The Chicago Blackhawks own two first-round picks in next month’s 2018 NHL Entry Draft, and with some cap space to spend for the first time in quite awhile, the front office has to feel good about their chances of rapidly improving the depth of their system if not the overall quality.
The Blackhawks would love to believe that luck was a major factor in a brutal 76-point campaign that placed them last in the Central Division. And the numbers, particularly the shooting percentages and possession stats, seem to indicate that to an extent.
Yet, there’s still a lot of reconfiguring that needs to be done to this roster to keep the franchise’s championship window open — if that even can be said anymore after this season and two first-round playoff exits preceding it. So do they use the No. 8 and No. 27 pick along with the six other picks they own to add prospects who might usher in a new wave of talent that opens up another window or try to move one of those first-round picks to win now?
Can it be both?
Mastering the salary-cap era in the NHL is about finding and keeping stars and then supplementing your roster with affordable talent. With entry-level contracts capped and controlled, it’s the best way to accomplish that. That’s why the draft is the single most important element of building a successful franchise.
That’s also been Stan Bowman’s calling card as Chicago’s general manager. With cap constraints, he’s been able to unearth a number of NHL-caliber players despite picking late in rounds (as well as in later rounds).
With that in mind, it’s easy to say the Blackhawks should hold on to those picks and allow Bowman to do what he can to unearth more of that talent. However, most of the players selected in this draft won’t see the light of day for at least a couple years, and there’s a reckoning coming that complicates matters considerably.
We’re already seeing some signs of regression from Duncan Keith and Jonathan Toews, and Brent Seabrook is no longer a clear-cut, top-pairing defenseman in the NHL. However, none of those players are likely to be going anywhere until they retire or their deals expire. All three are under contract until at least 2022-23.
Also, Patrick Kane is 29. As a player whose game is largely predicated on speed, he’s going to see his production levels dip at some point.
However, Kane is still a superstar at the moment, and there are at least some statistical indicators that Keith and Toews can rebound to an extent. With gains elsewhere, you can probably convince yourself that contending for a championship again is within reach with a couple savvy moves.
The key is to do it without leveraging the rare draft assets they have at their disposal. That’s where the No. 27 overall pick comes in handy.
Sure, the Blackhawks can make that selection and have a chance to land an eventual top-6 forward or top-4 defensemen with it. However, what if they packaged that pick with a player to upgrade at a position of need or to free up additional cap space to then acquire a player they covet in free agency?
The Blackhawks should keep the No. 8 pick unless an extremely solid deal is on the table that both allows them to plan for their future and make a major upgrade now. But taking the No. 27 pick and sending it with one of their fringe NHL defensemen might bring in a top-4 guy. Or packaging it with Artem Anisimov might bring in a solid prospect or two closer-to-NHL-ready ones while freeing up cap space to make a splash in free agency.
The Ryan Hartman trade was already a win for the Blackhawks because it not only brought them the No. 27 overall pick and a prospect who was close to NHL-ready, but it also helped upgrade their fifth-rounder to a fourth. And they have the depth at forward in their minor-league system to mask his loss, even considering that he’s a solid 23-year-old two-way player.
However, if they could turn pick No. 27 into either a high-quality defenseman or additional prospects and more financial flexibility, it compounds the interest and helps allow the Blackhawks to thread this needle. Because Blackhawks fans have been spoiled now, and that’s the expectation.
Bowman and Joel Quenneville are supposed to keep this franchise contending for titles and keep an eye towards a future that eventually won’t include Keith, Seabrook, Toews and even Kane. Maybe pick No. 27 helps them do it.