Riley Stillman trade shows how Blackhawks can keep accumulating picks without big assets

Other than Patrick Kane, most of the Blackhawks’ high-value assets have already been sold off to ignite the rebuild.

General manager Kyle Davidson has essentially converted Brandon Hagel into two first-round picks, Marc-Andre Fleury into a second-round pick, Alex DeBrincat into first-, second- and third-round picks and Kirby Dach into first- and third-round picks.

But now those guys are gone, and Kane is expected to soon follow, at least some time before next summer. Once that blockbuster goes down, Davidson will need to find a way to keep accumulating picks (and prospects) without being able to dangle star players in return.

The under-the-radar, late-night deal he made Friday–swapping depth defenseman Riley Stillman for depth forward Jason Dickinson and receiving a 2024 second-round pick from the Canucks in the process–exemplifies how he can do it.

Salary-cap space is more valuable than ever in the NHL right now, with 27 of the league’s 32 teams within $5 million of the $82.5 million upper limit (per Capfriendly) and 16 teams actually exceeding it with long-term injured reserve gymnastics. Fitting in new players, be it voluntarily via trade acquisitions or necessarily due to injuries, will be a real challenge for half the league this season.

The Hawks, meanwhile, are one of only five teams with substantial space. They have roughly $7.1 million available, a number exceeded by only the Red Wings ($8.2 million), Ducks ($15.7 million), Coyotes ($19.5 million) and Sabres ($20.4 million).

And come next season, after Kane and Jonathan Toews’ contracts come off the books and Duncan Keith’s early-retirement recapture penalty decreases, the Hawks will have even more space. They currently have only $39.9 million in committed salary for 2023-24, second-lowest in the league (only the Ducks, at $39.8 million, have less).

The Canucks are in far worse shape, financial flexibility-wise. They’re currently exceeding the cap by $700,000 with Micheal Ferland on LTIR. They have $67.6 million in salary committed for next season–including nine players making over $4.7 million–and will need to fit in notable new contracts for Bo Horvat and Nils Hoglander.

That tight outlook evidently made Canucks GM Patrik Allvin willing to surrender a decent pick to save a relatively meager $1.3 million, the difference in cap hits between Stillman ($1.35 million) and Dickinson ($2.65 million). The Hawks now own two first-, two second- and two third-round selections in each of the next two drafts.

Allvin won’t be the only GM in that boat this season, and his fellow sailors are the men Davidson will need to call on a weekly basis.

Furthermore, few current Hawks will still be in Chicago when the franchise starts trying to contend again. Some are mere placeholders, employed to fill out the team for a year or two of non-contention. Others are investments, players the Hawks would like to see succeed so they can be traded later. A decent number are leftovers from ex-GM Stan Bowman’s era, and Davidson has shown a refreshing lack of loyalty to Bowman’s failed experiments.

In any case, most are the equivalent of deck chairs that the Hawks can freely move around in whatever way most benefits the rebuild.

Stillman and Dickinson both fall in that deck-chair category. Stillman is a capable defensive third-pairing defenseman, and he’s only 24, but he wasn’t going to be a long-term building block. There are many dozens of other defensemen just like him around the NHL, including a few now competing for his job (Alec Regula, Isaak Phillips and Filip Roos).

Dickinson, similarly, is a capable 27-year-old, defense-focused, bottom-six forward, but realistically it’s unlikely he remains with the Hawks past the expiration of his contract in 2024.

More clever trades involving guys like them should be able to keep the Hawks’ stream of asset accumulation flowing steadily. Davidson set an encouraging precedent Friday.

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