CHICAGO — The Chicago Blackhawks’ offseason plans appeared to become even simpler this week when they re-signed two restricted free agents, Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith, who contributed at the NHL level over the past couple seasons. It means for the first time in several years, the Hawks have locked up their own early in the summer and actually could go to training camp with the team they have.
“We have a lot of these guys taken care of before we hit July,” general manager Stan Bowman said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “I know there are a lot of teams around the league looking to find players so I think we’re kind of dealing from a position of strength if we choose to make moves. We don’t have to make moves. We can kind of be selective in doing things to improve our team going forward. It’s hard to say at this point if our team is going to be the same as it stands right now.”
Two years ago, the Hawks endured a partial roster purge in June due to salary-cap constraints. They didn’t have a complete roster in place until August when Antti Niemi’s arbitration award was rejected and Marty Turco was subsequently signed. Prior to that, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson was allowed to linger into July, earning a big payday when the San Jose Sharks offered him a mega-deal that the Hawks matched.
Last offseason, defenseman Chris Campoli was in limbo until the Hawks convention in July before being cut loose.
But Bowman doesn’t have those issues this year. Jamal Mayers, Johnny Oduya, Dan Carcillo, Brandon Bollig and Ben Smith were locked up early, making Bowman’s job of filling out the roster almost complete -- if that’s the route he wants to go. There is little doubt that Andrew Brunette and Sean O’Donnell aren’t coming back, so the Hawks already have up to 23 players under contract who contributed for their team in the past. That sounds like good news, but as any Hawk fan must be wondering, is it a good thing to bring back nearly the same team that exited in the first round just a few months ago?
The answer comes down to perspective.
Bowman can make the case that a full year with players like Oduya, Carcillo, Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes will make an even bigger difference. As will another year and offseason for Marcus Kruger and Nick Leddy.
The Hawks, Bowman could point out, seemingly have time on their side. Marian Hossa has a lot of miles on his body -- and is coming off a major injury. But he also played about as well as he has in his career last season. No other major contributor -- or even roles player save for Mayers -- is in his mid ‘30s and plenty should be just entering their prime.
Bowman also could argue that the Hawks’ special-teams woes will be fixed in house with the addition of a yet-to-be-named new assistant coach. He can even show evidence that Corey Crawford -- as a goalie coming off a sophomore slump -- will rebound as many good goaltenders have after below-average second seasons.
Bowman might be able to make the case that his 101-point team will only get better due to everything stated above, barring anything unforeseen like major new injuries or Hossa’s current issues lingering. But somehow Hawks’ fans probably won’t buy any of it, and they’d have good reason not to.
A pessimist would ask how the power play is going to be fixed without a veteran net presence? And how will a smallish defense play bigger in its own zone with the same blue-line? And who is going to play center on the second line?
In a lot of ways, the problems the Hawks had at the end of the season are still there and those problems will be best addressed via trade or free-agency.
“It’s possible we’ll make moves but we don’t have to,” Bowman reiterated. “We want to improve our team. If it means through the free agent market then we will look at that.”
So the real heavy lifting appears to be over. But that doesn’t mean the Hawks should stand pat. Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal is there for the taking. Swooping in for free-agents-to-be Ryan Suter (unrestricted) and even Shea Weber (restricted) shouldn’t be off the table.
Bowman needs to use this newfound time on his hands to his advantage. Yes, the Hawks could go to camp with this team and probably be pretty decent, especially with a re-energized Joel Quenneville. But pretty decent isn’t enough. This team isn’t special right now and for the first time in two years, Bowman can and should make pure hockey deals. Brian Campbell was a salary dump last summer. Troy Brouwer basically was too. As were Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and many others the year before. It’s time for the Hawks to do something bold or at least try to. Maybe this weekend at the NHL draft in Pittsburgh will be that moment. It’s where many a trade are consummated.
Goaltender Alexander Salak had high hopes when he was lured from Europe last offseason but the Hawks released him just one year into a two year $1.2 million deal.
“When he came over a year ago he was very hopeful of making the NHL and he was close,” Bowman said. “He just had an up and down year and got injured. That provided the opportunity for Carter Hutton to come up and he really surprised all of us how well he played.”
Bowman gave Salak a one-way contract meaning he was paid $600,000 to play in the minors. Count that as a mistake. Salak wasn’t exactly the greatest prospect to come down the pike, despite a decent season in Europe the year before. And if he didn’t want to come to the states on a two-way deal then he should have just stayed overseas but that’s not how the Hawks saw it. Bowman eventually cut loose a player that simply didn’t want to be in the minors anymore.
“He made it clear his objective was not to play in the AHL next year so at that point we were ready to move on,” Bowman stated. “Those things happen sometimes. Players have to have their heart in it in order for it to work. And I think he wasn’t too excited with the prospect of spending another year the way he did last year. He indicated he wanted to go back to Europe.”