Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has faced a lot of questions over the past year. There were those about whether a top-heavy roster with high-paid stars could get the job done (they didn’t), if the Blackhawks would be sellers at the deadline for the first time during Bowman’s tenure (they were) and the status of coach Joel Quenneville after the Blackhawks failed to earn a playoff berth for the first time in nine years (he’ll be back next season).
But the one question Bowman has yet to answer, though one he assuredly still needs time to figure out, is what Chicago will do to fill out a roster that is seemingly missing anything even closely resembling playoff-calibre depth at a time when he has some newfound cap space. The cap space — all $5.49 million of it, give or take, according to CapFriendly — is about as much breathing room as Bowman has had since he took over the GM chair in Chicago, and it comes following last week’s headline-making deal that sent the LTIRetired Marian Hossa and his $5.275-million annual salary along with up-and-comers Vinnie Hinostroza, Jordan Oesterle and a third-round pick to the Arizona Coyotes for a package that included former Blackhawk Marcus Kruger, prospect MacKenzie Entwistle and a fifth-round selection.
That entire swap, which included four pieces heading to the desert and five coming back Windy City way, did little to change the makeup of the Blackhawks’ roster ahead of the upcoming season, however. So while salary was shed, effectively the lone addition from a nine-piece deal was Kruger, who will slot into the same bottom-six role with the Blackhawks that he operated in for the first 400-plus games of his NHL career. As far as experienced big league talent, though, Chicago remains in much the same position as they did prior to sending Hossa to Arizona. And, quite frankly, it isn’t pretty.
The top half of the roster is what one would come to expect from the Blackhawks. Jonathan Toews will operate as the first-line pivot with Brandon Saad on his wing, while Artem Anisimov will skate down the middle on the second unit with Patrick Kane the team’s top driving force on offense. From there on out, though, it’s anyone’s guess. The only surefire top-six moving parts project to be Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz, but even that can change given Quenneville’s penchant for throwing his lines into the blender and seeing what comes out.
Even if the top half of the roster doesn’t appear entirely set, either, it’s on far sturdier ground than the bottom six. If the season were to start today, there’s no knowing what exactly the depth units would look like. Off-season signing Chris Kunitz is nearing on a mortal lock for a bottom-six spot on the left side, and one would assume Chicago is bound to give German Olympic standout Dominik Kahun, inked back in April, a chance to prove his worth in a bottom-six role to kick off the campaign. Beyond that, Kruger seems a sure thing, but it’s anyone’s guess after that. The assumption is that some combination of Jordan Schroeder, Dylan Sikura, John Hayden, David Kampf, Victor Ejdsell and Matthew Highmore crack the roster and plug the holes, but that’s a group that hardly inspires confidence in the Blackhawks’ ability to get back into the playoff picture after one season on the outside looking in.
But when it comes to addressing those very depth issues, it might be the one place that Bowman’s recently reworked roster, with Hossa’s dead-weight deal off the books, might pay the biggest dividends. As much as those in Chicago may want Bowman to use what money he has to make a splash and add a big piece by way of a trade, the best bet for the Blackhawks might be using the money they do have at their disposal to bolster the bottom half of the roster while still giving their kids — the DeBrincats and Schmaltzes and Sikuras — the opportunity to prove their mettle.
Laughable as it may be, too, given Bowman’s apparent fondness for reliving the glory days by way of acquisitions of past Chicago Cup-era players such as Johnny Oduya, Patrick Sharp and now Kruger, another return for someone such as Kris Versteeg might not be a bad idea. Still available on the open market, Versteeg could be one of the more cost-effective signings the Blackhawks could make if they dip into the free agent pool. And while the 32-year-old would be unlikely to receive anything more than a one-year term, there’s a familiarity there that might work for both player and team. Quenneville knows exactly how to utilize Versteeg, and he can offer offensive upside to a team that doesn’t have much in the bottom six in way of proven NHL scoring. He scored three goals and eight points in an injury-limited 24 games last season, and in all but one season he’s played at least 65 games, Versteeg has scored at least 15 goals. He has, however, hit the 35-point plateau in each one of those campaigns.
Versteeg isn’t the only option, mind you. At the right price, veterans such as Lee Stempniak, Mark Letestu, Mike Cammalleri or Benoit Pouliot could be worthwhile additions, filling a need and offering the Blackhawks an effective depth option that would ensure a younger talent doesn’t have to be thrown into the fire if Chicago feels the time isn’t right. And a signing of that ilk seems much more likely than a big, splashy move. Truth be told, the Blackhawks are in no position right now to take big shots on the trade market with the amount of uncertainty about the next wave of talent. The prospect pool was ranked 29th in the NHL by a panel of scouts in THN’s Future Watch 2018.
It’s undoubtedly the long-term outlook where shedding some salary and freeing up some future cap space will pay off most for the Blackhawks, but in the immediate, addressing the offense is the best bet for Chicago. Possibly outside of veteran rearguard Dan Hamhuis, there’s no blueline option on the free agent market that can improve the Blackhawks’ situation. Likewise, there’s no reason for Bowman to go seeking another goaltender after adding Cam Ward as a high-priced backup when signing season began. It’s the depth up front that is Chicago’s most apparent depth chart defect as we enter the dog days of the off-season, and if there’s anywhere to put the money freed by the Hossa deal, it’s in attempting to reinforce the bottom half of a forward corps that could be in dire need of some help.
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