It’s probably safe to say that most in Chicago weren’t expecting a repeat of the glorious Stanley Cup season in 2010-2011. Sure, it would have been nice, and had the Blackhawks knocked off the Canucks in the first round of the playoffs, it could have happened, but the most realistic of expectations knew that after losing so much in the previous offseason, and lacking the depth that the Hawks did, it wasn’t going to happen.
Even this summer, the offseason got off to a start that wasn’t as expected. Few expected three more players from that Cup-winning team to be gone before free agency even began. Tomas Kopecky and Brian Campbell were both sent to Florida, the latter being the most surprising subtraction this offseason, and Troy Brouwer was sent to Washington for a first round pick.
Only time will tell which of those losses could hurt the most, but the easy money should say Campbell, who was quietly great as the Blackhawks’ no. 3 defenseman. Yes, he made a salary that didn’t really fit in with the Hawks’ plans, but they might have been better served to hold on to him, rather than Niklas Hjalmarsson.
After the three subtractions that Stan Bowman made before and during the NHL Draft, all signs pointed up for the Blackhawks in their quest to improve. In need of veteran depth and some grit to protect the core guys, Bowman knew just who to target when free agency opened up on July 1st.
Things got rolling before the free agency period started, when Bowman acquired the rights to free agent defenseman Steve Montador from Buffalo. Previously rumored to be interested in him at the trade deadline, Bowman got his man and quickly locked him up for the next four years, on a deal worth $11 million.
On July 1st, the Blackhawks made no secret of who they were seeking to acquire. A mix of scrappy veterans and bruisers, the Hawks brought in five players on the first day of free agency, all of which fit that bill.
They brought in Jamal Mayers to add depth in the bottom six, and could see time as a fourth line center. Sean O’Donnell was brought in likely to serve as a seventh defenseman, but is a great locker room presence. Brett McLean is likely Rockford-bound, but adds depth at center and can drop the gloves. And then of course, there’s the wild card of a signing in Dan Carcillo, who could be a great energy guy on the fourth line, if he can keep his head on straight. Bowman made Sami Lepisto the most recent addition this past weekend, and he could be in the six defensemen that will take the ice on Opening Night.
Perhaps the biggest impact signing this offseason for the Hawks will be that of Andrew Brunette. Noted as a great guy on and off the ice, Brunette will likely fill the role that Troy Brouwer was unable to, adding a big body to the top six. If Patrick Sharp starts the season at second line center as expected, Brunette could be the big body in front of the net for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and he has the hands to contribute in ways that Brouwer couldn’t.
Then there are the restricted free agents. Trading Brouwer took care of one of the five the Hawks were set to have this offseason, and no qualifying offer was tendered to Jake Dowell (who signed with Dallas), leaving the Blackhawks with three: Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg, and Chris Campoli.
Stalberg was the easiest to sign, given his limited body of work, and lack of leverage. He signed a cheap, two-year deal with the Hawks. The Blackhawks also managed to sign Frolik the day the Blackhawks Convention began last Friday, signing him to a new three-year deal, worth about $7 million total. It’s a slight overpayment, but in this year’s market, it should prove to be a bargain.
That just left Campoli. As much as his style of play fit in with the Blackhawks, his contract demands did not. Though the sides were set to head to arbitration, Bowman and co. felt the numbers Campoli’s camp were demanding were much too high, leading to the Sami Lepisto signing and punching Campoli’s ticket out of town.
While the moves might not be flashy, they were definitely the right moves for the Blackhawks. We saw in the postseason that as long as the core group is intact, the Hawks can compete with anyone. Add a solid group of role players that can compliment (Brunette) and protect (Mayers, Carcillo) them, and the skill guys should have an easier time putting the puck in the net.
Overall, yes, there are going to be those that question Bowman’s offseason move, simply due to the subtraction of three more players from the Cup squad and the fact that he didn’t make any huge impact signings on a Brad Richards-type level. But by making these moves, which are almost all one-year deals, Bowman didn’t hamper the Blackhawks for the future, and left the door open for a big move at the trade deadline, if necessary.
If the pieces come together as expected, the core guys can stay healthy and perform at a high level (looking at you Marian Hossa), the Blackhawks should be right back in the thick of things in 2011-12. A top-three seed in the Western Conference could, once again, be in the cards for the Blackhawks heading into next season.