Two years ago, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said firmly that he felt Brandon Pirri was the prime candidate to step into a major role with the team the following season. Pirri was traded by the end of the season. Last year, Bowman said it would be Jeremy Morin’s turn to take the next step. Morin was sent packing in December. Neither player was able to win over Joel Quenneville, or fit in his system.
This spring? Well, it’s not about proclamations for Bowman. It’s about options. And he is giving Quenneville as many options as he possibly can through an impressive signing binge.
“It’s been proven time and again that competition raises people’s games,” Bowman told the Sun-Times. “When there are nine candidates for two spots, you’re better off than if you have three candidates. If, for whatever reason, the guys don’t play as well, or don’t fit the way you envision, and you only have three of them, you’re in a tough spot. It’s hard to find players in October. We’re trying to manage our assets and prepare ourselves for the future.”
That future remains uncertain thanks to the sagging Canadian dollar and the potentially stagnant salary cap. With 13 players locked up for more than $63 million (the cap is expected to be around $71 million), new contracts owed to Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger, and seven or eight other spots to be filled, the Hawks certainly will be parting with at least one core player, and will be getting younger in a hurry.
And while the Hawks are high on several of their top prospects in Rockford — forwards Mark McNeill and Phil Danault, and defenseman Stephen Johns, among others — Bowman has been very aggressive recently in the free-agent market. He signed college standouts Kyle Baun (who performed very well in his four-game NHL stint), Tanner Kero and defenseman Michael Paliotta; picked up another Swedish defenseman in Erik Gustaffsson; and landed the big prize in Russian forward Artemi Panarin.
All come cheap, and all have high ceilings — particularly Panarin, dubbed the Russian Patrick Kane. The 23-year-old led his KHL team in points with 26 goals and 36 assists in 54 games, and has five goals and five assists through seven games with Russia in the ongoing World Championships in Prague.
“We didn’t sign him to be a Rockford player,” Bowman said of Panarin. “He’s a very talented player. He’s at a good age, too. He’s not 18, but he’s still got a lot of years ahead of him. He’s a dynamic player.”
While the signings came in bunches recently, they were the culmination of yearlong scouting and recruiting efforts. The job’s never finished. And while Bowman is enjoying a third straight trip to the Western Conference final (expected to begin Sunday in Anaheim), his focus is always split between the present and the future. And he knows a difficult, possibly tumultuous summer awaits him.
“This is why we’re in this job, because you want to play meaningful games and be in the playoffs, so obviously it’s a very exciting time of year,” he said. “But we’ve been preparing for the offseason all year long. We’ve had ideas in our head and we’ve had discussions all year about what we’re going to be doing. They’re parallel tasks with trying to prepare ourselves for the next round.”
Bowman, of course, offered no specifics about the big-picture plan. He did say the team wants to and expects to re-sign both Saad, a budding star, and Kruger, a vital cog in the machine. Bowman also indicated that even in light of Scott Darling’s star-making turn in the first round of the playoffs, the Hawks remain fully committed to Corey Crawford as their No. 1 goalie, and that his $6-million contract will not be the magic bullet that solves the team’s cap woes.
Bowman has his plans, his expectations, and his hopes. But this year, more than any in recent memory, he has options, too. And he’s going to need them.
“You don’t know exactly how the plans you draw up now for next year will play out,” he said. “Every team does it, but there’s no way you get it completely right. You just don’t know how players are going to respond when they’re put in position. You think things should work and make perfect sense, you get to October, and sometimes it’s not working. So you have to have a lot of options. That’s what we’re doing here. We’re trying to build an organization with a plan in mind. We’re not just signing guys willy-nilly.”