First, having the bye week immediately following the All-Star Game sucks. It’s been too long since the Blackhawks had a game, and they were hot going into the break. We can only hope the team can carry the momentum they had before the break over into February.
When the Hawks get back on the ice on Saturday, we’ll be less than four weeks away from the NHL Trade Deadline (Monday, Feb. 24).
Should the Blackhawks be buyers or sellers at this year’s deadline?
Good luck deciding. Chicago was 8-7-0 in December, winning six of their last eight before the calendar flipped over to January. After the Blackhawks rolled to a 6-4-0 record in January the door is open for a potential postseason run.
However, before we call the Hawks buyers, let’s examine the schedule in February. Before the deadline the schedule makers lined up a slate of games that will serve as a good test of the Blackhawks’ playoff viability.
Eight of the Hawks first nine games in February are on the road – and most of them are against playoff teams (currently). Trips to Arizona, Winnipeg (twice), Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary will give the Hawks a good idea of whether or not they should buy or sell. Chicago plays in Winnipeg two Sundays in a row; they host Boston in the middle of the eight playoff games.
The Hawks last three games before the deadline are at home against the Rangers (Feb. 19) and Predators (Feb. 21) before a game in Dallas on Sunday the 23rd. The games against Nashville and Dallas could put the Hawks in the playoff picture – or serve as the final blows to their playoff dreams.
If the Blackhawks remain competitive and the rest of the Western Conference continues to beat itself up, Chicago could be in a position to buy at the deadline.
But should they?
There are two players who the Hawks should consider moving between now and the deadline. One of them is a strong sell; the other comes with future considerations.
The Blackhawks should move Erik Gustafsson before the deadline. Rookie Adam Boqvist has replaced him on the top power play unit and has played well enough to merit additional playing time. Given the Blackhawks’ organizational depth on the blue line, anything the Hawks could get back for him would be a positive. Chicago needs to start finding ways to open doors for other youngsters, and the reality that Ian Mitchell will be in the NHL soon requires a roster spot to be available at the top level of the organization.
What the Blackhawks do with Robin Lehner is another situation.
Lehner has been a savior for the Hawks far too many nights this season, and has been worthy of his $5M contract. Indeed, if the Blackhawks are in a playoff position at the deadline it will likely be due to Lehner being a marvelous addition to the roster. However, Lehner is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Because of that reality, his name has started to pop up in trade speculation from some of the league’s top insiders. Carolina has specifically been linked to Lehner.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks have also reportedly had a few conversations with Lehner’s camp about his future with the team. He has openly told the media he doesn’t feel that he should take a discount to re-sign with Chicago – nor should he. Lehner deserves to get every penny he can as a professional athlete, whether that’s in Chicago or elsewhere.
How the Blackhawks mitigate his financial requests with the rest of their upcoming contractual concerns is up to the front office. The salary cap isn’t going away – and isn’t going up quickly, either. So re-signing/extending players like Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik are equally important to the Blackhawks short-term future; the lack of top-end forward prospects in the organization makes that even more important.
If the Blackhawks cannot reach a point in their conversations with Lehner’s camp where they feel he’ll be in Chicago after this season, they need to trade him. This team isn’t winning a championship as-is, but they might be able to add assets that could improve their chances of making a deep postseason run in the coming years with the return for a goaltender of Lehner’s caliber.
There are other names that have been included in trade rumors around the Hawks. Brandon Saad’s name has come up a number of times in a few well-respected places as a player other teams would be interested in acquiring. He’s under contract beyond this season, however, and is an important part of the Hawks roster. If the Hawks considered moving him, the price should be high.
So what will the Blackhawks do before the deadline? There are 11 games between now and Feb. 24 on their schedule that will play a huge factor in what they decide, but they should be proactive planning for the immediate future after the 2019-20 season.