For the first time in what feels like forever, the Chicago Blackhawks have a bit of cap space to work with during free agency. It’s not much, but they should be able to fortify their blue line to some degree while leaving some loose change lying around for Alex DeBrincat’s extension in 2020.
They won’t be players for John Tavares or John Carlson, but they don’t need to be. Instead, they need a bit more out of skaters who are already on the roster. Perhaps no one in Chicago has more to prove in 2018-19 than Anthony Duclair.
In 2015, he was a key part of the package that the Arizona Coyotes received from the New York Rangers in exchange for Keith Yandle. After three tough seasons in the desert, the former third-round pick was traded again; this time to Chicago — along with Adam Clendening — for Richard Panik and Laurent Dauphin.
#Coyotes GM John Chayka on Anthony Duclair: "It’s gone back for a few years now where the team wasn’t particularly happy with the player and the player wasn’t particularly happy with the team."
— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) January 11, 2018
It’s a swap that could end up looking like a masterstroke by general manager Stan Bowman if Duclair manages to tap into his potential moving forward. First, though, the Blackhawks need to figure out how to approach him during contract negotiations, as he’s due to become a restricted free agent on July 1.
Negotiations on the money front shouldn’t be particularly difficult. His last contract carried an AAV of $1.2 million, and Duclair hasn’t done much to earn a raise over the last season. He scored just two goals in 23 games as a member of the Blackhawks and managed all of six assists to boot.
The 22-year-old might ask for a bit more, but it’ll only move his cap hit needle a smidge — if at all.
Something in the $1.3 million or $1.4 million range would be fair, especially if Bowman wants to put some performance incentives into the contract. If Duclair erupts for 25 goals, then he could take on another $750,000 in bonuses and still provide a great value for Chicago.
Things could get a bit more interesting when it comes to the term of the deal. Duclair is coming off of a one-year “prove it” contract in which he didn’t prove much. Bowman would be correct in hesitating to give the forward a long-term deal. However, locking him down for two or three seasons might be a worthy gamble for Chicago.
The Blackhawks are in a position now where they need a handful of players to outperform their contracts to succeed. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have to move mountains to live up to their respective cap hits; the latter is under fire for not providing enough bang for his buck, and he notched 20 goals and 52 points last season.
Giving Duclair a bit of term could put the Blackhawks in a situation where he ends up playing above his cap hit, and for a year or two. At the age of 22, he’s just coming into his prime and his pedigree suggests that he has more to give than two goals in a quarter of a season. But Bowman doesn’t have to pay him for that pedigree. He has to pay Duclair for what he’s done recently.
Which, again, isn’t much.
That puts Chicago in the driver’s seat during negotiations, and it’s tough to imagine the Quebec native balking at a three- or four-year offer worth $5 or $6 million in total. It’s the kind of contract that can backfire, but not in a way that has a longlasting effect on the organization.
The reality is that Duclair is a better player than he showed during his limited time in the Windy City. After establishing himself as a 12.5 percent shooter during his first 213 games in the NHL, his shooting percentage took a nosedive with the Blackhawks. Duclair converted on just 6.9 percent of his shots with Chicago, which is a large reason why his goal total was so disappointing.
He has the speed necessary to be a key secondary scoring threat, and in limited time with the team, showed that he isn’t a possession drag on his teammates. When acquiring a player from a team like Arizona, it can be difficult to assess just how good they are at hanging onto the puck. Duclair isn’t the second-coming of Toews, but he finished with a positive Corsi for percentage and is worth another look as a top-six forward entering 2018-19.
Despite getting fourth-line minute totals at even-strength last year, his primary points per hour looked more like that of a second-line player. There’s more to Duclair than the Blackhawks actually saw a year ago. It’s just a matter of whether or not they want to gamble based on a quarter season’s worth of underlying metrics.
Regardless of how much term Bowman decides to give to Duclair, the wing is prime for a bounce-back campaign next season that could see him finally establish himself as a consistent producer.