cap, it’s impossible to keep all of these players on the roster, so it’s important to examine which ones will be worth keeping as well as how much their new contracts will cost.
With 26 goals and 13 assists in 60 games, it’s safe to say that Dominik Kubalik is one of the strongest forwards on the Blackhawks’ roster. There are talks that he has a shot at the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year.
Head coach Jeremy Colliton has plenty of praise for Kubalik’s rookie performance as he told NHL.com, “If you look at his goals, you’d be surprised how many he scores from just being at the net, just standing there, being in front. You can get a rebound, or it goes off you. That’s one thing that’s really helped him this season. It’s not just parking in the slot and hit a one-timer. There’s that, but I’d say most of his goals are either skating, off the rush, or finding a way to be around the net for a quick play or a rebound or just jumping on a loose puck. That’s a big reason why his production has really accelerated.”
A strong argument could be made that Kubalik is the future of the Blackhawks’ offense. At 24 years old, he’s in his prime and still young enough to have several potential future seasons as an NHL star. With Patrick Kane on the wrong side of 30, Kubalik has the potential to become his successor as the Blackhawks’ best scorer.
With a strong rookie season so far, the Blackhawks need to re-sign Kubalik to an extension as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks might have to make a few cuts to be able to afford him in the future. However, if he continues performing the way he is, the investment will be worth it.
Early in the season, I wrote about how Dylan Strome had a lot to prove if he wanted a contract extension after the 2019-20 season. His 10 goals and 21 assists in 50 games this season is sub-par compared to his 17 goals and 34 assists in 58 games last season after he came to the Blackhawks. It’s important to note that Strome has been placed on injured reserve twice so far this season and that he still has time to prove himself, but it’s safe to say that things aren’t looking so hot.
He was a healthy scratch for the first time as a Blackhawk on Feb. 11 against the Edmonton Oilers. He has struggled to get back into the swing of things since returning to the lineup after a high ankle injury but plans to have a more aggressive style of play to get back on the board.
He told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I’m not necessarily a guy that hits guys a lot, but nothing wrong with rubbing a guy out. Little things like that, where it helps in the long run. Maybe the next time the (defenseman) gets the puck, he’s thinking, ‘This guy might finish a check,’ and might turn it over. That’s what I watched with (the coaches).” (from ‘Blackhawks’ Dylan Strome responding from message-sending scratch with more aggressive play’ – Chicago Sun-Times – 2/16/20).
Strome’s cap hit is $863,333. He will likely ask for a decent raise when his contract expires, and it’s up to him to prove whether or not he’s worthy enough for the Blackhawks to give him a bigger contract.
Matthew Highmore was recalled from the Rockford IceHogs in November after Drake Caggiula was placed on injured reserve. He’s tallied one goal and three assists in his 28 games with the Blackhawks this season and had four goals and six assists in 17 games with the IceHogs.
He will likely return to the IceHogs when Andrew Shaw returns to the lineup, but if he doesn’t, it would be a good idea for the Blackhawks to trade him for a stronger scorer.
Caggiula has had a rather unlucky season with a few injuries, leaving him with only seven goals and six assists in 33 games so far this season. When he’s at his best, he’s great, but injuries have kept him from performing as expected this season.
He will have to work harder for the remainder of the season if he wants to play with the Blackhawks next season, especially with his current cap hit at $1.5 million. With a salary cap this tight, every penny counts, and if Caggiula is not worth every penny, he will likely be traded for someone who is.
With no goals and only eight assists in 34 games, Slater Koekkoek doesn’t make much of an impact on the Blackhawks’ blue line, though he did have a good stretch in January. He earned praise from Colliton, who told the Chicago Sun-Times, “This latest opportunity that he’s had, he’s found another level to his performance and he’s made it impossible for us to take him out. Him and Maatta, since they’ve been reinserted, they’ve been great and really added some depth to our group and [become] a big part of why we’re having success lately.” (from ‘Switch to right-side defense has sparked Slater Koekkoek’s excellent recent stretch’ – Chicago Sun-Times – 1/20/20).
With the departure of Gustafsson, Koekkoek will have the opportunity to prove whether or not he has what it takes to make the roster next season. If he has any interest in remaining in a Blackhawks sweater, he should take full advantage of this unique opportunity to prove himself as a reliable defenseman.
Corey Crawford and Malcolm Subban
After the Blackhawks traded Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights in exchange for goaltender Malcolm Subban, a defensive prospect, and a draft pick, it appears that Corey Crawford will likely re-sign with the Blackhawks and continue on as their starting goaltender. During a roundtable discussion with the THW Blackhawks writers, the majority of us (myself included) believed keeping Lehner would be the right move. If you look at any posts related to his trade on social media, you’ll see the majority of fans agree.
Crawford is an outstanding goaltender. He could retire tomorrow and will go down as one of the greatest in franchise history. The elephant in the room is his history of concussion issues. He’s been lucky so far this season, but one concussion could put him out long-term, or possibly end his career. It’s likely in the best interests of Crawford and the Blackhawks for him to retire to reduce that risk, but after the trade deadline, it appears that it might not be the case.
Crawford’s record for the season so far is 11-17-3. It’s not the worst record (especially since he and Lehner practically split the starting goaltender position for the entire season so far), but it’s not the best either. Subban’s record is 9-7-3, which like Crawford’s, is not the worst, but not the best. With Crawford likely staying long-term, the Blackhawks should focus on developing a reliable backup goaltender, whether it’s Subban, Collin Delia of IceHogs, or someone they will acquire in the offseason.
There are no-brainers like re-signing Kubalik, but the rest is up in the air. These players have the rest of the season to prove that they deserve a spot on the Blackhawks’ roster next season, only time will tell how this plays out.