If you haven’t noticed, the Chicago Blackhawks are getting younger and younger. Call it a soft rebuild if you’d like, or a retooling. While a small core group is still there, a new generation of younger blood is being built around them. Sure, the Blackhawks added some veteran depth pieces this past offseason to support their core. But in more and more cases they’re looking towards this younger group to supplement the team instead. Let’s look at the evolution throughout the 2019-20 season.
Please refer to the link below for a complete list of the Blackhawks’ salary cap information as you read this article. I will also be listing player ages in parentheses after their names throughout this piece.
Related: Chicago Blackhawks Salary Cap Information
The Blackhawks’ Core
First, let’s establish the core. These are the guys who have been around for a long time. The names we’ve all come to associate with the Blackhawks, and multiple Stanley Cup championships. I’m talking about Jonathan Toews (31 years old), Patrick Kane (31), Duncan Keith (36), and Brent Seabrook (34). These superstars have all earned mega-contracts and no-movement clauses based on their previous contributions. And while some are still contributing more than others, they’re likely not going anywhere anytime soon.
Corey Crawford (35) and Brandon Saad (27) could be considered a sub-group of this core. Crawford is a free agent at the end of this season, and there’s no guarantee he will be re-signed. Saad’s contract is up at the end of the 2020-21 season. His name has been involved in numerous trade rumors, mainly based on the allure of unloading his hefty $6 million contract. These two don’t have the same amount of stability as the above group. But based on their age and their contributions I’m including them as part of the core for now.
Blackhawks’ Veteran Depth
To supplement this core, the Blackhawks added a number of veteran depth pieces this past offseason. This includes forwards Andrew Shaw (28 years old), Zack Smith (31), and Ryan Carpenter (29), as well as defensemen Olli Maatta (25), Calvin de Haan (28), and later Nick Seeler (26).
All these players have added to the success of the Blackhawks in varying degrees. Shaw, de Haan, and Smith have injury issues that may or may not be resolved by next season. Maatta ($4 million cap hit) is a tad expensive for what he brings to the table. Meanwhile Carpenter ($1 million cap hit) and Seeler ($750,000 cap hit) are relative steals.
If I were to hazard a guess, unfortunately Shaw will be forced into retirement based on his concussion issues. Smith and either Maatta or de Haan will become expendable. Seeler was picked up as an insurance policy and might not be needed. That leaves only Carpenter and Maatta or de Haan as part of this veteran depth group. Because the rest of the new-generation Blackhawks’ team will come from the following three categories.
Blackhawks’ Established Youngsters
Members of this group are all still quite young, but have been building a case for themselves over the last few seasons. So much so that one might already consider them to be veteran, or core, members of the Blackhawks. Perhaps we could call them the new core group and new depth group.
I’m referring to Alex DeBrincat (22 years old), Dylan Strome (23), Drake Caggiula (25), and David Kampf (25). And don’t forget about defensemen Connor Murphy (27) and Slater Koekkoek (26).
DeBrincat is arguably the biggest success story here. He proved his worth in his first two seasons in the league by being one of the highest goal-scorers on the team. This also earned him a shiny new three-year contract. Sure, he’s had a bit of a scoring slump this season. But he’s still creating chances and getting a high percentage of shots on net. DeBrincat should be a big part of the Blackhawks’ future moving forward.
Murphy has turned into one of the most consistent defensemen on the team. He should have a long and productive career ahead of him. And Kampf might not be a big scorer, but he’s a reliable bottom-six center as well as a solid contributor on the penalty kill.
Related – Blackhawks: Upcoming Free Agents in 2020
Strome, Caggiula, and Koekkoek all become restricted free agents at the end of this season. We shall see who gets re-signed. I guess it all depends on the next two groups, which is the latest youth movement by the Blackhawks.
Blackhawks’ Training Camp Stand Outs
There has been a huge influx of young players this season, and it all started with Dominik Kubalik (24 years old) and Alex Nylander (22). Many expected the talented Kubalik to start with the team right away, but Nylander was much more of a surprise. But both were on the opening night roster for the Blackhawks, and have played for the majority of the contests since.
Kubalik got off to a slow start, but he’s since blossomed into the second-highest goal-scorer on the team. He’s a mainstay on the Blackhawks’ top line and a regular contributor on the power play. I would be extremely surprised if the team didn’t re-sign him and lean on him to be a major contributor next season. He will command a substantial raise, but he’s worth it. Here’s an example of what he can do.
Nylander, if you recall, unexpectedly scored the first goal of the season for the Blackhawks. He’s showed signs of potential on an off throughout the season, but he’s never really been able to make any substantial progression. But he’s also very affordably signed for one more season, so I presume the Blackhawks will keep him on and hope he can turn a corner.
Blackhawks’ Unexpected Young Blood
This final group consists of players who weren’t necessarily slated to play in the NHL this season. But based on injuries and then the state of the team in the standings, they were given a look sooner rather than later. Most of them did quite well for themselves.
Despite sustaining a concussion during the Traverse City Prospects Tournament in September, the Blackhawks gave third overall draft pick Kirby Dach (19 years old) every opportunity to make the team. They took him with on their trip overseas to start the season, and then assigned him to a conditioning stint with the Rockford IceHogs. Dach made his NHL debut on Oct. 20, and the Blackhawks announced he would be remaining for the season on Oct. 30.
In 64 games Dach has contributed eight goals and 15 assists, which doesn’t exactly jump off the page. But he’s also shown he’s strong on the puck, and defensively responsible. While not always being credited with the goal or the assist, he’s consistently generating scoring chances for his linemates. He has a high ceiling, and Blackhawks’ fans are excited about his continued growth.
Defenseman Adam Boqvist (19) was recalled from the IceHogs for the second time on Dec. 9, coinciding with injuries to both de Haan and Keith. This time he stayed up with the big club for good.
There’s no doubt Boqvist has a high offensive upside, but many questioned whether he was ready defensively. Sure, he’s made his mistakes. But for the most part he’s acclimated quite well. It’s certainly helped that he’s been mentored playing alongside a two-time Norris Trophy winner in Keith.
Boqvist has done a great job of reining in his offensive instincts in order to learn and develop on the defensive end. But just recently, the young Swede seemed to be on the verge of some sort of balance, contributing five assists in the last five games (three of them primary).
Forward Matthew Highmore (24) was also recalled on Dec. 9. In his case it was because both Shaw and Caggiula were sidelined with concussions. He hasn’t set the world on fire, registering only two goals and four assists in 36 games. But he has been a consistent and gritty bottom-six forward for the Blackhawks. Injuries allowed him to showcase his value, and it will be interesting to see if the Blackhawks re-sign the restricted free agent for next season.
Defenseman Lucas Carlsson (22) was recalled from the IceHogs coinciding with Erik Gustafsson being dealt at the Feb. 24 trade deadline. Despite his lack of size and skating ability, Carlsson is a very good puck mover and this has transferred rather nicely to the NHL level. It’s a small sample size, but in his six games with the big club Carlsson was doing an admirable job helping the Hawks get out of their defensive zone and generating offense. He and Murphy were making a solid second pairing.
Carlsson even earned his first NHL assist on Mar. 3 against the Anaheim Ducks. His success has been a pleasant surprise and should earn him a longer look moving forward.
The Blackhawks played their last game of the season on Mar. 11 before the NHL pause due to the coronavirus outbreak. Forward Brandon Hagel (21) made his NHL debut against the San Jose Sharks. He played on a new-look third line with Dach and Kubalik, and was credited with four shots on goal, one hit, one blocked shot, and one takeaway.
While Hagel will likely be headed back to the IceHogs next season, he certainly had some impressive stats in his first NHL appearance.
Defenseman Nicolas Beaudin (20) also made his NHL debut against the Sharks. The 27th overall draft pick from 2018 got the “Boqvist” treatment (Boqvist was out with a concussion) in that he was placed alongside Keith on the top defensive pairing. He fit right in, playing 17:01 minutes and registering two shots on goal, two hits, and two blocked shots. Keith complimented him after the game.
I enjoyed playing with (Beaudin). I thought he was great for his first-ever NHL game, as young as he is. I thought he played with a lot of poise and patience. He moved the puck (and) he was in good support positions a couple times early in the first. I tight-turned back and he was right there to pick up the puck.
Is Beaudin ready to make the jump to an everyday NHL player next season? It’s probably too soon to tell, but the first outing was promising.
Advantages for the Youngsters
As you can see, the Blackhawks have committed to the youth movement this season. The core and veteran units consist of 12 players, with an average age of 30 years old. But the younger groups I’ve outlined consist of 15 players, with an average age of 23 years old. Malcolm Subban (26) is the only player I didn’t mention above. Based on his lack of usage, I don’t think the Blackhawks are serious about keeping him with the team.
The organization is working on giving their established younger players bigger roles, as well as developing a few newcomers they feel will become the new core moving forward. They’ve also been giving looks to a number of players from the IceHogs to determine whether they could factor into the plans for next season and beyond.
This influx of younger blood has the advantage of bringing added energy to the team. It also gives players a chance to get used to the NHL setting in comparison to the AHL setting, which could be favorable for their development. Not to mention the benefit of working and playing with the Blackhawks’ superstars. It’s a shame the season is paused. It would have been exciting to see how these younger players could have contributed as the season wound down.
Related – Best Blackhawks’ Draft Picks: 2010 to Present
Maybe we will still see it. Perhaps the NHL can resume and finish their season, just in July or August. Until then, the youth movement is on hold for now. Only time will tell how they may fit into the future with the Blackhawks.