The Chicago Blackhawks were relatively quiet during free agency last summer, as general manager Stan Bowman preferred subtle tweaks to big twists. It paid off, as the deep and balanced Blackhawks hoisted their second Stanley Cup in the past four seasons.
So as another free-agency period begins, don’t be surprised if the Blackhawks take that same approach.
Free agency begins a few days later than normal this July, thanks to the lockout and later postseason. But the Blackhawks’ course of action is likely to be similar to the summer of 2012: add a piece here or there if it’s feasible – and affordable. Otherwise, leave it alone.
Bowman talked about free agency following the 2013 NHL Entry Draft on Sunday. At that time, he was fresh off trading two of the Blackhawks’ blue-collar guys, Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik, to Toronto and Winnipeg, respectively. The two leave voids, especially with Bolland at the center spot that the Blackhawks weren’t too deep at even before he was traded. Despite those trades, Bowman said that didn’t necessarily change the team’s outlook on free agency.
“We’ll look at that, but we have guys who are knocking on the door to get into the NHL; guys who have been in our system for two years and they’d probably be playing on many other teams already. That’s good for us,” Bowman said. “We’ve let them take their time to develop. We’re not rushing them. But if you look at their accomplishments in the American league – (Brandon) Pirri led the AHL in scoring as a 21-year-old – you have to give them a chance to play. They’ve paid their dues and they deserve a chance to play at the NHL level. That’s how the puzzle is supposed to work.”
Bowman is a big believer in the current way of doing things. He believes in getting a good core, which the Blackhawks have, then drafting well and developing those draftees to eventually play for the big club. Free agency? Well, that’s what you lean on when you absolutely have to; Bowman found himself in that position when the Blackhawks had their major sell-off following the 2010 Cup. He’d rather not do it again.
So Bowman will look at what’s out there, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Blackhawks are relatively quiet. Yes, there’s a void at No. 2 center again, a position that Michal Handzus played well through the postseason. Bolland didn’t fare too well there in the regular season. Marcus Kruger, who has yet to be signed, would be a great checking-line center. Andrew Shaw could be there or center the fourth line, or go back to the wing.
There are good second-line center candidates on the market, but they’re probably going to go for steep prices. One of the top centers is Mike Ribeiro, who’s coming off a five-year, $25-million deal, wants something similar to that again. He’s skilled, no doubt, but that should be considered too rich for the Blackhawks’ blood. Tyler Bozak is also reportedly looking for a big payday. There are a few good products and a lot of demand, so the cash could get silly again.
Bowman avoided that money grab last summer and will probably do the same again. If it’s time for players like Pirri, Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin and others to get their opportunity, now is as good a time as any. If the Blackhawks need help, they can save their cash and find something at the trade deadline.
The Blackhawks were quiet last summer; it turned out well. Chances are the team looks to up-and-coming talent in its own ranks before spending too much on those coming in from the outside.
“We had good players develop over the last few years and we want to keep that cycle going,” Bowman said. “That’s really ben the success of the last few seasons. We’ve had one or two guys graduate each year, and we want to keep that going.”