Blackhawks Begin Rebuild with Crawford and Saad Departures

Does Stan Bowman finally get it?

Once key cogs in the Blackhawks’ machine, both Corey Crawford and Brandon Saad were jettisoned in the first weekend of the off-season.

The Blackhawks initially offered Crawford a 1-year, 3.5 million extension, but immediately walked away once Crawford’s camp tried to negotiate. Soon after, it was announced that Bowman had re-signed restricted free agents Dominik Kubalik (2-year, 3.7 million per) and goalie Malcolm Subban (2-year, $850,000 per). The 35-year-old Crawford would go on to sign with the New Jersey Devils (2-year, 3.9 million per), officially ending the “Crow era” in Chicago.

On Saturday, two-time Stanley Cup champion Brandon Saad was the next to go. Along with defensive prospect Dennis Gilbert, Saad was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defensemen Nikita Zadorov and Anton Lindholm. Both defensemen are signed through the 2020-2021 season, with Zadorov signing a qualifying offer of 3.2 million prior to the trade and Lindholm in the last year of a 2-year, $742,500 per-year contract.

The Blackhawks will retain $1,000,000 of Saad’s $6,000,000 salary next season; in addition to ex-defenseman Olli Maatta’s salary, which will cost the Hawks $750,000 over the next two years. Maatta was traded to the Los Angeles Kings for forward prospect Brad Morrison.

There is a lot to unpack here. For one thing, it’s fairly interesting that Stan would deal with a divisional rival in the Colorado Avalanche, who many experts had predicted would win the Stanley Cup last year. There are really only two reasons why Bowman would make this move with such a trading partner: first, because he really doesn’t “value” Saad at all, so he isn’t afraid of dealing him to a divisional opponent; and second, because the Blackhawks have no logical aspirations to win the Stanley Cup — or even their division — anytime soon.

The latter sentiment may sound depressing for some; but for most, it will be sweet music to those who have been clamoring for a Blackhawks rebuild the last 3-4 years. A rebuild is something that Bowman had never fully committed to in his entire career as a GM. Even in the last few seasons, he approached “rebuilding” with one foot in and one foot out, adopting more of a “rebuild on the fly” strategy. By shedding two Cup-era stalwarts in Crawford and Saad, in addition to the recently-acquired Maatta, Bowman is finally taking the necessary first steps toward a true teardown.

Saad’s tenure with the Blackhawks was interesting to say the least. Upon entering the league, the young forward was dubbed “Baby Hossa” by fans and media alike. He used to play the game like a freight train — a true top-six power-forward whose speed and size overpowered the opposition. Not only was Saad serviceable on the power play, he was also a very effective penalty killer. When Bowman was unable to re-sign him after the 2015 Stanley Cup victory, fans were livid. Yet when Bowman reacquired Saad by trading the dangerous Artemi Panarin, it was evident that Saad was not the same player he was at the beginning of his career. Why Saad’s play declined so drastically is anybody’s guess, but one thing is certain: he was best only on extremely deep teams (during the Hawks’ Cup era). On the cusp of 28 and in the last year of his contract, Colorado may be Saad’s best and final shot at once again being a force in the NHL.

It’s easy to fault Bowman for the way he’s handled certain players in the past, but in Corey Crawford’s case, Bowman played it well. He showed Crawford the respect the two-time Stanley Cup netminder deserved by offering him a very fair one-year deal. Once it was clear that Crawford’s camp wanted to negotiate an already fair deal, Bowman correctly decided to walk away. As Bowman himself stated, Corey Crawford will rightfully go down next to Tony Esposito as one of the greatest Blackhawk goalies of all-time. It was sad for all involved to see Crawford leave, but it was the right call with the direction the Blackhawks are heading and with Crawford’s age and injury history. Ironically, Crawford now finds himself on a New Jersey team that is also in the process of rebuilding.

Saad and Crawford were key components to the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victories in 2013 and 2015 — but in reality, they were the low-hanging fruit for Bowman to shed next to Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook. These are the final four of the Hawks’ original core — once one of these players are jettisoned, a true rebuild will officially be in motion. Next in line would be veteran defenseman Connor Murphy and Calvin de Haan; and forward Andrew Shaw. Even on rebuilding teams, there are always a few veterans who serve as mentors. It will be interesting to see which veterans Bowman elects — or is forced — to retain.

Brent Seabrook is the obvious choice for Bowman to move, but his contract, injury history, and no-movement clause may limit the GM’s options. Like Seabrook, Keith, Toews, and Kane all have no-movement clauses. Andrew Shaw and Calvin de Haan were both acquired last off-season and have played limited games this year due to injury. Duncan Keith can still play top-four minutes and would be huge for a Cup contending team, but on the flip side, his beyond reasonable remaining contract (3-year, 5.5 million approximately) and his championship pedigree would be invaluable for the Blackhawks’ upcoming young D-corp. Out of the remaining veterans, Keith and Kane would be the most sought-after.

The Blackhawks have finally begun a path toward a true rebuild.  At 25 years old, Zadorov isn’t exactly young but he is the big, bruising defenseman the Blackhawks have always been without — leading the Avs with 175 hits last season.

Lindholm is also 25, but has seen limited time in the NHL over his first 4 years in the league; if his two-way contract is any indication, he will most likely spend the majority of his time in Rockford. Having a physical veteran like Zadorov on the blueline will be key for players like Ian Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin, and Lucas Carlsson — all of which will have a shot at seeing time in the NHL this year. In net, the plan is to have Subban, Colin Delia, and Kevin Lankinen battle for the starting and backup goaltending roles.

Bowman’s acquisitions of Zadorov, Lindholm, Kubalik, Subban, and Morrison drastically differ from his approach last off-season in acquiring veterans like de Haan, Shaw, Ryan Carpenter, Zack Smith, and Robin Lehner. With Kirby Dach, Adam Boqvist, and Alex Debrincat, Kubalik’s re-signing offers an idea of where the Blackhawks are heading. The question isn’t whether or not Bowman will actually commit to a rebuild anymore; it’s how far will he go this off-season.

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