The Blackhawks were one bounce away last spring from a draining, but thrilling, Western Conference finals victory over the Kings (and probably a subsequent triumph over the Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals). So massive changes weren’t necessary this off-season. Besides, Chicago has been through worse off-seasons—in 2010, the club lost ten players the summer after winning the Cup. Thanks to some shrewd work by GM Stan Bowman and Coach Joel Quenneville in the wake of those changes, however, the Blackhawks were back on top within two years. The retooling was very fast. This team has lots of experience with parity.
To that end, Chicago eliminated a lot of year-to-year uncertainty this summer by locking up its top players, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, with identical eight-year contract extensions that will keep them around through 2022–23. The deals included $44 million in signing bonuses, $40 million in salary and an annual cap hit of $10.5 million per player. In the short run, the contracts will force the Hawks to straddle the salary cap with the same deftness they have shown in the past, but as the salaries of franchise players begin to rise, the investments will likely come to seem like smart moves. It was the second time that both Toews, 25, and Kane, 26—who have the same agent, Pat Brisson—signed identical contracts with Chicago. Either one could have followed the examples of Zach Parise or Ryan Suter and jumped to a hometown team for an even bigger contract, but Toews, a Winnipeg native, and Kane, a Buffalo native, chose to stay put. “It was not even really a thought to continue the career anywhere else,” Toews said after signing. “I think we’re both happy that we’re locked up here for a while.”
The Blackhawks picked up free-agent center Brad Richards for one year at $2 million. That could be a steal if Richards, who already scored a huge payday with his last contract, can slot in as the club’s second-line center. He is 34 with one championship, 867 regular-season points and exactly 1,100 games played, including the postseason. The wear and tear showed during each of his last two seasons with the Rangers, when he was either benched or demoted to the fourth line near the ends of playoff runs under two different coaches. While Richards’ leadership is unquestioned—he was New York's de facto captain after the trade of Ryan Callahan to the Lightning, even though the team did not officially name one—his diminishing contributions made him a candidate for a compliance buyout because of his annual $6.675 million salary-cap hit. In Chicago, where Toews is the unquestioned leader, Richards will need to talk and play less, which should make him a good fit for a club already accustomed to winning. But can his slowing legs still complement the speedy Kane if the Hawks choose to play him on the second line?
Richards is in line to play one of the top center spots because Chicago parted ways with Michal Handzus, a four-time 20-goal scorer who had just four in 59 games last season. With Richards joining Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, who are all still in the fold, the Blackhawks will have a very formidable group of front-line forwards. And the possible fourth line of Bryan Bickell, Markus Kruger and Ben Smith could be very potent, as well. Finnish center Teuvo Teravainen, the club’s top draft pick in 2012, played three games last season and should get more time this year.
Chicago's top two defense pairings (Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya) appear set, but the third pairing is still up the air. The Hawks still need to do some more shuffling to manage their cap space before opening night, and blueliners Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival could be moved to make some room.
In the short term, Chicago will need to save its pennies where it can as the team fills out the roster. The Blackhawks sent bruising forward Brandon Bollig to the Flames during the off-season in return for a draft pick. Bollig had 14 points in 125 regular-season games and just two more in 24 playoff games for Chicago, who often didn’t dress him for much of the past few post-seasons. He had three years left on his contract with a $1.25 million cap hit, which was too much for a regular-season enforcer given the team’s cap restraints. That role may be picked up this year by Cody Bass, a former fourth-round pick of the Senators who had 18 points and 132 penalty minutes in 58 games with Springfield in the AHL last season. The Blackhawks also signed Pierre-Cedric Labrie to a one-year deal. Labrie had 112 penalty minutes in 38 games for Syracuse. If either 27-year-old forward sticks with the big team, they’ll cost roughly half of what Chicago would have been paying for Bollig.
In an unheralded, but very significant move, the Hawks hired Jimmy Waite to be the club’s new goaltending coach. Waite played eight seasons in Chicago in a journeyman career that included stints with four NHL teams and several years in the minors. He’ll be charged with keeping Corey Crawford’s head in the right place. Crawford has a Stanley Cup on his resume, but he also has battled extended periods of inconsistency. Even when the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2012–13, Crawford’s glove hand was a question mark, especially after he let in some stoppable shots in the finals against the Bruins. Waite’s brother, Stephane, had been the club’s goalie coach before Steve Weeks replaced him last year. But Weeks never meshed with the club.
The problems will kick in for Chicago next summer, with there will be $10 million of likely remaining cap space (depending on the NHL’s final number), a huge list of players heading to free agency and Seabrook due to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016. But the Hawks have faced this puzzle before. Somehow the pieces always seem to fit.