Five critical Chicago Blackhawks RFA’s: Who Stays, Who Goes?

We take a look at a very important offseason for the Chicago Blackhawks and what to expect in terms of the restricted free agents

After one of the most turbulent years in Chicago Blackhawks history, the organization now enters one of its most critical off-seasons in over a decade.

New GM’s Kyle Davidson and Assistant GM Jeff Greenberg will have their hands more than full in the coming months – from executing a smooth front office transition, to finally enacting a clear vision of a rebuild. Plain and simply, this off-season is their chance to begin a new era – their era – on the right foot.

With so many decisions in limbo – from who the head coach will be to what will happen to Toews and Kane – these upcoming five critical restricted free agents will no doubt be at the top of Davidson and Greenberg’s to-do list.

Kirby Dach

Kirby Dach’s development over his first three seasons has been a mixed bag. The former third overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations, although he did attain career-highs in both goals (9) and points (26) last season. Dach also had an impressive debut in the 2020 NHL playoffs, where he registered six points (1G, 5A) in 9 games.

The biggest setback for Dach, however, was a wrist fracture he suffered while playing an exhibition game in the 2021 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. The injury sidelined Dach for three months during a critical phase in the young player’s development. The decision to let Dach play was okayed by ex-GM Stan Bowman, who felt it would serve as a building block after a solid NHL playoff showing. Dach’s confidence was at an all-time high heading into the tournament, but unfortunately, he hasn’t looked like the same player before the injury.

Many fans have already given up on Dach, but he will only be 21 years old entering this season. Although he has yet to find his scoring touch, he has an advanced two-way/defensive game for a player his age. The injury – in addition to the covid stoppage – would be tough for any young developing player in the NHL. Faceoffs are by far his biggest weakness – and may be a lingering effect from his wrist injury – but Dach has still shown flashes of great play, using his strength and size to protect the puck and his defensive zone/backchecking awareness.

Dach may not be a top-six player yet, but Davidson should re-up him. Dach is still incredibly young, he should not command much more than his current salary ($925,000 per year, not including performance bonuses), he is defensively sound for his age, and he still has the potential to be a top-six NHL player. In addition, the Blackhawks will be rebuilding for the foreseeable future; even if Dach struggles, it will only matter for him individually and won’t drastically hurt the team overall.

Dylan Strome

Strome is a very interesting case. He was all but out the door on numerous occasions during his Blackhawks tenure; and wasn’t even re-signed by Bowman until the last minute of the 2021 off-season, after Jonathan Toews had announced his indefinite departure from the team. With Dach also slated to be out for the next 4 months that season, Bowman hastily re-signed Strome to a two-year deal.

When Strome was initially acquired for Nick Schmaltz at the 2019 trade deadline, he played like a man possessed, although that wouldn’t last on a consistent basis. He constantly fell in and out of favor with ex-coach Jeremy Colliton and even with current interim coach Derek King, although he did eventually solidify himself in King’s lineup last year.

Schmaltz is 25 – not ancient, but then again, not young, from a “potential” perspective. He’s been in the league for seven years already, so at this point, it’s safe to assume that he is what he is in terms of development. He improved dramatically on faceoffs this year and plays center, but does he really make sense on a rebuilding team?

Schmaltz would be better served on a very deep team in that, he can serve as a top-six player, but he can’t “drive” a top-six. He isn’t the type of veteran that can mentor kids like Dach, Borgstrom, Entwistle, Reichel, etc. and he doesn’t have much upside in terms of development.

Dominik Kubalik

Perhaps one of the best moves by ex-GM Stan Bowman, Kubalik was acquired via trade from the Los Angeles Kings for a lowly fifth round pick. The move appeared to be the steal of the century, as Kubalik would score 30 goals in his first season with Chicago, earning him a finalist nomination for the 2020 Calder Trophy. In addition, Kubalik registered eight points (4G, 4A) in 9 games in the playoffs. Unfortunately, that year was Kubalik’s high watermark, as both his point totals and goal totals would decline in each of the two years since.

Kubalik finished the 2022 season with 15 goals and 17 assists. His 32 points was the lowest point tally in his three years as a Blackhawk. He looked lost most nights this season, fumbling most of his scoring chances and making poor decisions in the offensive zone. Since Kubalik lacks a decent two-way game, the only way he is effective is if he is producing offensively; if not, he’s all but invisible on the ice.

Although 32 points and 15 goals is decent enough for any forward, Kubalik’s play has been trending downward. Like Strome, he is in his mid-twenties (26) and his upside may be limited. On a decent team with Stanley Cup aspirations, he adds value, but for a rebuilding team that lacks a solid core, he serves as nothing more than a passenger.

Philipp Kurashev

In his rookie season, there were times when Kurashev looked like the real deal. He was tough on the puck and his board play was spectacular, much like the departed Pius Suter that same season. It was as if Suter and Kurashev were pushing each other, since they were both in similar roles (rookie forwards). After Suter signed a two-year, $6.5 million contract with Detroit, the Hawks stuck with Kurashev, since he played a similar style at a much cheaper price. Kurashev was also four years younger than Suter.

Last season, Kurashev didn’t really show any progress. He earned five more points compared to his rookie season, but his game lacked the intensity and tenaciousness he exhibited the year prior. His goal totals would drop from 8 to 6; and he struggled to find chemistry with any of his linemates.

That said, Kurashev has only played two seasons in the NHL. He is still very much in development. Coming off a three-year entry-level contract worth $842,500 annually, he should not command much in his new contract. At 6’0, 190 pounds, his size is a big benefit to a team that is desperate to play a heavier game. Although he has lacked consistency, he has shown long stretches of solid play in the small sample size of his career. The more he acclimates to the NHL, the more consistent he may become. Along with Dach, Kurashev should be the next priority for Davidson to retain.

Caleb Jones

When Caleb Jones was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Duncan Keith, he was on his last year of a two-year, $850,000 contract. The trade served two particularly important purposes for Bowman at the time. First, it fulfilled Keith’s wish to be traded; and second, it gave Caleb’s UFA brother, Seth Jones, all the more reason to sign with Chicago, who was nothing but a potential suitor (among many) at that point. Two weeks after Caleb was acquired, Seth would do just that, signing a massive nine-year, $76 million extension with the Blackhawks.

If there is one word to describe Caleb Jones’ play with the Blackhawks last season, it would be “fine.” Like every Hawk defenseman this year, he had his horrific moments, but overall, he was okay at best. Does being just okay earn him another contract? For any other position, the answer would be no, but for a defenseman, being “okay” carries more weight, considering how difficult the position is for any player, young or old.

Caleb will turn 25 this summer. He’ll be entering his fifth season next year. One can only assume that he would want to remain in Chicago to play with his brother. Like Kurashev and Dach, it’s hard to imagine Jones will command much more than his current salary ($850,000). Either way, it would not be the end of the world if Jones is re-signed or if he is let go. The decision may hinge on whether the Blackhawks can move some of their other defensemen, like Jake McCabe or Connor Murphy. If not, there may be no room for Caleb Jones.

Summation:

Kirby Dach and Philipp Kurashev should be re-upped by Davidson. Both players are extremely young and still have massive upside. They are big players who can play a heavy style and be tough to play against, which is what the Hawks are desperately seeking. They have both shown flashes of solid play – and unlike players under the previous Bowman regime like Henri Jokiharju, Gustav Forsling, Tyler Motte, David Kampf, Ryan Hartman, and Adam Boqvist – they both deserve more time to develop before being jettisoned after only a couple of seasons.

Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik should not be re-signed. Although they are decent players, they are what they are at this point in their careers. They are only valuable on deep teams in need of secondary scoring and teams with Stanley Cup aspirations. Caleb Jones is the wild card of the bunch; and his fate may be tied to what will happen with veteran defensemen like Connor Murphy and Jake McCabe.

July 13th is the deadline this year to offer qualifying offers to restricted free agents. Based on pure merit, Dach, Kurashev, and Jones should at least receive QO’s; with Dach and Kurashev re-signed. The only way Strome and Kubalik should be offered qualifying offers is if Davidson would want to retain their rights only to trade them at a later date.

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