CHICAGO – The free agency period started Friday and didn't take long to become frenzied.
Signings started rolling in left and right, a blockbuster trade was hatched, and all day long the hockey experts assessed winners and losers. There was one general manager, however, who watched it unfold and barely had his pulse increase.
Stan Bowman, the Chicago Blackhawks' GM, probably didn't pound his desk in frustration when David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak chose the Toronto Maple Leafs, or when Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss opted to sign with the Detroit Red Wings.
"I've always had the philosophy that if you're relying on the free-agent period in July to save your team, it's probably not the prescription we're looking for," Bowman said during a conference call Friday night. "I think adding a player here and there is certainly understandable, and Bryan Bickell, I guess, could fall into that category. We got him signed a week ago leading into this, so he may be the only guy you could put into that category for us, for the frenzy. But I think the way to build success and sustain it is to draft and develop your players and then add in the occasional player through free agency."
That's exactly what Bowman is doing this offseason.
His big splash was signing Bickell before the forward could become an unrestricted free agent. The 27-year old, whose breakthrough proved pivotal in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, signed a reported four year, $16 million contract on the same day as the 2013 NHL Draft to remain with the franchise that drafted him. Bickell had surgery recently to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, but he's expected to be 100-percent healthy by the time training camp rolls around in September.
That signing led directly to Chicago saying goodbye to center Dave Bolland and forward Michael Frolik in trades, but this championship offseason hasn't been anything like what Bowman experienced after winning the Cup in 2010, when he parted out half the roster to get under the NHL's salary cap.
This time, Bowman didn't have as much shedding to do, even with the cap coming down about $6 million under the tenets of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. For the most part, the Blackhawks will look very similar in 2013-14 to the way they did this past season, from the core group of stars who are in their prime right down to the same seven defensemen on the back end.
Bowman struck a two-year deal with veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival on Friday to stay put, and reached an agreement on a one-year contract for 6-foot-5 veteran forward Michal Handzus, who worked his way into the second-line center role during the playoffs after joining the team at the NHL Trade Deadline.
Backup goalie Ray Emery and third-line right wing Viktor Stalberg opted to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators, respectively, but Bowman's plan had that covered too. He struck a one-year deal to bring back former starting goalie Nikolai Khabibulin to replace Emery and spell starter Corey Crawford.
It has all gone according to the master plan, which Bowman and his team in the front office have been laying out for months.
"If I had my choice, I would do it the way we've done it recently, which is develop from within, have your young players emerge over time, don't rush them to the NHL, and really use the draft and the development of your young players as a way to find really good players," Bowman said. "Fortunately, we've been able to do that, and then when we find a group that's had success, we can keep it together like we have this summer. That's the preferred method for us. I think it's the most prudent way in the salary cap world to be able to sustain success."
It works too -- if it's done right.
Chicago is the first team to win the Stanley Cup twice in the salary cap era, and Bowman's been at the helm for both. Critics didn't give him much credit for the first one, in 2010, because he replaced GM Dale Tallon. The 2013 championship has Bowman's fingerprints all over it, so forgive him if Friday's "frenzy" was more about entertainment value than anything.
"We've been mapping this out for a long time, trying to determine which players we're going to keep, and we've only had to move a couple players out of here," Bowman said. "We've had a lot of success with this group, and I think we've got some young players who are really ready to be given the opportunity. … I think we've really set ourselves up in a good position here going forward. I like where we're at."