Expansion Draft Preview: Chicago Blackhawks

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

Ever since Chicago’s Stanley Cup win in 2010, the Blackhawks roster has consisted of two categories of players: the “Core”, and the rest of the team. The Core consisted of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook; arguably Corey Crawford was added to that list of untouchable players when he backstopped the team to their subsequent championship in 2013.

(“Fuckin’ right, Chicago!“)

Time comes for us all, and hockey players are no different. Marian Hossa (still officially a member of the Arizona Coyotes, but his contract expires this summer) was forced into retirement by a skin condition; Corey Crawford had a disagreement about starter status over this past off season and was set free — only to sign with the Devils, but then officially retire from the NHL before donning his new jersey (see what I did there?) even once; Brent Seabrook’s injury problems have kept him out of the roster for more than a full year; and now Jonathan Toews has some form of something-or-other that is keeping him from suiting up. The Core, it seems, has crumbled.

Some new names have arrived on the scene who represent the future of the Blackhawks when the remaining members of The Core hang up their skates. It started with Alex DeBrincat, then came Dominik Kubalik and Kirby Dach. Ask 100 Blackhawks fans whether Dylan Strome, Ian Mitchell, and Adam Boqvist fall into that category, you’ll get 100 different answers. But suffice to say this makes for a complicated and challenging lead-up to the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft.

And that’s before we factor in the Blackhawks’ General Manager.

A Family Legacy

I once heard a former player describe Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman this way: “364 days a year, you hate Scotty Bowman’s living guts. And on the 365th day, you’re hoisting the Stanley Cup.” The polite way of saying it is, Scotty Bowman was a dispassionate and effective coach and manager. The not-so-nice way of saying it is, he’s a grade-A asshole who will screw you over without batting an eyelash, then go get ice cream.

Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman isn’t an asshole, at least not from what I’ve seen or heard (I spent several years launching and writing a blog like this one covering the Blackhawks in the 2009-12 time frame). But his management style is derived directly from his father: it’s business, it’s not personal; the fans and the press don’t make decisions, I do; and the team comes first.

The word that best describes him, in my opinion, is mercenary: he does what’s best in that moment, to hell with the repercussions. So, you see frequent transactions reflecting the fact that Bowman wants to sell high on players to whom he will soon be forced to give juicy contract extensions. Nick Leddy, Brandon Saad, and Artemi Panarin are the most glaring examples of such trades — all resulting in him getting pilloried in the Chicago press.

You also see him exponentially expand his European scouting presence, then start signing top performers from overseas leagues to entry-level NHL deals. He then proceeds to shovel existing (expensive) players out the door into free agency, making room for his fresh (cheap) overseas finds. Some of those signings worked out nicely; others, well…

Stan Bowman is facing a nightmare scenario in the early part of this abbreviated season: Jonathan Toews is out with an undisclosed “situation” and has no timeline for his return; Kirby Dach will miss the entire regular season with a broken wrist; long-shot hopeful forward Alexander Nylander, who the Blackhawks gave up arguably a future top pairing defenseman for, is also out with an injury; after Crawford’s departure the Blackhawks are doing goaltending-by-committee, with no clear #1 among the three netminders in rotation; and some of the guys that are doing a terrific job filling the numerous holes in the roster will be eligible for selection in the expansion draft. All of this could necessitate 11th-hour changes in Bowman’s expansion draft strategy, lest some of the pieces he needs to be competitive in the flat-cap universe suddenly disappear without compensation.

This sets up a situation where Bowman has the potential to go completely non-linear at the trade deadline. He has no illusions of his team going deep in the playoffs, and he has several young, talented assets that he may choose to ship out for draft picks rather than have one of them vanish for nothing. As such, the list of exposed players on the Chicago roster today might look nothing like the list of exposed players one month from today. That’s how avaricious and unpredictable Stan Bowman can be.

So to say these predictions should be taken with a grain of salt is an understatement. When you’re talking about trying to predict the actions of somebody so calculating, you buy salt by the pound. With that in mind, we dive in…

Injuries, Illnesses, and No-Movement Clauses

Two of the factors that have a significant impact on which players a team must or may protect in the expansion draft are injuries and no-movement clauses. But what happens when those two things intersect? Does a player with an injury and a no-movement clause still have to be protected? The Blackhawks have a complicated array of these types of conundrums.

On the one hand, a player with a full no-movement clause both this season and next must be protected by their team. However, players who the league deems to have suffered a “career-ending injury” will be declared exempt from the draft. Now, the definition of “career-ending” is more vague than it would seem, and in the final analysis the decision on a “career-ending injury” exemption for any given player will come down to what side of the bed Gary Bettman got up on that morning.

As many as four members of the Blackhawks could potentially receive an exempt designation due to injury or illness — we’ll start with the two whose contracts include no-movement clauses; center Jonathan Toews and defenseman Brent Seabrook. As of right now, assuming Seabrook does not play a game for the Blackhawks this season — and with three major joint surgeries and recurring back issues all reported in the last calendar year, that’s not a big leap to make — he and his insane contract will be declared exempt from the draft. This means that, instead of having to use one of their protected slots for Seabrook, they can use it on another blueliner. (Editor’s note: Literally the day after this was originally published, Seabrook announced the end to his comeback attempts. He will not officially retire until his contract expires, but his return to civilian life solidifies the career-ending injury exemption for the Blackhawks.)

The situation with Toews is less cut and dried. Neither the team nor Toews has given the slightest indication as to what is wrong with him. We don’t know if this is orthopedic, inflammatory, infectious, neurological, autoimmune, mental, personal, or some other factor. He was perfectly fine and performing well in the bubble last year, and now he’s out. So how can anyone at the league front office declare his… situation… as being “career-ending”? In order for them to make such an assertion somebody would need to make a public statement about the reason for Toews’ absence. Having kept it such a closely guarded secret to this point, that seems unlikely.

So for our purposes, we’re going to split the difference with these two. We will assume that Brent Seabrook will be declared exempt from the expansion draft, and that Jonathan Toews will not. Given the information that is in the public domain at this time, those assumptions seem reasonable.

As if that wasn’t enough, there is Andrew Shaw, who hadn’t played in over a year due to concussion problems, suited up for 2 games last month, and was summarily placed back in concussion protocol. And let’s not forget Zack Smith, the long tenured rough-and-tumble winger on the Ottawa Senators. He got in 50 games with the Blackhawks prior to the bubble in 2019-20, but has been out ever since with a back injury and does not look likely to return anytime soon. I will submit to you that neither of these players will factor into the expansion draft; even if both remain eligible, Chicago will not protect them, and Seattle will not select them.

Switching now to the remaining no-movement clause players on the Blackhawks: Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. We speculated earlier in the year that there was the remote possibility that Duncan Keith may choose to waive his NMC for the purposes of the draft. Without anything but our own gut instinct to base this on, we will go forward with the assumption that neither Kane nor Keith will waive their NMC, and therefore both will require mandatory protection for the expansion draft.

Befuddled yet? Go splash your face with water, and we’ll dive in deeper.

Protected List

There are some easy choices here, and the rest have only about a coin-flip’s chance of being right — partially because so many of them are literally interchangeable, and partially because we have no way of knowing which of these guys will close out the year in a Blackhawks uniform. In another 33 games we’ll know a lot more.

SO! Setting aside Stan Bowman’s “some men just want to watch the world burn” tendencies; incorporating the potential for unforeseen circumstances with injuries, exemption declarations, and waived no-movement clauses; and knowing what we know about the players and their performance so far this season; we assume that the Blackhawks will adopt the 7-3-1 protection scheme, and the following players will be protected:

Forwards: Jonathan Toews (NMC), Patrick Kane (NMC), Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Ryan Carpenter, David Kampf, Alexander Nylander

Defensemen: Duncan Keith (NMC), Connor Murphy, Nikita Zadorov

Goaltender: Kevin Lankinen

The biggest question marks here are Carpenter and Kampf. Both are bottom-six forwards, both are on budget-friendly contracts, and both are extremely good at their jobs. However, when you have unproven up-and-coming forwards who are looking like they have top-six potential — and who are RFA at the end of the season — do you protect one of those players and expose Carpenter or Kampf? Ultimately our decision is based on a bird-in-hand mentality that we assume the Blackhawks will adopt, and as such Carpenter and Kampf are protected.

We will also say that, if we are wrong, and the league does not give Brent Seabrook a “career-ending injury” exemption, Connor Murphy will lose his protection slot and will then become the leading contender for selection by the Kraken.

Note also that there is a long list of young players who are making a significant impact on the Blackhawks’ fortunes this year, but who are exempt from the draft. Those players are: forwards Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik, Pius Suter, and Philipp Kurashev; and defensemen Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell, and Nicolas Beaudin. 7 guys — likely the largest number of exempt roster players of any team in the league.

Short List

11 players protected, another 7 exempt, several unrestricted free agents, plus guys with injuries that would render selecting that player moot. That doesn’t leave much, but there are a few players who could be reasonable choices — one of which is a genuine sleeper pick.

C Lucas Wallmark, $950,000, RFA. When it comes to the expansion draft, first hand knowledge trumps scouting every time. As such, any player that Kraken GM Ron Francis had under his umbrella in Carolina is going to get a longer than average look, merely because they’re a known commodity. Wallmark is a milquetoast bottom-six forward with declining stats, but he was drafted in Francis’ first year as the Hurricanes’ GM and played a handful of games prior to Francis’ departure. For that reason alone it’s better than even money that Wallmark is the selection from Chicago, especially given the remaining options.

LW Brandon Hagel, $880,000, RFA. Here’s where it gets interesting. You have to watch Hagel to understand what he brings to the game. The kid’s middle name is “hustle” — he is fast with or without the puck, he forechecks relentlessly, he wins board battles, and he absolutely will not quit on a play. What’s more, while he is currently playing a bottom-six role with the Blackhawks, he had 3 consecutive point-per-game seasons with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, notching 102 points in 66 games in his last year before turning pro. If he doesn’t earn a protected slot — and if he keeps up his current level of performance, he just might — Hagel potentially has the most upside of anyone we’ve covered in these articles so far.

LD Calvin de Haan, $4.55 million, expires 2022. Four and a half million for a stay-at-home defenseman with injury issues is steep, I will grant you. But in addition to 20 minutes a night you also get sizable quantities of hits and blocked shots. de Haan plays bigger than he is — you look at him and think, 6’4″. But he’s only 6’1″ and 191 lbs. As a stand-alone selection, without other components to a larger deal, this one’s a hard pass. If the price were half what it is, I’d be taking a longer look. But it will depend on what needs the Kraken have when it comes time to make a call on the choice from the Blackhawks.

G Malcolm Subban, $850,000, expires 2022. With the vast array of goaltending talent available for the Kraken to select in the expansion draft, Subban wouldn’t make my list. But with literally every team looking to bolster their depth between the pipes, this could turn into a draft-and-trade play if Ron Francis can find somebody looking for a cheap 3rd-string option. So far this season Subban is over-achieving in an unsustainable manner (in my opinion), and if he continues to impress, that’s the perfect time to grab him and flip him to somebody who thinks he can give them an extra 5 wins next season. So if the Kraken can coax some scoring out of a team with problems between the pipes, Subban is an affordable selection. Then he’s somebody else’s problem, which is exactly what you want.

Let’s Make A Deal

This is pretty much a non-starter, though the only thing that raises a glimmer of hope is that Stan Bowman and Ron Francis have consummated several deals in the past — Bryan Bickell, Teuvo Teravainen, and Scott Darling, just to name a few. So there’s a relationship there, which is a good place to start.

The question is not what can Chicago offer Seattle; the question is, what can Seattle offer Chicago — and I’m of the opinion that there is only one thing the Blackhawks will covet enough to fork over a draft pick or any of their talented youngsters.

The Blackhawks would lllllloooooooovvvvvvvvveeeeeee to be rid of Brent Seabrook’s mammoth contract, which carries a $6.875 million cap hit for a further three years beyond this summer’s draft. But with Seabrook’s iron-clad no-movement clause, Bowman would have to do a pretty convincing song and dance to get Seabs to waive.

About the only scenario I can think of that would possibly convince him to do so is, if Bowman told Seabrook flat out that he’d never play for the Blackhawks again — injury or no injury — and offered him the chance to spend his remaining years with a team just a short hop from his home in suburban Vancouver, BC.

Now: Brent Seabrook has what we recently deemed an albatross contract, and his absence from the lineup so far this season has only cemented our position in that regard. So even if the stars align between Seabrook and Bowman with respect to a potential trade, I hope like hell that Ron Francis has the courage to stay as far away from Seabrook and his contract as possible — no matter what shiny baubles are offered as enticement.

Push Comes To Shove

I have a feeling that, when we get down to brass tacks, the end result of the expansion draft interaction between the Kraken and the Blackhawks will either be a complicated multi-player deal, or a dud. Either the Blackhawks will offer the Kraken a significant sacrifice to rid themselves of a paralyzing contract, or the Kraken end up choosing a bottom-six also-ran and either use them or assign them to the AHL.

Let me start by saying that right up front Ron Francis should set the price for taking on Brent Seabrook’s contract: the Kraken want Kirby Dach. Anything else, go kick rocks. That will pretty much shut down that conversation right then and there.

The deal I would like to see is, the Kraken select Calvin de Haan (who is expensive, but usable) and are compensated with either a 2021 second-round pick, Brandon Hagel, or Pius Suter. The deal that is more realistic is, the Kraken select Andrew Shaw (who gets placed on LTIR) and also receive either winger Matthew Highmore or defenseman Lucas Carlsson. But what I really think will happen is, the Kraken will select Lucas Wallmark and that’s the end of the story. That’s unfortunate, but the reality of these types of deals usually winds up being the most boring scenario when push comes to shove.

You can check out Hagel, Wallmark, de Haan, as well as the more desirable members of the Blackhawks that the Kraken won’t get their hands on, this weekend when Chicago hosts Tampa Bay. Game time is 11:30am Pacific on Sunday, March 7th on NBCSN.

Author: Tim Currell

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