As the last hour of the trade deadline approached yesterday afternoon, Blackhawk fans started getting antsy. It was obvious that general manager Stan Bowman should sell this year, yet there was nothing but crickets until practically hour zero.
With twenty minutes until the deadline and time running out, Bowman finally pulled the trigger on his first move — trading fan-favorite Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights for goalie prospect Malcolm Subban, defensive prospect Slava Demin and a second-round pick. Soon after, Stan would also trade defenseman Erik Gustafsson to the Calgary Flames for a third-round pick.
One more minor prospect-for-prospect move later (forward Nathan Noel traded to Philadelphia for defenseman T.J. Brennan), and just like that, it was over.
At first glance, there isn’t much to discuss here. In the third straight year of missing the playoffs, many expected Stan to sell a lot more than just Gustafsson and Lehner — but rebelling against conventional wisdom is something of which this general manager has always been prone.
Look no further than his trade of Henri Jokiharju. Selected 29th overall by Bowman in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Jokiharju played in just 38 games for the Hawks last season, only to be jettisoned for forward Alex Nylander this past off-season. Conventional wisdom would say a first-round defensive pick would need more than 38 games to develop — considering Duncan Keith played two entire seasons of NHL hockey before his breakthrough — but evidently, Bowman thought otherwise. It’s only ironic that, less than a year after trading his top defensive prospect in Jokiharju, Bowman felt obligated to trade for a 30-year-0ld career-AHL defenseman in T.J. Brennan at this year’s deadline.
For a team that should obviously be rebuilding, you would think players like Jokiharju would take precedence over players like Brennan — but again, this isn’t your typical general manager. In addition to bucking conventional wisdom, Stan also has a penchant for “retreads,” re-acquiring players who have been in the organization before. Brennan is one of these players. In 2014, Bowman acquired Brennan, Ville Pokka and Anders Nilsson from the New York Islanders in exchange for defenseman Nick Leddy. After clearing waivers, Brennan was assigned to Rockford, where he played 54 games before being traded to Toronto for Spencer Abbott.
So let’s rehash: within this season, Bowman trades a top-defensive prospect (Jokiharju) for a forward prospect (Nylander), only to trade a forward prospect (Noel) for a 30-year-old career-AHL defenseman (Brennan) who he had initially traded away five years before. Got that?
Brennan is considered an offensive-defenseman, so the hope would obviously be for him to replace Gustafsson, assuming he can ever crack the Hawks’ lineup. Brennan has only played 53 NHL games and hasn’t played in the NHL since the 2015-2016 season, so at this point, this is nothing but a Rockford move.
After a breakout year last season, many believed that Gustafsson should have netted more than a third-round pick, especially considering what other defensemen around the league garnered in the days leading up to the deadline. Andy Greene, for example, netted a second-round pick and prospect. Alec Martinez, Marco Scandella and Brenden Dillon all netted two second-round picks over the next two drafts. It’s unknown exactly why Bowman pulled Gustafsson off the ice just before Chicago’s game against Nashville on Friday — only to trade him days later just before the deadline — but many believe it was because there was an initial deal in place that fell through. If that was the case, Bowman may have weakened his negotiating position by pulling Gustafsson days before the deadline, which forced him to settle for a third-round pick at the last second.
Fortunately, the return for Lehner was better, albeit below expectations. Many felt that Lehner should have commanded a first-round pick, considering his age and his stellar play over the past two seasons. With suitors at a minimum, Lehner still ended up fetching the biggest haul for Bowman at this year’s deadline. Malcolm Subban is a former 24th overall pick and was a highly-touted goalie prospect before entering the league, but he has taken a step back in his development in recent years, currently registering a .899 career save percentage. In addition, this will be the young goalie’s third team in his first five seasons. It will be interesting to see how this move will affect Collin Delia, whom Bowman had signed to a three-year, $3 million contract this past off-season.
Like current waiver pick-up Nick Seeler, Slava Demin is a big-bodied, defensive-defenseman. Demin’s acquisition illustrates Bowman’s urgency to once again replenish his defensive-prospect pipeline — although it is anyone’s guess whether Stan will afford more patience with any of these new acquisitions than he did with Jokiharju.
In summation, Bowman received two prospects (Demin and Subban), a second-round pick and a third-round pick for veterans Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson. Such a return falls under the “better than nothing” category for both ex-Hawks, but ends there. Brandon Saad, Connor Murphy, and Dylan Strome were all logical options to be jettisoned, yet they will at least finish out the year in Chicago. If the deadline was supposed to answer whether or not Stan would finally follow conventional wisdom with a true rebuild or continue his “rebuild on the fly” strategy, the answer was the latter, for better or worse.