Blackhawks’ decision on whether to trade Alex DeBrincat will set course for rebuild

When the Blackhawks skated off the United Center ice after winning their April 27 home finale, all eyes were on Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, with questions lingering whether it’d be their final night there in a Hawks sweater.

Nobody thought for a second that might be the case for Alex DeBrincat, the 24-year-old winger just coming into his own as an NHL superstar.

But less than two months later, it’s DeBrincat — not Toews or Kane, who still hold all the power with their no-movement clauses and haven’t revealed their plans yet — headlining all the trade rumors.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli and Fourth Period’s David Pagnotta have all reported the Hawks taking calls on DeBrincat, with Seravalli reporting June 9 that the “question seems to be ‘when’ and not ‘if’ the Hawks will move” DeBrincat.

The devils are the presumed leading contender. Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald has said he’s open to trading the No. 2 overall pick, which could be combined with other picks and prospects—the Devils have a deep prospect pool—into a package massive enough to seduce Hawks GM Kyle Davidson.

The Flyers (who hold the No. 5 pick), Senators (No. 7 pick), Islanders (No. 13 pick) and Kings (No. 19 pick) have all been connected to DeBrincat, as well.

Money is certainly part of why the Hawks may be shopping DeBrincat. He’s entering the final year of his contract with a $6.4 million salary cap hit. He’ll be due a $9 million qualifying offer next summer and, if his 2022-23 season looks anything like his fantastic 2021-22 season, he could reasonably ask for even more than that per year on a long-term contract.

But the biggest reason why they may be shopping him is the rebuild.

DeBrincat is objectively both the most valuable asset the Hawks own and the player who most contributes, at this point, to the Hawks’ (meager) success. He’s tied for eighth in the league over the past five seasons with 160 goals, and he just tied his career high of 41 in 2021-22.

If Davidson wants to initiate a complete, so-called “scorched earth” rebuild — tearing down the Hawks’ entire current roster, explicitly tanking for a few years and then building it back from scratch — it would make sense why he’d want to get DeBrincat off the team and convert his value into picks and prospects.

Davidson hasn’t committed to that approach yet, though, just like he hasn’t actually traded DeBrincat yet.

The young GM has talked intelligently and repeatedly about the need to rebuild in general, but he has only taken one step towards the “tear it completely down” approach and away from the “build around existing young talent” approach. That one step was the Brandon Hagel trade in March, and that move could be justified either way by the stratospheric offer the Lightning made.

Thus, the decision Davidson makes this summer regarding DeBrincat — whether to trade him, keep him and decide later, or sign him to a long-term extension — will essentially determine the rebuild’s course.

After all, if DeBrincat is dealt with, pretty much everyone else goes, too. That decision would likely be followed by Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik being allowed to walk away in free agency and Davidson exploring the trade market for veteran defensemen Connor Murphy and Jake McCabe.

DeBrincat’s departure might also prompt Kane and Toews to want out, too, as it would directly contradict everything the two veterans have pushed for. Both have argued in favor of a shorter-term rebuild, while Kane somewhat tied DeBrincat’s fate to his own, saying April 26 that “if he’s here and a big piece, then that makes it easier for me, too.”

(A cynical view might even suggest that would be part of Davidson’s motivation to trade DeBrincat, as trading Kane would likely produce another big return of picks and prospects.)

All of those departures would leave the bare-bones Hawks as one of the NHL’s worst teams, designed to be bad enough to contend for the first overall pick and be assured of a top-five pick in 2023’s loaded draft. But it would take many, many years for the Hawks to become competitive again, perhaps with only three current players (Seth Jones, Kirby Dach and Lukas Reichel) still on the team at that point.

On the other hand, if Davidson decides to keep DeBrincat, the complexion of the Hawks’ rebuild changes significantly.

With DeBrincat (and potentially Kane) up front and Jones on defense, the Hawks would have a few superstar pillars to reconstruct their roster around. The process of filling the prospect pool back up with elite talent would be more difficult and require more good luck, but they’d need one fewer star to eventually emerge from that pool.

They’d also be a far more recognizable team on the ice the next few years, helping sell tickets and maintain some relevance in the Chicago sports scene while still being transparent about the rebuild taking place. Business president Jaime Faulkner would surely appreciate that.

Either way, Davidson’s decision should become clear by mid-July, if not sooner based on the starting rate at which the rumors are intensifying.

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