Brent Seabrook has been a foundation piece of the Chicago Blackhawks for three Stanley Cup wins. He averaged 26 minutes and 17 seconds of ice time per game in the team’s latest run and played in all situations.
The 6’3”, 220-pound right-shooting defenceman has carried a heavy load for the ‘Hawks and carried it well.
Yet the team and player alike are coming to a crossroads, and a parting of ways may be in the best interest of both parties. I am referring, of course, to the conclusion of Seabrook’s contract at the end of next season.
Seabrook’s current five-year deal was signed in February 2011 and kicked in beginning the next season. For a $5.8 million annual salary-cap hit, the Blackhawks secured one season of restricted free agency and four unrestricted years.
NHL.com’s Dan Rosen quoted Chicago general manager Stan Bowman at the time:
Brent is a very important member of our organization and we are looking forward to him being part of a core group that will be a contender for many years to come. We have been fortunate to have Brent as part of our family since he was a teenager and we are proud to be able to announce this news today.
Bowman’s prediction turned out to be accurate, as the Blackhawks—then a playoff bubble team while recuperating from cap-inflicted wounds—have gone on to win two more Cups with Seabrook on this contract.
But signing Seabrook then was an easy decision. His free-agent status reduced his payday, and he was just 25 years old with a bright future ahead of him. Next year he’ll be 31, an unrestricted free agent and Chicago may still need a year or two to recover from the damage the cap has inflicted on them.
This leads to some obvious questions: Does it make sense to offer big dollars and term next summer to a player on the downhill side of his career? And if the answer is "no," does it make sense to trade Seabrook now for a substantial return?
The Blackhawks should be a contender but not a favourite next year. The losses of Brandon Saad and Johnny Oduya hurt, and the team will likely need to make another move to come into compliance with the salary cap.
The roster is still strong but significantly weakened, and it may yet get weaker. If the club needs to make space to sign Seabrook next year, it might get weaker yet.
The Canadian dollar continues to slide, and next year’s salary cap may not afford much more room than this year’s. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane didn’t exactly take a hometown discount to stay in Chicago, so Seabrook may well feel he doesn’t need to either.
All this suggests that signing Seabrook will be extremely difficult, particularly in concert with keeping the roster competitive.
It’s also worth remembering that while defence partner Duncan Keith has been pretty good over the last few years playing with other partners, Seabrook’s numbers away from Keith have taken a major hit:
|Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook at 5-on-5, 2012-15|
|Keith and Seabrook||2,430 min||56.4||55.5||56.5|
|Keith and other||1,294 min||57.5||55.5||51.5|
|Seabrook and other||1,123 min||48.6||50.8||51.8|
Keith has had real success away from Seabrook over the last three seasons. The Blackhawks have owned a greater share of goals scored and seen no drop-off in puck possession, despite the fact that he started fewer shifts in the offensive zone away from his regular partner.
In contrast, the Blackhawks have been outscored when Seabrrok is on the ice without Keith over this span.
Given Keith’s success away from Seabrook, Chicago might well find that there wouldn’t be a major drop-off employing a less expensive defenceman. For example, free-agent defenceman Cody Franson—who is bigger (6'5"), younger (27) and plays many of the same minutes—could be an acceptable substitute for Seabrook on a pairing with Keith.
Franson would likely come at a fraction of the price of Seabrook’s next contract, and signing him would allow the Blackhawks to shop Seabrook for what would certainly be an impressive return.
Would a team like the Edmonton Oilers, flush with young left-side defencemen, surrender Oscar Klefbom as part of a package for Seabrook? Would the Buffalo Sabres put together a package drawing on their still-rich prospect system in order to land a veteran cornerstone?
Nobody would blame the Blackhawks for paying Seabrook whatever he costs and making some tough sacrifices next season to make sure he fits in, but long-term, that approach may not be in the best interest of the franchise.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.