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Blackhawks learn, adjust after Kevin Hayes' situation

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks weren’t OK with losing former first-round draft pick Kevin Hayes to free agency and ultimately to the New York Rangers last year.

The Blackhawks put a lot of time into Hayes’ development and offered him a contract after his senior college season. He opted to not sign with the Blackhawks by the August deadline in 2014 and became a free agent. As Hayes has had a productive NHL rookie season, it’s something that still bothers the Blackhawks.

It’s also something the Blackhawks have learned from and don’t want to repeat. The Blackhawks aren’t in the business of guaranteeing NHL time to anyone, but they have become more aggressive in signing their own prospects and college free agents.

“You know it was unfortunate what happened with Kevin,” Blackhawks assistant general manager Norm Maciver said on Thursday. “Obviously someone we drafted, we’ve liked and we spent a lot of time with him. It was disappointing that he didn’t want to sign with us. I think we realize we certainly don’t want that to happen again. Did it change us? Yeah, maybe a little bit.”

That change was especially apparent as they worked to sign Mike Paliotta recently. Paliotta was a 2011 third-round draft pick and was one of the best defensemen in college at Vermont this season. Like Hayes, Paliotta had the option to wait and become a free agent in August.

As Paliotta pondered his decision, the possibility of him spurning the Blackhawks became more realistic. Faced with that, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman pushed even harder to convince Paliotta to sign. Bowman was willing to burn the first year of a two-year entry-level deal for Paliotta this season. That was important to Paliotta’s camp.

The Blackhawks also fully explained their future salary-cap situation. With Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews’ identical eight-year, $84 million contracts going into effect next season and the salary cap not expected to rise greatly, the Blackhawks will be forced to rework their roster. Some players won’t be re-signed, others will be traded. All of that opens opportunities for younger and cheaper players.

“I think the other thing people also realize is with the salary-cap situation being what it is, there has been opportunities and there will be in the future because of the amount of turnover that has taken place and will continue to have to take place,” Maciver said.

Paliotta eventually bought the pitch and signed with the Blackhawks.

“I think he realizes this is a good fit for him,” Maciver said. “Again, opportunity. Again, no promises, but certainly there will be opportunity. There’s going to be some change, and there will be opportunities next year. I think he realizes that he’s in the mix for players that have an opportunity to make our team next year.”

One agent also believed the Blackhawks have become even more hands on with their prospects.

“From experience, they spend the time in watching and getting to know their prospects and investing in their prospects,” the agent said, speaking anonymously. “That goes a long way. I think they go that extra mile. It certainly seems like they have done that more recently. You even see how they’ve added to their player development staff.”

The Blackhawks also pulled out the stops to sign college free agents Kyle Baun, a junior forward at Colgate, and Tanner Kero, a senior forward at Michigan Tech. Both players had offers in the double digits from NHL teams. Both players’ agents said the Blackhawks impressed their clients and persuaded them Chicago was the best fit for them.

“I think the biggest thing is we try to identify players that we have a lot of interest in, and we make as much effort as possible to get to know those players and make sure they are aware that we are interested in them, that they’re someone we want to sign,” Maciver said. “I guess we try to show as much interest as possible and let the players, their agents know we have an interest in them. We try to do the work necessary to get them signed.

“It certainly feels good when players want to sign with us. For the organization, for the guys out in the field doing the work, once they’ve identified the players, it’s a matter of us making sure that we make every effort to try to get these guys signed. I think that’s what we’ve done. We’ve been fortunate. We’ve missed on some. We haven’t got a few we really wanted, but we’ve also been able to get players we really wanted as well. It’s something we’re very fortunate to have happened.”

Like Paliotta, Baun was given a two-year contract with the first year being burned this season. It’s something that’s attractive to players because they get to their second contracts faster. Often this late into the season, a player will sign an entry-level contract that actually won't go into effect until the following season, and they will end up on an amateur tryout agreement (ATO) to play in the AHL for the remainder of the season. The Blackhawks have shown it's not a deal breaker for them to do otherwise and burn that first season.

“Basically, if it’s needed to get the deal done, then we were willing to do it,” Maciver said. “We don’t really have a problem with that. Certainly bringing them into the organization is the priority. We’ll cross that bridge when the time comes. The priority is to get them into the organization and playing, get them part of all this and we’ll deal with that when the time comes.”

The Blackhawks may also be more aggressive in signing their college prospects earlier. They have done it in the past with players like Nick Leddy and Adam Clendening, and it did so again recently having Vince Hinostroza sign after his sophomore season at Notre Dame. Nick Schmaltz, last year's first-round pick, is another future candidate for that.

"If they're ready to sign, they'll sign them," an agent said.

The Blackhawks have gone about building their organization in a variety of ways in recent years. They have sought more college free agents. Drew LeBlanc and Trevor van Riemsdyk were also free agents from college. They have signed European free agents like Antti Raanta and Dennis Rasmussen and minor-league free agents like Scott Darling. Of course, they have also signed NHL free agents, drafted players and acquired players through trades.

However they have brought players into the organization, their goal is to build depth and especially now have a stock of players who could potentially fit in the NHL with their abilities and cap hits.

“I think we realize the situation we’re in,” Maciver said, “The more depth we get, [the better off we are.] Not everyone is going to hit, but we certainly hope a fair amount of them do hit. We want them to be productive players for us. We want to hopefully continue to be a top-level team for years to come. Even though we’re going to have to make some changes, we still hope to continue to be one of those top teams in the league.”