Blackhawks should be sellers at NHL trade deadline

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 24: Alexander Radulov #47 of the Dallas Stars controls the puck under pressure from Duncan Keith #2 and Artem Anisimov #15 of the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on February 24, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

CHICAGO — While it would be foolish to write them off completely, the Blackhawks dropping two games to the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars should put matters back in perspective. After defeats to two teams directly ahead of them in the NHL’s postseason picture, a once-surging team now sits five points out of a Wild Card playoff spot.

Even with 20 games remaining, this latest turn of events proves the Blackhawks should be active sellers at Monday’s NHL trade deadline. They should look toward the hopeful promise of next year, and know they’re not without options on the trade front.

It starts and ends with two prominent 2015 acquisitions:

Veteran Artem Anisimov started his career in Chicago strongly, netting 42 and 45 points respectively in his first two seasons after coming over in a trade from Columbus in 2015. For a time, the 30-year-old looked like the consistent second center the Blackhawks have been seeking for years. Evidently, the bar was too low. With each successive year Anisimov’s play has dropped off with a relegation to third line duties this season serving as rock bottom.

It’d be one thing if Anisimov was an affordable bottom-six player, as the Blackhawks could more easily stomach his demotion without fail, but he isn’t. There’s not many third line centers that carry a $4.55 million salary cap hit like he does. Dealing away an expensive player with experience whose play has steadily declined for years is the move to make while it’s possible.

The Blackhawks have had high hopes for Erik Gustafsson since they signed him to a two-year deal almost four years ago.

At first, the young defenseman didn’t gain much traction when on the ice, but he’s finally proven to be useful when deployed. In by far his most extensive role with Chicago to date this season (second only to Duncan Keith in ice time among Blackhawks defensemen), Gustafsson has 43 points in 59 games played.

The only problem in Gustafsson’s rise is that he remains defensively irresponsible, something likely to never change for a 26-year-old. He’s not a defenseman that moves the needle when he helps give up as many scoring opportunities as he creates. He does, however, pose an attractive possibility for any legitimate playoff contender looking for an offensive second or third pairing defenseman.

Gustafsson can and should find a role on a team prepared to win immediately. The Blackhawks aren’t that team.

Any assets (draft capital) for a team actively sitting on the playoff bubble and staying there is much better than the alternative of a wasted opportunity to improve for the future. Anyone who doesn’t project as a puzzle piece for the next time the Blackhawks can contend for a championship should be considered tradable within reason. Transcendent play from guys like Patrick Kane aren’t going to be around as a catalyst forever.

That the Blackhawks have averaged almost five goals a game in the past month and only won 10 of 14 games could be seen as an indictment in itself. A roster with their offensive firepower firing on all cylinders should be running roughshod on the opposition. They don’t have the defensive horses necessary to compete and won’t fix this issue any time soon.

For every piece of on-ice wizardry from Kane, nothing but forced errors on a shoddy defense rings alarmingly true.

For every aggressive move Jonathan Toews makes toward the net in a resurgent campaign, his effort is ultimately too often undercut.

It’d be one thing if the Blackhawks’ defensive issues were related to platitudes of a “will to win.” Instead, it’s more that they lack any noteworthy defensive talent from top to bottom. You can only compensate for a lack of talent so much. Meaningful talent won’t be added until at least next season thanks to a promising pipeline led by 2018 top draft pick Adam Boqvist.

Incandescent offensive brilliance on the part of the Blackhawks’ big guns won’t overshadow a defense that can’t stop anyone. It isn’t worth the trouble of stubbornly holding onto the cards in their hand. The main move for the future for this franchise is to get assets for an ongoing retool, not load up or stand pat.

The Blackhawks aren’t in championship contention, and the team’s playoff consideration looks less likely by the day. They can reignite the former dream in the next few years provided they take the right steps. One of those steps, as arduous as it looks, is making some prudent trade deadline moves.

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