VANCOUVER - For more than two months, the Blackhawks had been primarily focused on the 2019 NHL Draft because the hockey gods gifted them with the No. 3 overall pick and a chance to speed up the retooling process in a significant way. They used that selection on Kirby Dach, a 6-foot-4, 198-pound right-handed shot center who's projected to be a future first-liner for many years to come.
But now all the attention has shifted to Sunday, when the negotiating window for NHL free agents opened up. And the Blackhawks are expected to be one of the more active teams throughout this process as they prepare for July 1.
With the NHL and NHLPA officially setting the salary cap ceiling for the 2019-20 season at $81.5 million - a $2 million increase from last season but $1.5 million less than the original projection - general managers can finally calculate their financial plans internally as they approach the legal tampering period. The Blackhawks aren't one of those teams where they're living and dying by how much the upper limit fluctuates, but it's still noteworthy that they're projected to have $16.5 million in cap space, according to Cap Friendly.
However, that does not include the potential new deals for their restricted free agents.
Stan Bowman said after Saturday's draft that Brendan Perlini will be re-signed. Dylan Sikura is expected to be as well, as is Gustav Forsling. John Quenneville, who was acquired for John Hayden, is also a RFA and is expected to receive a qualifying offer but it's unclear whether he'll factor into the Blackhawks' plans next season. So they don't have an unlimited supply of money to spend.
But they certainly have enough to add an impact-type player.
Over the last month, the Blackhawks have been linked to Kevin Hayes (before his rights were traded to Philadelphia and signed a seven-year, $50 million deal), New York Islanders captain Anders Lee and six-time 30-goal scorer Corey Perry, to name a few. That indicates the Blackhawks are in the market for a middle tier player, not the upper (sorry Chicago, but the Artemi Panarin homecoming always has been a pipe dream).
The other option is to continue exploring the trade market.
The Blackhawks already acquired defenseman Olli Maatta, but that was a deal executed because it didn't require subtracting a key piece of the roster. It really could come down to whether the Blackhawks want to handpick who they want via trade and give up the assets to do it or potentially overpay - both in dollar amount and term - on the open market, which could present challenges down the road when Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and even Erik Gustafsson - depending on if he fits into the budget - are due new deals.
If it's the former, the Blackhawks prefer overpaying for the right player - somebody like Perry or Joe Pavelski on a shorter-term deal despite a higher cap hit would be ideal to help bridge the gap as far as responsibilities put on the younger players. If it's the latter, the Blackhawks will pull off a trade for a high-end player only if it makes sense for the short term and long term because the offseason is a time to enhance the roster for both.
Bowman doesn't know exactly how the next few weeks are going to play out, but you can bet that he'll have his phone attached to his ear looking for ways to improve the roster and help turn the Blackhawks into a consistent playoff contender again.
"We have a good position right now," Bowman said. "For next season, we're in a better place than most teams. After that, it's hard to say, because we don't know what the cap will be a year from now and we've got a couple players that are going to graduate to new contracts a year from now. Not a lot of free agents take one-year contracts, so that's the thing - if you're going to sign a free agent, you've got to look at what's going to be the implication two years down the road. So from that perspective, trades might be more appealing to us than necessarily adding a top free agent. We're going to have some new players for next year, but I don't know if it's going to be free agents or through trades."