The Chicago Blackhawks made no secret more changes would need to come before locking up restricted free agent and bottom-six centerpiece Marcus Kruger, and those changes finally came Friday.
In a four-player deal, Chicago shipped wingers Kris Versteeg, Joakim Nordstrom and a 2017 third-round selection to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for defensemen Dennis Robertson, Jake Massie and a fifth-round pick in 2017.
Friday’s deal gave the Blackhawks more than $2.4 million in which to sign Kruger and, shortly after the trade was completed, Chicago announced they have inked the 25-year-old to a one-year deal worth $1.5-million.
With Kruger under contract, the Blackhawks now have less than $1-million in cap space.
For the past four seasons, Kruger has been a fixture of Chicago's bottom-six and may very well be one of the most underrated forwards on the Blackhawks. While he's not an offensive dynamo -- his career-best season was an eight-goal, 28-point in 2013-14 -- his responsible two-way play has made him a favorite of coach Joel Quenneville.
The off-season has already seen the Blackhawks lose Johnny Oduya, Patrick Sharp and Brad Richards, as well as the shocking trade of Brandon Saad, and Chicago couldn't afford to be without Kruger, too. He has become the team's top penalty killer and is often tasked with taking the lion's share of Chicago's defensive-zone starts.
As for Friday's trade, it had long been rumoured that Versteeg was on the chopping block in Chicago, as the Blackhawks were under a cap crunch with less than $300,000 in available cap space before Versteeg was dealt. Though he carried a cap hit is $4.4 million, half of Versteeg's salary was retained in the trade which brought him to Chicago from the Florida Panthers.
The move of Nordstrom, however, comes as a bit of a surprise. The 23-year-old winger, who suited up for 38 games and 3 post-season contests with the Blackhawks this past season, had just signed a one-year, $605,000 contract with Chicago last week. Nordstrom had been a consistent contributor in the AHL — he scored nine goals and 16 points in 23 games with Rockford in 2014-15 — but he hadn’t been able to find his scoring touch playing bottom-six minutes in Chicago.
For the Hurricanes, adding Versteeg, and to a lesser extent Nordstrom, gives them two options to fill out the left wing on their big club. Versteeg likely slots into Carolina’s top-six, while Nordstrom can battle for a role in the bottom-six, but could end up spending time with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers.
Getting the two young defensemen from Carolina shows Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman knows where his club’s weakness lies. Chicago traded away their best defensive prospect, Stephen Johns, in a deal earlier this summer that sent Patrick Sharp to the Dallas Stars, so the cupboard needed to be restocked, especially when it comes to potential blueline prospects.
It’s worth wondering, however, if this is it for Chicago. The Versteeg contract coming off the books does free up some space for Bowman to work with, but the Blackhawks still have a hole on their third defensive pairing. Trevor van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad are good sixth defensemen, but both, especially van Riemsdyk, could use more time to develop.
The Versteeg trade was enough to get Kruger locked up, but now the Bowman has to decide if more moves will be necessary to get Chicago prepared for their Stanley Cup defense.