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Blackhawks raising eyebrows as Kyle Davidson kicks rebuild into high gear

When a new general manager takes over an NHL team, it often involves putting a unique stamp on the roster. Sometimes it means tearing things down for a complete rebuild. New Chicago Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson has ripped things back to the studs…and then knocked out the studs. His recent trades, contract decisions, and buyouts have many questioning what path, if any, Davidson is following.

One thing is certain, the Blackhawks are about to look very different on the ice, and are quickly becoming a leading contender for the 2023 NHL Draft’s Connor Bedard sweepstakes, and for whatever top prospect emerges in the 2024 NHL Draft.

Before looking at what’s to come and who is left, let’s look at what Davidson has done so far. Hired as the calendar flipped to March 2022, Davidson wasted little time beginning his process of reshaping Chicago’s roster.

On March 18, Davidson traded 23-year-old Brandon Hagel to the Tampa Bay Lighting. He came away with a ransom return, acquiring two first-round picks and Taylor Raddysh. Although Hagel still finished fifth in team scoring despite playing only 55 games in a Blackhawks jersey, the return was strong.

Three days later, he shipped Marc-Andre Fleury to the Minnesota Wild for a second-round pick. Moving the pending unrestricted free agent was a no-brainer.

As the NHL draft arrived, Davidson kicked his dismantling of the Blackhawks into high gear.

Davidson traded perennial 40-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat for a lesser return than Hagel. Second in team scoring with 41 goals and 78 points, and the only member of the Blackhawks to play all 82 games, Davidson sent the 24-year-old winger to the Ottawa Senators for a first, second, and third-round pick. Next up, Davidson sent former third overall selection Kirby Dach to the Montreal Canadiens for a first and third-round pick.

Not finished, Davidson chose not to give a qualifying offer of $3.6 million to the team’s fourth-leading scorer, Dylan Strome, who at 25 years old scored 22 goals last season. Strome, whose contract was affordable, will now walk away with no return as an unrestricted free agent. The team then bought out Brett Connolly, who only managed to appear in nine games this season for Chicago, and former first-round pick and 24-year-old forward Henrik Borgstrom.

In return for the gut job, Davidson brought in only three new NHL-calibre players: Petr Mrazek, Sam Lafferty, and Raddysh. None of those players are difference makers, unless Mrazek has a significant bounce-back.

With Dominik Kubalik headed for unrestricted free agency this year, Davidson and the Blackhawks are left with only three of their top eight scorers — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Seth Jones — each of whom is on a cap-heavy contract. Once seen as indispensable, Kane and Toews, who are both on expiring $10.5-million deals, could also be shipped out of town.

Kyle Davidson is tearing the Blackhawks down to the studs. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)
Kyle Davidson is tearing the Blackhawks down to the studs. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)

So what is next for Chicago?

After trading away five players 25 and under, the Blackhawks have few youthful NHL-ready options. Philipp Kurashev is 22 and looks capable of taking on a bigger role in the NHL, but had only 21 points in 67 games. He also needs a new contract this offseason. Expecting top-line production from Kurashev seems unrealistic.

The organization’s top prospect Lukas Reichel is ready for the big leagues. He had only one assist in 11 game with Chicago last year, but scored more than a point per game in the AHL. The issue will be insulating him on a roster now void of veteran talent.

Ryan Stillman, Mackenzie Entwistle, and Raddysh all fall into the 24-and-under category, but none are capable of replacing what’s been lost. To say all is hopeless would be wrong, although the future will come with a painful period of losing.

At the draft, Davidson and his scouting staff accumulated several top prospects, notably grabbing Kevin Korchinski, Frank Nazar, and Sam Rinzel in the first round. While they are three exceptional prospects who are a vast improvement to Chicago’s pool — as are second-round picks Paul Ludwinski and Ryan Greene — only Korchinski stands a chance of playing in the NHL next season. Nazar, a standout for the USNTDP, is headed to the NCAA with Michigan, and Rinzel, who spent most of last season playing high school hockey, will head to Minnesota.

With Davidson’s moves, the immediate future for the Blackhawks looks bleak. The typical path for a rebuild is to keep a mix of veterans who can help with the development of NHL-ready prospects. Chicago offloaded almost all of its young talent, Kane and Toews could leave town this season or next summer, and only Lukas Reichel is ready to step in.

While it’s clear Davidson has a plan, few can see a clear path, aside from banking on a lottery pick this year to grab Bedard, or stars in the making Adam Fantilli and Matvei Michkov.

For Blackhawks fans, who just went through a season of off-ice scandal and turmoil, multiple seasons of on-ice struggles are looming. It appears the 2022-23 season will be nothing more than a placeholder for the 2023 and '24 NHL drafts, with the Blackhawks holding multiple first-round picks in each.

Davidson embarked on a rapid tear down as Chicago's new general manager. What the future holds for the franchise is yet to be seen.

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