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Chicago a destination again for top free agents
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 4/12/2008 12:05 AM | Updated: 4/12/2008 11:54 PM

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Second in a series

In past off-seasons, the July 1 start of NHL free agency has left Blackhawks fans largely disappointed as they watched the top-end players go elsewhere.

Even when the Hawks signed the high-profile Nikolai Khabibulin in 2005, there weren't a lot of teams clamoring for the veteran goalie.

For the most part, the Hawks have gone after the second- and third-tier free agents such as Adrian Aucoin, Patrick Lalime, Robert Lang, Martin Lapointe, Yanic Perreault, Curtis Brown, Matthew Barnaby and others.

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Doug Gilmour and Theo Fleury were big-name free-agent signings, but both players were close to the end of their careers when they got here and didn't stay long.

For years, Chicago wasn't a free-agent destination for the top players for one key reason: The Hawks weren't a good team, and they played in a half-empty building for an owner who turned off both players and agents.

Will things be different this summer? The Hawks think so, but July 1 will tell the tale.

Hawks coach Denis Savard and general manager Dale Tallon believe the dramatic turnaround on and off the ice will find Chicago a place free agents want to play -- providing the price is right.

"I hear from agents, from friends in the business, that they want to come here," Savard said.

"It's going to be easier to sell," Tallon said. "People see what we've got coming and the direction we're headed all the way through the operation. There have been a lot of changes here since October."

In his dealings with agents, Tallon said he can sense a different tone to the conversations about players wanting to come to Chicago.

"A lot of agents I've spoken with like the direction we're headed, they like the way we play, they love the city and they know that we're committed," Tallon said. "They want to come and play here and be a part of what has transpired."

Chicago-based player agent Bill Zito confirmed what Tallon has found.

"I'm 100 percent certain that they've crossed the threshold of people wanting to come here," Zito said. "There's definitely a level of credibility and respect now."

Zito said free agents looking for new teams want to go to a situation where they can be competitive, and the Hawks now offer that now.

"You look at the group of young players they have, and conventional wisdom says they're only going to get better and that it's going to be a heck of a lot of fun," Zito said. "Who wouldn't want to go there and play with (Robert) Lang and (Martin) Havlat? And what guy wouldn't want to come play with the kids (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane)? You can make a career there.

"Chicago has always been a wonderful city and a wonderful place to raise kids. Now you throw in being competitive and having a shot to win."

The Hawks will have plenty of money to spend this summer, standing now at approximately $21 million under the league's salary cap for next season. Unfortunately for Tallon and the Hawks, it's considered a weak free-agent market.

The Hawks plan to target puck-moving defensemen, and there could be four good ones available in San Jose's Brian Campbell, Ottawa's Wade Redden, Colorado's John-Michael Liles and Montreal's Mark Streit.

It's no secret that the Hawks would love to come out of the summer with either Campbell or Redden.

The best forwards available would appear to be Pittsburgh's Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa, Calgary's Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius, Montreal's Michael Ryder, Philadelphia's Vaclav Prospal and Minnesota's Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston.

Tallon has indicated he will have the OK from chairman Rocky Wirtz and president John McDonough to spend whatever he sees fit.

"It's gonna be fun," said Tallon, who in the past would need to run all the financials past late owner Bill Wirtz and former senior vice president Bob Pulford. "It's fun to be able to spend money. We're not going to spend it foolishly, but if we need to (do something), we will."

A free agent such as Campbell would cost the Hawks huge bucks over likely at least five years. Last summer, Daniel Briere got an eight-year, $52 million contract from the Flyers that included a $10 million salary in the first year plus a no-trade clause.

Defenseman Brian Rafalski got a five-year, $30 million contract in Detroit, and Campbell's demands are expected to be much higher.

"You're looking at a younger free agent now, so term is probably going to get into the mix," Tallon said. "That's fine with us because we want a young free agent to fit in with our young core."

According to several Hawks, playing in Chicago already is on the mind of some top free agents.

"At the All-Star Game, I had a few guys ask me about Chicago and what it was like to play here," Duncan Keith said.

Kane has admitted he tried giving Campbell a brief sales pitch at all-star weekend.

"I know, being here for a year, it's a great place to play, and hopefully these guys want to come here when they see the young talent we have and want to be apart if it," Kane said. "If we can keep adding players to our lineup and stay healthy, we can be a contender."

Toews would be happy to play recruiter if needed.

"I think players are looking at Chicago and seeing this is a heck of a city to play in," Toews said. "To live here, it's an enjoyable city off the ice, and you can see how incredible our fans are and the way they treated us, especially late in the season."

Next season all 82 games will be on TV, which is a factor in selling the franchise to free agents, and there's a good chance most of the homes games will be sold out.

The joke used to be that even the Hawks' best players could walk down Michigan Avenue and go unrecognized. That's not the case anymore.

"It's a lot easier to get into restaurants," Brent Seabrook joked. "It's definitely different now."