Blackhawks mailbag: Potential free agent targets, Erik Gustafsson's value and offseason priorities

Charlie Roumeliotis
NBC Sports Chicago

Blackhawks mailbag: Potential free agent targets, Erik Gustafsson's value and offseason priorities originally appeared on nbcsportschicago.com

The Blackhawks landing the No. 3 overall pick changed the entire feeling of the offseason, both organizationally and from a fan perspective, because they could be getting a franchise-changing player in the next year or two on top of the high-end prospects they already feel they have on the way.

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Couple that with the fact that the Blackhawks have money to spend this summer and it's easy to see a path back to contention. But there will certainly be challenges along the way.

Every Friday we'll shoot to do a Blackhawks mailbag, so be sure to stay with us all summer long. Thanks to all who submitted this week!

Now let's dive in:

What free agents are the Blackhawks targeting on July 1?

Who are the most ideal free agent targets for the Blackhawks that would best suit their future plans and current roster construction?

Lumping these in together. It's a little early to project who the Blackhawks might be interested in, but one thing is for certain: The pool of players in the 2019 free agent class is as loaded as its been in a long time. A complete 180 from last year.

It's unlikely the Blackhawks will be heavily involved in the pursuits of a big fish because it'll be a straight bidding war for superstars like Sergei Bobrovsky, Erik Karlsson and Artemi Panarin. But they will absolutely have their hand in the second and third tier group.

A few forward names to throw out based on fit and roster construction: Ryan Dzingel, Kevin Hayes and Gustav Nyquist, all of whom won't break the bank but would fill a need on the Blackhawks. Carl Hagelin, who's a couple notches below the other three, is also a player that is well-respected around the league and it's not a coincidence he's someone contending teams are always looking to acquire. Speedy and a great penalty killer.

As far as defensemen: Jordie Benn, Ron Hainsey and Ben Lovejoy are all veteran, defensive-minded blue liners who could help improve the penalty kill and serve as ideal stopgaps on short-term deals.

There will be plenty of options. Once we get into June we'll dive deeper into the free agent class and legitimate targets.

Gustafsson's value has never been higher and his contract is up at the end of next season. How likely is it the Hawks trade him this summer?

This has been a topic we've hit on quite a bit on our Hawks Talk Podcast, and it's because the Blackhawks have an interesting decision to make on where Erik Gustafsson fits into their long-term plans. And they might need to do it fairly soon.

After being one of six defensemen this season to record at least 60 points, Gustafsson is on track for a big payday when his contract expires at the end of the 2019-20 season and becomes an unrestricted free agent. And if they're not prepared to pay him, somebody else will.

Gustafsson said at the end of the season that he wants to be in Chicago. Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman praised Gustafsson's emergence, but was noncommittal about his status beyond next season, saying only that he will play a large role on the team in 2019-20.

If the Blackhawks feel strongly about their Big Four defensemen prospects (Nicolas Beaudin, Adam Boqvist, Henri Jokiharju and Ian Mitchell) and believe Gustafsson will slide into more of a secondary role when they arrive, then now might be the time to test the market for him. Because if the Blackhawks are in the middle of a playoff race when next season's trade deadline rolls around, odds are they won't be looking to sell and then they risk losing Gustafsson for nothing if he exceeds their budget.

I assume it is safe to say that no UFAs (Ward, Kunitz, Kruger) will be back next season, but what about the RFAs? Do you see Kampf, Perlini, Forsling, Koekkoek and Sikura with the team?

Kevin, 

Yes, it's safe to say Marcus Kruger, Chris Kunitz and Cam Ward will not be back with the Blackhawks. The restricted free agent list is where it gets interesting because the Blackhawks have 11 of them.

Six of them are eligible for arbitration (Victor Ejdsell, Anton Forsberg, Luke Johnson, David Kampf, Slater Koekkoek and Anthony Louis). The other five include Gustav Forsling, Blake Hillman, Brendan Perlini, Dylan Sikura and Spencer Watson.

Of the 11, the slam dunks to re-sign are Kampf, Perlini and Sikura. After that, each situation is honestly different. 

Ideally, you want to retain most of your RFAs because they're young, cheap and their best hockey is ahead of them. But in this case, the Blackhawks can be a little picky on who they choose to bring back because the Rockford IceHogs roster is already looking crowded for next season (in a good way) and they probably don't want players they've maybe made their minds up on taking those spots.

The deadline for teams to submit qualifying offers is June 25.

"Probably not all of them," Bowman said in April on whether they'll re-sign all 11 RFAs. "We haven't figured all that out yet. That's probably the next order of business along with preparing for the draft over the next two months. We'll have some internal meetings, we'll talk to our coaches, we'll talk to our staff, about which ones are coming back."

Hey Charlie! Wanted to ask, what are Stan Bowman's priorities this off-season? And how deceiving is the extra cap space that we have now? Enough to significantly improve this roster going into next year?

Brandon,

The easy answer here is that adding a Top 4 defenseman should be the No. 1 priority, but it's not that simple. Most defensemen on the market are looking to cash out, both in dollars and term, and it's dangerous to get involved in bidding wars via free agency because the coveted players are usually in the 27-29 age range whose contracts may not look great on the back half. And acquiring one via trade is way easier said than done.

This might be an unpopular decision, but Bowman's focus this offseason should be on shoring up their forward depth. When the Blackhawks were at their best and winning Stanley Cups, they defended well but they also had elite possession numbers and came at you in waves with their four-line rotation.

The Blackhawks just got career seasons out of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and a breakout 41-goal campaign from Alex DeBrincat. Who they sign in free agency is important, but even more-so is slotting everyone back into their usual spots and easing the burden off the horses.

The Blackhawks have enough money to add difference-making players while also preparing for the second contracts of DeBrincat and Dylan Strome. They won't spend right to the cap, but they certainly have the financial flexibility to have an impactful summer.

Where will the Hawks see the largest improvement in '19-20? Defense, PP, PK, Goaltending?

The Blackhawks' overall team defense will continue to be a work in progress. The power play got significantly better after Jeremy Colliton took over and the goaltending was the least of their concerns. The penalty kill had a historically bad season, tying the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1988-89 for the worst percentage (72.7) in the last 30 years.

But that's an area that can change quickly from one year to the next and my money's in that basket.

There was a three-way tie for first this season in penalty kill success rate at 85.0 percent: Arizona, Columbus and Tampa Bay. A year ago, Arizona ranked 19th, Columbus 27th and Tampa Bay 28th.

Now, things obviously need to change - mentality, personnel wise and structurally - in order for the Blackhawks to have a similar turnaround, but with Colliton having a full offseason and training camp to map out a plan and get his players on the same page going into the season, we could see a big improvement in that department.

With Crawford's health being up and down this past season and his contract expiring after next season, do you expect an emphasis from the organization on searching for Crow's replacement during this offseason?

Pauly,

This is a position the organization has put an emphasis on over the past couple seasons, but not necessarily because they're looking to replace Crawford in the near future. Goaltending depth is just so crucial in today's NHL, where starters are playing less and less to stay fresh for the playoffs.

While Crawford has one year left on his contract, the Blackhawks have no plans to phase him out of their plans anytime soon. He's a two-time Stanley Cup winner and, when healthy, still one of the elite netminders in the game. 

Having said that, the Blackhawks have made several moves organizationally since the 2017 summer in an effort to strengthen that position both in the short term and long term.

They acquired Forsberg from Columbus as part of the Artemi Panarin-Brandon Saad trade, signed Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen to entry-level contracts as undrafted free agents, and selected Alexis Gravel in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Draft. 

At some point, yes, the Blackhawks will have to start preparing for life without Crawford, but after the 2019-20 season they'll have a better idea on where they stand with their goaltending situation (Crawford's health for a full season, Delia's progression as an NHL backup, etc.).

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