The NHL Draft and free agency came and went without any sort of fireworks for a Blackhawks team that missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade. It was a little surprising.
But maybe it shouldn't have been.
Stan Bowman has been very transparent on what the main priority is going forward and that's to save room in the long run for when the young guys like Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza, Nick Schmaltz and Dylan Sikura are due new contracts. They're the present and the future.
Surely, the Blackhawks were hoping to land an impact-type player up front and on the back end on July 1, but only if it made sense. Any contract longer than two years would've presented problems for the reasons listed above.
When Bowman joined Blackhawks Pregame Live on Feb. 8 — three weeks before the trade deadline — to acknowledge the team won't look much different next season, he wasn't kidding.
Here's the full transcript for context:
"I don't expect us to be a buyer this year," Bowman said at the time. "It's nothing to do with where we're at in the standings, I just think that each season is a little bit different. Your team is different. I think the strength of our team is we're trying to build some young players that we're going to have. We have a lot of new players this year relative to last year. It's hard when you bring in 11 or 12 new players in every year, so I think next year's team is going to look very similar to this year's team. Not identical, we're going to have some changes, but I think you look at some of these young guys, we're expecting them to take that next step, so bringing somebody in to sort of bump them out of the lineup probably doesn't make a lot of sense right now."
Fast forward to the end of the season and his message stayed the same:
"We're not in a difficult cap position like we have been in some previous years," Bowman said. "From that perspective, it's looking better for the potential to make some moves. I think we're going to examine everything. We're going to look long and hard at ways to improve our team through personnel. I guess I want to make it clear our No. 1 priority as we move forward is to make sure we can keep these younger players — DeBrincat and Schmaltz and Hinostroza and some other young players that are going to maybe join our team over the next year or two. That's the direction we're headed, and we want those guys to be Blackhawks and to take a bigger role.
"Knowing that's on the horizon, you have to be prudent with what you do with your money this summer. It might be looking at some shorter-term contracts for some free agents. And if there's a situation that makes sense on a longer term, we're not going to shy away from that, but it would have to be understood that we're going to be able to commit to those young guys who are here. They showed in a short amount of time that they're sort of the future of where we're headed over the next couple seasons, and we want to make sure they're part of it."
And on July 1, no change in his tone or approach when discussing the balance between now and the future:
"The main thing for us is to accumulate a lot of really good young players that are on the cusp of breakout status," Bowman said. "And I think you’re not quite sure when it’s going to happen. The process of turning it over to the young guys, you still have to mentor those young guys. And I think we have some veteran players that have done some special things, obviously winning three Cups with the Blackhawks, but also having to help them a little bit. Sometimes everything falls on their shoulders, not only to lead the way but to mentor young players. That’s where bringing in a veteran on a shorter-term basis can help. Because these guys bring some things to the table.
"The important thing for us is we have some impressive young guys that are going to take on bigger roles in the coming years. But we also have some elite NHL players in the prime of their careers right now. So we’re going to try to do our best to supplement that and give them not only some players to help them perform better on the ice, but also to lead young players. It takes a combination. I don’t think you can win with just a bunch of young guys. There’s a little bit of a misconception. You also can’t have just a bunch of older players. You have to have that mixture of the two.
"The hardest thing is finding these elite players and we’ve got a number of them. Not only do we have them, but they’ve proven that they know how to win, more than almost any other team in the league we’ve got guys that have a lot of experience and have accomplished a lot in their careers, but they’re hungry to accomplish more. So that’s what we’re looking at here.
"We’re looking to rebound next year and to surround our really good players with some guys that can help them out and take the next step for the young guys so that, we’re talking a year from now, some of these young players have really emerged as legitimate difference-makers. I think we’re on the verge of that and we’re hoping that that does take place."
For five months, Bowman has been consistent about the Blackhawks' short- and long-term goals and there wasn't a desire to risk reaching into the open market this free agency for a player that might get in the way of those plans. It's easy to see why when you look at how the market unfolded.
James van Riemsdyk got a five-year deal that carries a $7 million cap hit, a contract too lengthy and pricey for the Blackhawks. Same with James Neal, who signed a five-year deal worth $5.75 annually. Jay Beagle would've been an ideal bottom-six centerman, but he received four years worth $3 million annually. Again, another case where both term and money was an issue there.
Ian Cole's $4.25 million cap hit may have been doable, but more-so on a two-year deal than three. Calvin de Haan's $4.55 million per year also was likely in the Blackhawks' range, but the four years wasn't.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks made three signings and none of them went beyond two years with Chris Kunitz and Cam Ward each signing for one year and Brandon Manning for two. Notice a theme?
Schmaltz and Sikura will be restricted free agents after this upcoming season and DeBrincat and Hinostroza will be in the same boat in two seasons. That's where the Blackhawks plan to tie their money up.
So if any moves are to be made going forward, whether that's in the form of a trade or whatever is left of the free agent market, the only way it happens is if it fits under the Blackhawks' budget both money and term wise. But that won't stop them from calling.
"It's our job to make calls and have discussions and we've done that and we'll continue to do that," Bowman said after the free-agent signings last week. "At this point, there's not a lot happening today, so there's a lot of players changing teams and teams that are looking at options they're not quite sure. So the trades aren't as likely to materialize. If they're going to happen at all, they're not going to happen today or tomorrow. It'll be more when things start to settle in a little bit and teams are looking at ways to improve. Maybe a trade will be a better option at that point. With all the movement happening today, it's probably more likely throughout the league trades will happen a little bit later.
"We have had some discussions on various players and nothing is close to happening. As far as whether we would make a trade or not, I'm not sure the percentages on that. We'll have a better idea as we get into the summer here and we see which free agents move where, and they'll be some teams that don't get what they're looking for, then they might be a little more open-minded to a trade."