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Free-agent signings make Hawks feistier

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks
Jamal Mayers (right) is one of the gritty role players the Blackhawks inked on Friday (Photo by Getty Images).

Make no mistake about it, the 2011-12 version of the Chicago Blackhawks will not be pushed around by anybody.

In fact, after what Chicago General Manager Stan Bowman and his front office did on Friday – the League's opening day of free agency – it might be the Hawks instigating the rough stuff every so often next season.

Chicago capped off an infusion of toughness on Friday by reaching agreements with five gritty, experienced role players – all signed to cost-efficient one-year deals – including forwards Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers and Dan Carcillo.

The Hawks also added sturdy 39-year old defenseman Sean O'Donnell and forward Brett McLean – who's played the past two seasons in the Swiss League – during a busy day for Bowman and his front-office staff.

"I think we had a very successful day," Bowman said during a teleconference on Friday evening. "I'm very pleased with how it all played out. This was our objective, to find some players that play a certain style and bring some experience. It's a nice mixture."

In other words, he's now got plenty of protection for the deep collection of skill players that make up Chicago's top two lines and defense pairs – such as captain Jonathan Toews and fellow stars Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.

"We're very confident with the key guys playing up top in terms of their offensive production," Bowman said. "But I think we can bring a different element to complement that and we're really excited."

Brunette, 37, will likely step right into the left wing role on the second line opposite Hossa but his style of play isn't exactly finesse. He's a big body who isn't afraid to battle in the corners or in front of the net and he scored 18 goals last season with the Minnesota Wild.

Then there's Mayers, who can be an enforcer but also play all three forward positions including center. Bowman said Carcillo has similar flexibility in where he can be stationed throughout the lineup, which made them both desirable additions for Hawks coach like Joel Quenneville – who likes to juggle the line combinations a lot.

Mayers and Brunette also played for Quenneville during previous stops in their careers, so they shouldn't have trouble adjusting to Chicago's system.

One thing's for sure, though. The Blackhawks will have a much different, harder edge than they did this past season. They tried to defend their Stanley Cup minus "energy guys" like Ben Eager, Adam Burish and John Madden – who weren't retained because of a salary-cap crunch – and wound up missing them.

"That was our objective," Bowman said. "We wanted to have some very clear roles for players, so when you come to line up against the Blackhawks, you know what you're going to get. We're going to be out there to make it hard on the opponent and score goals. If you have to mix it up, that's fine, but these guys can all skate too."

That's the second part of the equation that prompted the Hawks to target each of them. Bowman's hoping the addition of spark plugs like Mayers and Carcillo – both with a history of being agitators – will give some missing juice to the bottom half of the lineup.

"There's going to be nights when, for whatever reason, things aren't clicking up top or you fall behind early in the game or it's not working that night," Bowman said. "You need to get that energy in there. We didn't have that element last year and we certainly wanted to recapture that. I like the mix of our guys right now."

Of course, it's now a pretty large mix.

Factor in Steve Montador's four-year contract that was agreed upon Thursday night, and Chicago has added six new faces to the roster in the past two days alone. They traded away Brian Campbell, Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky, but still have three restricted free agent deals to be resolved with Michael Frolik, Chris Campoli and Viktor Stalberg – all of whom Bowman expects to sign with roughly $7 million left under the League's $64.3 million salary cap.

Then there's talented youngsters like center Marcus Kruger and forwards Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin – each of whom played well during stretches with the Hawks last season, including Smith shining in the playoffs against the Vancouver Canucks.

The Hawks may need to make some deals to help whittle the roster down, but Bowman said the cutdown might not come until later.

"That's what training camp is for," he said. "Competition brings out the best in everybody. I think it's a great situation. Some of these players that came up late last season … it was a great experience for them and they might be here, as well. And we added some experienced NHL players to the mix today. That's why you have camp."

Author: Brian Hedger | Correspondent

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