By Allan Muir
For Stan Bowman, celebrating will have to wait.
The general manager of the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks faces a daunting task over the next few days as he tries to put his team in the best possible position to repeat next season.
It’s a different scenario than he faced in 2010, with fewer question marks and fewer cap issues. But the decisions he makes over the next week could mean several new faces in the lineup come October.
There could be a pair of top-six roles up for grabs. The threat of potential cap-recapture penalties has led to speculation that Marian Hossa could be bought out in the next few days. Likely? No, because the decision could be put off until after next season after another title bid…but it’s possible.
It’s a good bet, though, that playoff hero Bryan Bickell is gone. The pending UFA scored just nine times during the regular season (a 15-goal pace), but his playoff performance almost certainly priced him beyond Chicago’s means. Viktor Stalberg, an occasional scratch during the Cup final, is gone, too. Defender Michal Rozsival could return, but he’d have to take a 50 percent pay cut to fit under the cap.
Bowman also has to decide what to do with RFA Nick Leddy. The organization appears uncertain whether he could mature into a top-four defender, so a small raise on a one-year deal limits the risk and makes him a cap-friendly option during the crunch year. If he blossoms (along with the cap, presumably), the Hawks can show their faith with a larger deal next summer.
The Hawks don’t have a second- or third-rounder this year — both were dealt to the Jets in the Johnny Oduya trade — and word is they’d like to move back into the draft. They may be willing to dangle Michal Frolik and/or Dave Bolland to make it happen.
All of this potential movement could challenge the farm system to fill as many as three full-time spots next season. Fortunately for the Hawks, Bowman has it well stocked with prospects ready to fill a role.
Ben Smith stepped in for the injured Hossa in Game 3 of the Cup final and, memorably, tallied three goals against the Canucks in the 2011 playoffs. After scoring 27 goals in 54 games for AHL Rockford this year, most from the greasy areas, it’s time for the 24-year-old right wing to prove he can be more than a spot starter in Chicago.
The Hawks don’t yet know what they have in Drew LeBlanc. The 2013 Hobey Baker winner out of St. Cloud State signed a one-year deal with the team in April and got into two games with the big club. He showed off a bit of chemistry with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, and his hockey sense and playmaking skills hint at what might he might be capable of in the future.
Will he be ready in October? Tough to say. His late signing made him ineligible to skate in the NHL playoffs or join AHL Rockford, so he didn’t get the organizational exposure he probably needed. Still, the fact that the team signed him when it has a nearly identical skill-set player in the AHL’s leading scorer, Brandon Pirri, suggests the Blackhawks might value him higher. Expect him to get a long look at second-line center in camp.
Jeremy Morin, acquired from Atlanta during the last post-Cup purge, showed some touch by scoring 30 goals for Rockford, but he slots in for now in a bottom-six role. He plays a power forward game, and uses his strength to make plays along the boards or battle for space in front of the net. Those are qualities the team could use if Bickell leaves, so Morin is close to a lock.
Jimmy Hayes looks like a beast at 6-6 and 221 pounds, but he’s not a banger like Morin. The 23-year-old has scored six goals in limited use over 41 NHL games and netted 25 as a go-to guy in Rockford. His hands have always been there, but it’s the added gear to his skating, and the added physicality in his game, that could earn him a bottom-six role next season.
If Rozsival is set free as expected, 2009 first rounder Dylan Olsen could pick up his minutes. The 22-year-old lacks experience, but his manageable cap hit makes him a reasonable option until later in the season when Bowman can pick up an affordable veteran for the playoffs. Olsen has decent size (6-2, 218), an emerging physical game, and a heavy shot. If Leddy moves up to the second pair, Olsen can slide in on the third.
With Ray Emery unlikely to be re-signed as a UFA despite (or maybe because of) his 17-1 record, the Hawks will call on signed free agent Antti Raanta to step in as Corey Crawford’s backup. The MVP of the Finnish league posted a 1.85 GAA and .943 save percentage during the regular season for Assat-Pori, then topped himself in the postseason with a 1.45 GAA and .955 save pct. on the way to the Canada Bowl and playoff MVP honors. Raanta’s on a one-year deal with the Hawks, so he’ll need to prove himself quickly if he wants his chance at a parade.