For the first time since he took over as Blackhawks general manager two summers ago, there is pressure on Stan Bowman.
While much of Bowman's off-season a year ago focused on shedding salary and adding prospects and inexpensive replacements for those players he couldn't afford to keep, it's a different ballgame now.
When free agency starts Friday, the spotlight will be on Bowman to add the necessary pieces to surround his core group and make the Hawks a Stanley Cup contender in 2011-12.
By trading away defenseman Brian Campbell and forwards Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky, the Hawks aren't as good as they were a week ago, but Bowman has the opportunity and about $14 million in cap space to plug those holes.
Bowman got a head start on his task late Wednesday night when he acquired the negotiating rights to free-agent defenseman Steve Montador from Buffalo for a conditional seventh-round draft pick.
The Hawks have until Friday to sign the 31-year-old Montador or he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
Montador was a plus-16 for the Sabres last season with 21 assists, 136 blocked shots and 86 penalty minutes while averaging almost 20 minutes a game. He had a $1.55 million cap hit.
It's no secret Bowman is looking to add size, grit and sandpaper on the third and fourth lines and defense to a lineup that was too easy to play against last season when the Hawks slipped into the playoffs on the last day of the season.
"I like the top players we have here," Bowman told WGN radio this week. "They're going to produce most of our offense, and they've been through it. They've won a Cup here.
"We want to try and upgrade some role players. We weren't that good at that last season and they make a difference. We've got a lot of ideas and players we like. We're looking to add that to the mix, and I'm confident it will happen."
That being said, the top free agent available is Dallas center Brad Richards, who has said repeatedly he is keeping his options open.
Although it's widely believed Richards will sign with either the Rangers or Tampa Bay, you never can count out the Hawks from trying to make a splash on July 1.
According to a source close to the Hawks, Bowman will at least explore what it would cost to sign Richards.
One report claimed Richards was looking for a five-year deal worth about $35 million. His agent, Pat Morris, told Buffalo radio station WGR-550 on Wednesday Richards wanted to go to a hockey market with the opportunity to win, and that he wouldn't be shocked if 25 teams called Friday.
Two of the more attractive free-agent role players already have resigned with their respective teams in Washington's Brooks Laich and Pittsburgh's Pascal Dupuis, but there are other forwards who fit what the Hawks want to add.
Keep these names in mind for Friday: Nashville's Joel Ward, Pittsburgh's Mike Rupp and Maxime Talbot, Washington's Matt Bradley, Carolina's Erik Cole, Buffalo's Cody McCormick and Minnesota's John Madden.
Bowman admitted he was looking for a defenseman who blocks shots and kills penalties, which Montador does.
It's believed the Hawks had interest -- and still might -- in Columbus' 6-foot-3, 229-pound defenseman Jan Hejda.
"It's an important role, finding guys who want to do the dirty work, block shots and kill penalties," Bowman said. "It's a tough job and we burned out some of our top defensemen using them in that role."
These forwards might be the best fit if the Hawks are looking to get bigger and grittier:
•Joel Ward. Averaged 17 minutes for Nashville and had 10 goals. He's a thick 6-1, 218 pounds and had a great playoff for the Predators.
•Erik Cole. A legitimate top-six forward with 26 goals and 26 assists. He also was 13th in the league with 225 hits.
•Mike Rupp. He's 6-5, 230 and averaged 10 minutes for the Penguins with 9 goals and 124 penalty minutes.
•Maxime Talbot. He has plenty of jam to his game and wouldn't cost a lot.
•Matt Bradley. He would bring more size at 6-3, 201. He averaged 10 minutes of ice time with the Capitals with 4 goals and 68 penalty minutes.
•Cody McCormick. A feisty center who had 8 goals and 142 penalty minutes for the Sabres.
•Sean Bergenheim. His stock has soared after a strong and gritty playoff for Tampa Bay. Scored 14 goals in the regular season.
•John Madden. He was one of the dressing-room leaders for the Hawks when they won the Cup and still has plenty of game as a fourth-line center and penalty-killer.
•Follow Tim's Hawks reports on Twitter @TimSassone, and check out his Between the Circles blog at dailyherald.com.