The belief around the NHL last offseason was that the Blackhawks were going to be aggressive via free agency. They were coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign and had some cash to spend.
But it was quite the opposite.
After John Tavares and James van Riemsdyk inked long-term deals with their respective new clubs, the ripple effects turned out to be over-payment across the board on a free-agent class that wasn't very deep. So the Blackhawks settled on a one-year deal for Chris Kunitz up front and two-year contract for Brandon Manning on defense.
This summer could be different. And it should be.
For one, the Blackhawks aren't handcuffed by a Marian Hossa contract that was moved on July 12 — nearly two weeks after free agency opened up. That didn't help their cause and didn't allow them to have financial flexibility when it really mattered.
"It was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said at the time. "It necessitated us trying to make the move we made."
The Blackhawks are in a much better position this time around. They're projected to have north of $15 million in cap space and plan to take advantage of it.
"I would expect us to be more active in the summer free agent market than we have in years past," Bowman said on Sunday during exit interviews. "First of all, we have the cap flexibility to do that. We haven't been in this position before. This is probably the first time ever we've had this much money to spend. Doesn't mean we're going to spend all of it on July 1. We have to sort of look over the next horizon of years and plan for that but we weren't in this position a year ago or two years ago. We were shopping in a different marketplace. We have the capability to look at that and we're going to look at trades as well.
"Sometimes that's another way. Depends on what players you're looking for, if they're available in the summer, sometimes they are and sometimes you have to do it through trades. There will be some moving parts but I wouldn't expect sweeping changes. I think we've got a lot of good things here and we showed that our last 50 games we played some really good hockey. We're trying to build on that, not really change it dramatically."
Acquiring Brendan Perlini and Dylan Strome from Arizona and Drake Caggiula from Edmonton in the middle of the season put the Blackhawks in a better position going into this summer than originally expected. They found a potential future second-line center (Strome) they thought they had in Nick Schmaltz, replenished a top-nine winger (Perlini) they lost in Vinnie Hinostroza and added a skilled, aggressive forechecker (Caggiula) that can play anywhere in the lineup and checks a lot of boxes the team doesn't have right now.
The Blackhawks are no longer in a spot where they're looking to subtract from the roster — only if it makes sense for the short term and long term, both financially and production wise on the ice. They want to start building around the current group, one that's led by 30-year-olds Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews who are coming off career years.
The time to capitalize is now.
"We're not going to bring the same group back," Bowman said. "That's clear. We don't do that really any year. There's changes to every team, even a team that ends up winning the Cup this year will have some different players. We're going to have some new players next year. What we're going to do is try to improve in the areas where our team needs some help and the way that looks isn't completely clear right now, but we have time over the next couple months to dive in and look at our team in greater detail and figure out how we're going to make that happen.
"There's obviously free agent signings, there's trades, there's growth from within. Those are the ways that your team improves from year to year and we're going to do that. So we're going to have some new players here next year for sure but we have a lot of players that are going to be back and I think a lot of the key guys who had good seasons they're coming back for sure, so we don't need across the board changes but we do need some new players."Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.