Hawks unlikely to make a free-agent splash

CHICAGO -- Free agency came about a month early for the Chicago Blackhawks as they locked up two of their own on Tuesday -- Jamal Mayers and Johnny Oduya -- well before they could hit the open market.

The money for which Oduya signed -- three years at an average of $3.3 million per -- is essentially the money the Hawks had to spend on one good free agent come July 1. Instead, they used the money in-house further cementing the notion that the Hawks aren’t going to make big changes despite a first-round exit from the playoffs.

“It was pretty evident early on his style of hockey complimented our style and made our players better,” general manager Stan Bowman said of Oduya in a conference call Tuesday afternoon. “Anytime you can get a player like that, who makes the other players around him better…and he wanted to come back and he helped us and accentuated the things we had here, made it a simple decision for us.”

The Hawks' strategy is also simple. They choose mobile, puck-moving defensemen over any other kind because Hawks’ brass wants its blue line to get the puck to their star forwards.

“I do think that defense is an important position not just in preventing goals but generating offense,” Bowman explained. “We need defensemen that can handle the puck and get the puck to our forwards. If we were to play a different style or (have) less talented forwards then we could probably have different style defensemen.”

It’s a good thought except they still have to prevent some goals, which the Hawks didn’t do very well last season. And if they are so valuable in generating offense, why was this defense so light on point production in 2011-2012?

“I don’t know if there is one way to win in terms of if you need “X” production,” Bowman said of his blue-line. “It’s not a linear formula that way.”

That may be true, maybe there is no exact number of points a defense needs to attain, but there has to be some minimum, right?

The biggest issue comes from the bottom end of the group and the amount of money the Hawks now have invested in Niklas Hjalmarsson ($3.5 million per year, 15 points, 81 games), Oduya ($3.3 million, 18 points, 81 games) and Steve Montador ($2.7 million, 14 points, 52 games). That’s a lot of money for very little production. And none are stalwarts in the defensive part of the game, though Hjalmarsson can hold his own against second and third offensive lines most of the time.

Then the question of size came up. Though the Hawks like smaller, quicker defensemen, they have been exposed in the past when either on the penalty kill or when stuck in their own zone. Essentially, they aren’t big enough to win puck battles. Only Brent Seabrook possesses good, NHL size for a defenseman. It sounds like Bowman knows that and isn’t ruling out addressing it later in the summer.

“If we had chosen not to sign Johnny we would be looking for that (puck moving) element in addition to some size,” Bowman said. “One doesn’t necessarily rule the other one out.”

But if the Hawks truly want to get bigger on the back end now, they’ll have to spend some money. Sean O’Donnell was their answer last year, proving size without foot speed is meaningless. So how will they get it done this time around?

Despite the signing of Oduya, Bowman admitted the Hawks won’t have the same team back, and he sounded like he meant more than just saying goodbye to Andrew Brunette. But to make further changes -- and to get bigger on defense -- the Hawks will need to do so via the trade market. If they do make a move it will have to happen one of two ways: by dumping salary then signing a free agent or simply by trading offense for defense (or defense for defense).

If a trade is to be made this summer, Hjalmarsson seems most likely to be dangled. He finished the season on the third pair after Oduya’s performance down the stretch, and he simply doesn’t fit Bowman’s description of what the Hawks like or need. He’s clearly not a point producer, and he doesn’t “play big” and when you think of puck-moving defensemen his name isn’t the first that comes to mind.

The bottom line is, as of now, there will be no splash come free agency, and the Hawks have a lot of money tied up in a less than perfect defense. In fact, it was an overrated defense a year ago and unless Bowman pulls the trigger on something big, it might just be more of the same in 2012-2013.

If there isn’t additions, Bowman and the Hawks are going to need some younger pieces to take steps forward. Nick Leddy needs to be at the top of that list, and Duncan Keith could use a return to 2010 form. And it wouldn’t hurt for a guy like Oduya to reach a career high in points. He has never reached 30 in any one season of his career. Next year would be a good time.

So a defense that is questionable in killing enough power plays and one that doesn’t produce enough points is essentially locked in for another year unless a trade is made. Bowman liked Oduya enough to give him money a different free agent could have had. Now he needs to produce like a $3 million player or else he joins a list of others that haven’t lived up to their contracts as well.