The Chicago Blackhawks were hosting the 2017 NHL Entry Draft in their building, the United Centre. Perhaps Chicago’s vice-president and general manager Stan Bowman forgot that, when, just hours before the commencement of the annual talent dispersion, he traded away two of the team’s most popular players. The same day that Bowman decided to move three-time Stanley Cup Champion defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson and talented young winger Artemi Panarin; he had to front the Chicago locals on the podium on Draft day.
Fans of the other 30 teams may have expected Bowman to be rained down on with boos upon his taking of the stage. However, the perhaps unexpected chorus of cheers that greeted the 43-year-old shows that, like their VP, Blackhawks fans are well aware of the state of their franchise, what needed to happen, and why the moves were made.
After all, they had been telegraphed for a while.
Stan Bowman has the Chicago Blackhawks Flying in a Different Direction
Chicago have long been drowning in cap trouble, with many beat writers suggesting that Blackhawks fans prepare themselves for a colossal move or two in the coming moths. It was akin to an earthquake warning.
When just days prior to the Draft, it was announced Marian Hossa would not play for the entirety of the 2017-18 season, and perhaps ever again, due to a skin infection, the situation in Chicago got unfortunately trickier.
The Blackhawks suddenly had 45 points and 20 seasons of NHL experience to replace with negative salary cap space to use; the situation was becoming beyond dire.
Then, at roughly 11:00 AM on Draft day, it hit – Niklas Hjalmarsson had been traded. Arguably Chicago’s most consistent blue line presence was no longer with the team. The Blackhawks number 4 had been flipped to the Arizona Coyotes for 24-year-old defenseman Connor Murphy and 22-year-old centre Laurent Dauphin.
Of course, Hjalmarsson is a big loss for Chicago. He has been one of their best and most reliable defensive defenseman for a very long time now; one of the most underrated in the League.
But on paper, this immediately benefits the Blackhawks. Murphy, the hero of this trade on Chicago’s side, is six years younger than Hjalmarsson. He’s more offensively oriented with his speed, and is a right-handed shot. He’s also cheaper, and speaking of contracts, Murphy’s is two years longer than Hjalmarsson.
Long Term Deals
But with the kind of cap trouble they’re now in, Chicago’s priority is now longer, team-friendly deals that do not have to be renegotiated in the coming seasons.
Not only do many of these traits address long-term Blackhawks roster concerns, but also, they further align with the direction in which the NHL is heading, of youth, and speed. A direction Chicago was severely out of line with this post-season, as evidenced by their first round sweep by the eventual Western Conference champion Nashville Predators.
The New Guys
As important as Hjalmarsson has been for the Blackhawks the past few years, it may be that Murphy is the better player by the time the former player is off contract, in 2019. In the past two seasons, their statistics read as such: Hjalmarsson 7 goals, 35 assists, 42 points, 332 blocks, 21:57 toi, whilst Murphy’s are 8 goals, 26 assists, 34 points, 258 blocks, 19:50 toi.
Unlike the rest of Chicago’s defensive corps, those numbers should only go up when Murphy takes the ice with his new team. After all, he’s never played with defensemen such as Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook.
The Blackhawks also got depth centre Laurent Dauphin in the deal, recouping the loss of Tyler Motte from the second deal.
Similar to Murphy, Dauphin is a guy who could realise his potential with a better team, with veterans in abundance to show him the way.
The Saad/Panarin Trade
However, seemingly as soon as we’d closed all the tabs in reading up on the Hjalmarsson trade, another beloved Blackhawk was on his way.
Let’s address the latter player first – after all, the original Saad deal was still trying to be diagnosed and prescribed by the people of Chicago and it’s team by the time he had re-arrived on Friday.
Forsberg and Saad
Forsberg presumably fills a need for Chicago in the purest sense of the phrase. After the departure of Scott Darling, a backup goalie became a must. Forsberg represents that, although not as strongly as his predecessor. For what it’s worth, Forsberg is also an AHL Calder Cup champion. He won it all in 2016 with the Lake Erie (now Cleveland) Monsters. As we all know, goaltending is the backbone of all cup champions.
Perhaps the team’s most influential players helped initiate the trade. Patrick Kane and captain Jonathan Toews have long missed the 24-year-old. This is particularly true of the latter, whose offensive game has struggled since Saad’s departure.
The last two seasons Saad was with the Blackhawks, Toews had 68 and 66 points. In the two seasons since, his totals have been 58 and 58. Far from poor, but both the second lowest since his rookie season.
Saad also boasts 34 playoff points in 67 games. Panarin could only manage one this year as Chicago was swept out of the playoffs. Again on the contracts game, Saad is on the Blackhawks books for the next four years, until the end of the 2021 season. He carries an annual cap hit of about $6 million. Hopefully, that total will age gracefully.
Panarin is up at the same time as Hjalmarsson. He also carries a yearly cap hit of $6 million, according to CapFriendly. If the team keeps both, there’s almost no way they re-sign either.
With Artem Anisimov developing a nice chemistry with Kane; Nick Schmaltz coming through the system; and Alex DeBrincat hopefully to follow this season, Panarin had not definitively become “expendable”, but became much easier to move. After all, Kane has a habit of helping whoever plays on his line to stardom.
Saad is also better on special teams than Panarin has proven to be. He is effective on the power play and the penalty kill. He is also better in the defensive zone than the elder Panarin.
The Bottom Line
Still struggling to digest this all? Chicago got younger. They got faster. Their contracts got more team friendly, despite not getting all that much smaller.
Stan Bowman could’ve easily botched this trade. It is a trade in which he was shipping out two brilliant players, two fan favourites. Most general managers would have. The fact that he was greeted with cheers from the Blackhawks faithful when he approached the podium to announce Finnish defenseman Henri Jokiharju as the 29th pick in the 2017 Draft, says it all.
The narrative that this weakens Chicago in the short term is not convincing as of yet either. Like for like, Saad is just as good as Panarin, if not better. At the backend what Murphy offers likely suits the Blackhawks better than Hjalmarsson.
Bowman failed to read the tea leaves last year, as other teams did. He was not about to make that mistake for a second season in a row. He knows what it takes to build a long-term Cup contender. There’s been no delay in that taking shape this off-season. The puzzle isn’t finished. But they’ve started to assemble the edges, which makes filling out the middle a lot easier.