Alex DeBrincat has established himself as an NHL star. There’s little doubt about that at this point.
In his first five seasons, he’s hit 40 goals twice. He has another 30-goal season to his name. He had one off season, shooting less than 10 percent and scoring fewer than 20 goals, but he’s proven enough now he can be expected to net 15 percent or greater of his shots.
DeBrincat is more of a dual-threat option than when he entered the league, too. Only Patrick Kane had more primary assists than him with the Blackhawks last season. DeBrincat has also evolved into a legitimate two-way player. He steals pucks regularly, backchecks hard and even kills penalties. Analytically, he is the Blackhawks’ most all-around player.
On top of those attributes, DeBrincat is in his prime at 24 years old. He could get even better.
So, why are the Blackhawks likely to trade a star who might even become a bigger star despite there being a multitude of reasons to keep him and probably re-sign him? It seems odd, right?
The Blackhawks have their reasons. Generally speaking, DeBrincat isn’t what the Blackhawks and general manager Kyle Davidson need right now or in the near future. Davidson is just entering a rebuild. There isn’t a definitive timeline, but the consensus around the league is the Blackhawks will probably require four-to-five years before they can realistically be competitive again. The way the Blackhawks see it — to possess DeBrincat’s talent and, just as importantly, his cap hit are pointless in the coming years.
Let’s start with the present. Last season shouldn’t even be considered as part of the rebuild. Stan Bowman trading the Blackhawks’ 2022 first-round pick to Columbus as part of the Seth Jones deal largely erased any chance of a positive coming out of the dismal season. The Blackhawks were the sixth-worst team and have nothing to show it. Next season’s goal, although not voiced aloud, is to be as bad as possible. The Blackhawks want to align themselves with a top-three draft pick by being among the league’s worst teams. That’s where the rebuild can really begin.
Powers: A true rebuild could be tough for the Blackhawks, but it’s the right path https://t.co/y4HC4kOjk1
— The Athletic Chicago (@TheAthleticCHI) March 17, 2022
With that being the goal of next season, DeBrincat doesn’t help the Blackhawks. He actually hurts them. He can individually change a game’s result. DeBrincat and Kane together have altered their share of results in recent years. The truth is, the Blackhawks are concerned they’re too good to tank right now. There would be little purpose to this season if the Blackhawks ended up the sixth-worst team again. The rebuild likely won’t accelerate unless the Blackhawks can draft a superstar with an early pick in 2023.
From a salary-cap perspective, the Blackhawks also aren’t in a place where they want to commit long-term to a player. Davidson is already saddled with Jones’ $9.5 million cap hit for the next eight seasons. As much as Davidson likes Jones as a player, that’s not how he would have preferred to begin this rebuild. DeBrincat has a qualifying offer of $9 million after the 2022-23 season. That’s probably where the number starts for a short- or long-term extension, especially if it eats into any of his unrestricted free-agent seasons. Davidson doesn’t want to have nearly $20 million in cap space devoted to two players this early into the rebuild. He’d rather have cap and roster flexibility at this stage.
The Blackhawks are feeling somewhat of a ticking clock with DeBrincat. If they want to move him before he’s due that next contract, this offseason is likely the optimal time. Davidson will want to market DeBrincat to as many teams as possible. They would want to include the teams that could possibly ship them an early 2022 first-round pick and/or a 2023 one in exchange for him. Moving DeBrincat at next season’s trade deadline would limit the amount of interested teams and likely reduce his value. There are teams who could look at him as purely a rental for the playoffs. If a team wants to acquire him this offseason, they could also seek to negotiate a long-term extension with him.
The other question is, why would DeBrincat want to stick around with the Blackhawks? Everyone assumes he’d sign a long-term extension. The Blackhawks envision some risk in holding onto DeBrincat for too long because there is the chance he wants to get to unrestricted free agency and choose his next destination. Because for as much as he’s individually succeeded over the last five seasons, team success hasn’t traveled with it. The only playoff experience he’s had was in the bubble during 2020. Why would he want to potentially spend his peak years taking part in a rebuild?
At the end of the rebuild, the Blackhawks will undoubtedly be looking for someone like DeBrincat. Why not keep him now and still have him if he’s willing to sign an extension? Aside from the previous points, the Blackhawks are viewing it more as where DeBrincat will be then as a player. He’s 24 now. When the rebuild is over, he could be 28 or 29. He might also be approaching another contract.
The Blackhawks want to have more control of their future and be able to maneuver one way or another depending on how things play out. Say the Blackhawks select the No. 1 pick in 2023, that player turns in a star and is due a second contract after the 2025-26 season. They want to position themselves to afford that contract and other potential contracts. And while high-end free agents aren’t accessible all the time, the Blackhawks could align their cap space to take a run at one once they have a better idea of the timeline of their rebuild.
As a fan, none of that is probably what you want to hear. There’s a chance the Blackhawks could move DeBrincat this offseason and trade Kane and Jonathan Toews before next summer. This rebuild certainly isn’t going to be fun to watch, but Davidson and the Blackhawks believe they’re doing what’s best for the future. This is the path they see to future championships. They’re hopeful sharing ways with DeBrincat and others now is worth it later.
(Picture: Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today)