Yesterday started off slow as NHL teams took time to arrange their game boards -- internal moves via potential buyouts, qualifying offers, and re-signing of their own free agents -- before the game actually begins tomorrow with the free agency period and trades with one another.
The latter part of Monday ramped up for the Blackhawks as news circulated about which of their restricted free agents (RFAs) they gave qualifying offers to and who didn't receive offers. The decisions surprised many. Let's take a quick glance at those decisions:
* Josh Dickinson (C): not qualified
* Adam Gaudette (C/W): not qualified
* Brandon Hagel (W): qualified
* David Kampf (C): not qualified
* Alex Nylander (W): qualified
* Pius Suter (C/W): not qualified
* Nikita Zadorov (D): qualified
There may be more to these decisions than meets the eye. For one thing, a team can still re-sign a player they didn't qualify but the salary will be lower than what the player wants. So a team hasn't automatically cut all ties with the players that they didn't qualify.
Conversely, a team can qualify and re-sign a player yet still trade them at a later point this offseason. Perhaps a trade partner has been identified and they would rather the Hawks do the heavy lifting first to make the qualified player a known quantity as far as cap hit.
Bottom line is there's a ticking clock with those not qualified. If they don't get signed by 11:00am CDT tomorrow when the free agency period commences, then they effectively become UFAs that any team can sign without any assets sent in return to the Hawks.
It's still too early to judge how the Hawks managed the statuses of their own free agents so we will revisit this later after the destiny of all RFAs and UFAs have been decided on. The only one signed so far is a prime example of not jumping to conclusions so quickly.
Of the 11 free agents who the Blackhawks need to decide upon, Gaudette is the first to get re-signed to a one-year deal to prove his worth and parlay into a longer one next summer. Pencil the unqualified signee onto the 3rd line for now until the roster settles later this summer.
The Blackhawks top draft picks in 2017 and 2018 -- Henri Jokiharju and Adam Boqvist -- are both gone now. Besides being 1st rounders and defensemen, another thing that Jokiharju and Boqvist have in common is they were advanced to the NHL too soon as teenagers.
Jokiharju began his pro career immediately in the NHL then ended his rookie campaign in the AHL before getting shipped to Buffalo that offseason. Boqvist did the opposite by spending a brief stint of 15 games with the IceHogs before getting promoted to the Hawks.
Out of the 37 players who played at least one game this past season, 24 of them were 25 years old or younger, 12 were 22 or younger, and 12 were rookies. Then out of those dozen rookies, 5 were regulars in the starting lineup including netminder Kevin Lankinen.
A trio of rookies who weren't regulars but did spend significant time logging minutes in the big show were blueliners Ian Mitchell (39 games), Wyatt Kalynuk (21), and Nicolas Beaudin (19). Out of all positions, D-men are commonly known to take the longest to develop.
So could the Hawks be pressing the reset button this offseason by deciding now to have Mitchell, Kalynuk, and Beaudin start with the Rockford D corps and log huge minutes then matriculate back to the NHL later in the season or possibly in 2022-23?
If so, then this would necessitate the Chicago blueline to be restructured so it's composed of veterans as well as youngsters who are further along in their growth curve to more competently endure the speed, rigor, and grind of the NHL not to mention the longer schedule.
Former #1 defenseman Duncan Keith is with the Oilers and Brent Seabrook is retired to LTIR. Seth Jones is the top blueliner on the Hawks now and will join experienced colleagues in at least Connor Murphy and perhaps Calvin de Haan and/or Nikita Zadorov.
While they are the same age as Kalynuk and a few years older than Mitchell and Beaudin, Caleb Jones and Riley Stillman have more NHL games on their resume -- 93 and 56 games respectively -- than this trio of rookies so they may be ready to be starters for the Hawks.
A suggested plan of having Mitchell, Kalynuk, and Beaudin play top 3 minutes for the Hogs in order to refine their defensive games and nail the fundamentals would then open up the opportunity to sign a veteran rearguard free agent or two to one-year deals to flip at the TDL.
C Jones - S Jones
de Haan - Murphy
Stillman - Zadorov
Kalynuk - Mitchell
Beaudin - Regula
Krys - Galvas
Phillips - Krutil
The same philosophy can then be applied to the forwards particularly with 2020 1st rounder Lukas Reichel. Why rush him to the NHL when he could learn the finer parts of playing in North America at a more comfortable pace without the pressure to instantly impress.
Other center and winger prospects in Rockford -- namely Andrei Altybarmakian, Evan Barratt, Cam Morrison, Reese Johnson, Josiah Slavin, and Michal Teply -- can also continue to grow in the minors for another year or two until they are truly ready to graduate to the NHL.
Philipp Kurashev and Mike Hardman could possibly spend time with the Hogs to start the next season but may have what it takes to exhibit more poignant growth with the Hawks after acquitting themselves to the NHL quite nicely as did free agents Brandon Hagel and Pius Suter.
Like Caleb Jones and Stillman, Henrik Borgstrom has some NHL miles on his wheels already with 58 games so he may have a leg up in camp to earn a spot in Chicago. MacKenzie Entwistle has spent two seasons in the AHL so he may be poised for the next test as an NHL regular.
The point isn't that the youth movement is out the window but rather that the timeline could be recalibrated as a result of the Hawks learning their lesson with rushing prospects too fast to the big leagues. There were different reasons for a hasty pace in recent years.
For this past season, the pandemic delayed and compacted the schedule which required the need for taxi squads and expanded rosters populated with rookies who weren't fully baked yet and would have otherwise stayed in the oven longer in more appropriate (lower) leagues.
Then at least in the case of Boqvist, another reason for the hurried ETA to the NHL was due to strings being pulled from upper management to thrust an 18 year old onto the main stage when he was far from ready on so many levels including physically and mentally.
Bringing this conversation full circle, Jokiharju and Boqvist may have had different fates had they remained in juniors a year longer and/or with the Hogs for at least one full season in order to actualize the ideal development regimen for prospects by overripening them.
Last but certainly not least in Blackhawks news is the formal announcement of Niklas Hjalmarsson's retirement. I had shared some thoughts about his legacy in yesterday's blog so today will just pay tribute to him by way of social media posts from his brethren.
See you on the boards!