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DeBrincat a lock for Blackhawks? Not exactly, and here’s why

The cap space issues facing the Blackhawks can be cleared up, but Chicago's development pattern in recent years could mean Alex DeBrincat is set to start his professional career in the AHL.

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to suggest that Chicago Blackhawks faithful are expecting Alex DeBrincat to come into the NHL next season and put up totals similar to what he has been able to accomplish in the OHL over the past few seasons. That’s to say no one is really expecting a 65-goal season out of the 2016-17 OHL MVP. But it would be accurate to say that more than a few Blackhawks supporters are expecting to see the sharpshooting winger in the lineup next season, strutting his stuff and showing what he can do on the big stage.

However, the reality of the situation is that even with DeBrincat tearing up the OHL for the past three campaigns, popping home 167 goals and 332 points across 191 games in major junior, he may not be ready just yet. And that’s exactly what CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers wrote Thursday, expressing that it may be time for Blackhawks fans to “tap the brakes” on their expectations for the young gun.

As Myers expertly noted, it may all come down to cap space. At present, the Blackhawks are exceeding the salary cap by nearly $35,000 and when it comes to roster shuffling, the only thing we know for certain Chicago can do ahead of the season is send sophomore center Nick Schmaltz to the AHL. He’s the only skater who won’t be required to clear waivers, and his demotion would make the Blackhawks cap compliant.

There is a wrinkle here, however, and one that could open up space for DeBrincat and a few others to be brought up from the minor leagues without Chicago exceeding the cap ceiling. The Blackhawks and veteran Marian Hossa announced earlier this off-season that the winger will not play this upcoming season due to a skin disorder, and there is the possibility that Hossa will be placed on long-term injured reserve — if the Blackhawks are permitted to do so — once the season begins. If Chicago can manage to maximize their LTIR relief, putting Hossa on LTIR the day the season starts while sticking as close to the cap as possible, they could have upwards of $5 million in cap relief with which to work. That’s wiggle room they simply don’t have right now.

Having that space to utilize would allow Chicago to bring up the necessary players to fill up their defense, such as Gustav Forsling, Jan Rutta and Erik Gustaffsson, and would open up space for DeBrincat to fill a spot. All of this is to presuppose that DeBrincat would be with the Blackhawks on opening nights if only the cap space was available, though. 

But there may be another reason DeBrincat isn’t playing in the season-opener: age and seasoning.

DeBrincat, as noted, is coming off of three outstanding seasons in the OHL, but he is a 19-year-old and you’d be hard-pressed to find many Blackhawks who have been able to crack the lineup before their age 21 season under coach Joel Quenneville. In fact, since ‘Coach Q’ took the reins in 2008-09, there are only five players who have managed to do so and play at least 41 or more games. 

The first two were no-brainers, as the duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane earned spots in Quenneville’s first season. That said, Toews was already the captain of the club and went on to lead the team in goals in 2008-09. Kane was already a superstar in the making and led the Blackhawks with 70 points. Both were playing their age 20 seasons, but were well beyond their years in terms of development.

After Toews and Kane, it took another two seasons before Nick Leddy found his way into Chicago’s lineup on a regular basis. During the 2010-11 campaign, as a 19-year-old, Leddy earned himself a third-pairing spot for 46 games, and that led him to a full-time, top-four role on the back end in 2011-12. Next was Brandon Saad in the 2012-13 campaign, and he managed 10 goals and 27 points in 46 games during the lockout-shortened season as a 20-year-old. But since then, Schmaltz is the only one player DeBrincat’s age that has cracked the lineup. That was this past season.

Not even Schmaltz’s attempt at a full-time spot was without its bumps, though. Long considered one of the best prospects in Chicago’s system, he earned the chance to break in during his 19-year-old season. He did so early on, sticking with the team until early December, but at that point he was demoted to Rockford and proceed to spend the next five weeks in the AHL. He was brought back up again in mid-January and remained in the lineup consistently from that point onward. It’s worth noting he contributed at a far better rate, too. He scored one goal and four points in his first 26 games, averaging 11:47 per game. Those numbers leapt to five goals and 24 points in 35 games with 14:21 in ice time per game after the demotion.

None of this is to say the Blackhawks are in the business of holding NHL-ready talents in the NHL. They’re not, nor is any team for that matter, but Chicago has shown they’re not afraid to let young players work out the kinks in their game in the AHL. Schmaltz did for a time this past season. Ryan Hartman and Tanner Kero, two players who look to be NHL regulars this season, spent a combined 233 games in the AHL over the past three seasons. And others in the past, from Teuvo Teravainen to Andrew Shaw, have had their respective stays in the minor leagues.

So, cap space aside, DeBrincat may simply need some seasoning, as has been the case with a countless number of players who have come up through the system since Quenneville took over. You can rest assured, though, that if DeBrincat absolutely wows in camp or manages to set the AHL ablaze, the Blackhawks will somehow, some way find the cap space to make him the sixth under-20 skater to earn at least a half-season stint in the big league.

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