Hawks get grittier as free agency opens

Who knew Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman would listen to star forward Patrick Kane so closely. After the season was over, it was Kane who bluntly said his team could use more toughness.

He got his wish.

In a tough-guy buying frenzy Bob Probert would have been excited about, the Hawks picked up size and strength on the opening day of free agency. And also a few goals in the form of Andrew Brunette.

The Hawks’ fighting majors over the last three seasons look like this: 54, 36, 28. Fights alone don’t tell a team’s toughness, but it’s obvious the direction the Hawks want to go. When finesse isn’t working, they’ll throw some nastiness at an opposing team now with Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo. Combined, they’ve fought 181 times in the NHL. Defenseman Sean O'Donnell simply provides the size on the back end they’ve been short on.

“We’d like to change the momentum of the game with our third and fourth lines,” Bowman said. “There are going to be nights where, for whatever reasons, things aren’t clicking up top. If you fall behind early in the game or it’s not working that night, you need to get that energy from within. We didn’t have that element last year and I think we certainly want to recapture that. I like the mix of our guys right now.”

So did the Hawks replace what they were missing after last summer’s salary cap purge?

Playing the role of Andrew Ladd is Brunette. He’s a solid up-and-down player who is a model of consistency and knows how to find the net. They even have similar physical dimensions, around 6-2, 205 pounds.

Carcillo is the agitator the Hawks had in Adam Burish, and should provide some antics both on the ice and in the dressing room. Mayers and Ben Eager are switching roles and while Brent Sopel and Steve Montador aren’t necessarily the same type of player, they both kill penalties and provide tons of leadership. These comparisons might not measure up exactly man-for-man but it’s obvious the Hawks were on the hunt for something lost after the championship season.

Did they find it? On paper, they may have. But when it comes to 36-, 37- and 39-year-old legs, you can never be too sure. That’s the ages of Mayers, Brunette and O’Donnell before they add another year when the season rolls around. The two oldest players—Brunette and O’Donnell—are more durable than most, so maybe age is only a number.

Make no mistake, coach Joel Quenneville’s hand prints are all over these signings. He coached both Brunette and Mayers in previous stops and he’s wanted size on the blue line since he was gung-ho about John Scott last summer. He got more in O’Donnell.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Quenneville signed off whole-heartedly on Carcillo as well. Throughout last season, and even early this summer, the Hawks’ coach repeatedly mentioned how different and “quiet” the dressing room was. Usually guys who amass fighting majors like they’re assists, as well as 334 penalty minutes in 133 games over two years, don’t go down quietly. Carcillo will agitate -- maybe even his own teammates -- but that’s what hockey coaches like. It keeps people on their toes for the 82-game grind.

The Hawks got what they wished for on the opening day of free agency, 2011: plenty of grit, size and toughness. But are they better just because of it? That’s what the season will tell.