Projecting the Blackhawks’ 2022-23 defense: Caleb Jones’ free-agency fate is an ‘X’-factor

Caleb Jones was asked earlier this month a simple question: What does he think about his pending restricted free agency this summer?

“It’s always in the little bit of the back of your mind,” he said. “But you just have to take it one day at a time for things like that. You can’t get too far ahead. … As an RFA, it’s a little less nerve-wracking than being a UFA because they still have your rights. But that’s something that you just have to park in the back of your head.”

One would initially assume Jones shouldn’t have much to worry about. There are a lot of reasons why it would make sense for the Blackhawks to re-sign him.

They just acquired him last summer in the Duncan Keith trade. His brother, Seth, is an integral part of the team and enjoys having him as a teammate. He’s still only 24 years old — 25 come June. He has already set new NHL career highs this season in games played (48), points (13), hits (75) and just about every other category. He’ll be affordable to re-sign.

But the Hawks’ defense is approaching a critical moment this offseason, with a ton of prospects currently in the AHL knocking on the NHL door. That means Jones’ job may not be entirely secure.

“It’s good competition,” he said. “There’s always someone trying to get in the league and take your job. That’s just how it’s going to be.”

By contrast, the Hawks’ forward corps will take years for new general manager Kyle Davidson to rebuild, since that section of the prospect pool direly lacks talent. Many of the forwards the Hawks dress in 2022-23 will essentially be placeholders — players who probably won’t still be in Chicago when the competitive window reopens in a few years.

The Hawks’ defensive corps, however, are much further along in their generational transition. Much of Davidson’s maneuvering in that regard this summer will be designed to open opportunities for young players to break through.

So what will the Hawks’ defensive corps look like next season?

Seth Jones, whose massive eight-year, $76 million extension kicks in this summer, is the one absolute certainty. He has said all the right things about wanting to anchor and lead the Hawks through this rebuilding process, and that’s what he’ll be asked to do.

Connor Murphy and Jake McCabe have four and three years, respectively, left under contract, so they’re likely to return. Davidson probably wishes Stan Bowman hadn’t locked all three veterans into long-term contracts, but he can’t do anything about that now. Trades might be considered –McCabe’s name did come up a little bit before the deadline in March –but they’re relatively unlikely.

Conversely, Calvin de Haan and Erik Gustafsson will almost certainly depart as UFAs. Their two spots are the easiest for Davidson to clear.

Riley Stillman has two years left at an affordable $1.35 million –that contract situation being what really sets him apart from Caleb Jones — and, given he just turned 24, fits with the rebuild.

Ian Mitchell is almost certainly ready to return to the NHL after an excellent season of handling a No. 1 defenseman role in Rockford. Helping his cause further is that he’s a right-handed shot, something only him, Seth Jones and Alec Regula have in common among all the relevant defensemen in the organization.

And then Regula, Jakub Galvas and Alex Vlasic need chances to prove in training camp they deserve roster spots. Nicolas Beaudin, Wyatt Kalynuk (if re-signed as a 25-year-old RFA) and Isaak Phillips could fight their way into the mix, as well.

The Hawks need to start moving some of these prospects up into the NHL not only for their development but also to open AHL roster spots for the next generation of defensemen (Louis Crevier, Nolan Allan, Wyatt Kaiser, Ethan Del Mastro) who will arrive in the next couple years.

So, for the sake of this exercise, pencil in Murphy and Seth Jones as the first pairing, McCabe and Mitchell as the second, Stillman and someone as the third and someone else as the seventh defensemen in a theoretical 2022-23 Hawks defensive depth chart.

If Caleb Jones is re-signed, that leaves only one open spot for the prospects beneath Mitchell to fight for. If Caleb Jones walks, two spots are open.

Which scenario is preferable to the Hawks? It’s tough to say — depth is never a bad thing. But Jones’ fate is certainly an X-factor when projecting how things will sort out.

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