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Blackhawks again look to European free agency in search of the next Artemi Panarin or Erik Gustafsson

The NHL draft won’t take place until late June, and free agency for players with expiring NHL contracts won’t begin until 10 days after.

That doesn’t mean the Blackhawks won’t be able to add an NHL-ready player this month without the pain of having to trade away players in their organization.

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European free agency has been an important part of the Hawks’ strategy over the last decade with the signing of players such as Antti Niemi, Artemi Panarin, Erik Gustafsson and, just last year, Dominik Kahun. This year is no different with the Hawks reportedly hoping to sign 24-year-old Russian forward Ilya Mikheyev and 26-year-old Swedish forward Anton Wedin.

Those names may not be familiar to Hawks fans, but they’re very familiar to Hawks scouts, who have spent the last year monitoring players in the top leagues in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Russia, among others.

Good players are everywhere, so the Hawks scouts go everywhere. When it’s time to start making offers, the Hawks know whom they want.

“There’s no surprises,” Blackhawks European pro scouting director Mats Hallin said. “There’s hard work.”

Hallin, a native of Sweden who won a Stanley Cup with the Islanders in 1983, lives just outside Stockholm, and from there he oversees the Hawks’ efforts to find talent throughout the European leagues.

Except for Russia and Switzerland, European countries have agreements with the NHL that allow players to break their contracts if they want to jump to the NHL. Eligible players can be signed until June 15.

The Hawks first noticed Kahun when he began playing for Germany’s national team in the World Championships starting in 2016. The rest of the world took notice last year when Kahun helped lead Germany to a silver medal in the Olympics.

By then, however, the Hawks had begun their recruitment of Kahun, and that early connection paid off. Kahun played in all 82 games for the Hawks this season, scoring 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists).

“Seven, eight years ago there was not that much interest in a guy like (Kahun),” Hallin said. “Now you need the smartness, you need the hockey sense, you need the quickness he has. It worked out good. He’s a good kid too. You go off ice and you see what kind of kid he is. We knew he was a good person.”

Being first to reach out to a player doesn’t always mean winning them over. It isn’t enough to get an NHL contract offer. Players and their agents do their due diligence beforehand to know which team is best suited for them.

“Some players are looking for (whether) you have four right-handed right wingers with a right-handed shot,” Hallin said. “Some agents do that. (I tell players to) go with your gut feeling a little bit too. What are your feelings for the Blackhawks? The Blackhawks are a very well (respected) club over here. They know they treat the players, how the management works. A lot of respect for the Blackhawks over here. That’s what they should look for.”

One recruiting advantage the Hawks have, according to Hallin, is one they would prefer not to have.

“It’s not like it was five years ago,” Hallin said. “Our team is more open for new guys. Before we had one spot for maybe four or five guys. Now we don’t have the team we had seven years ago. So it’s a little easier to motivate them to sign with us than it was back then.”

Not every European free-agent signee has turned into a productive NHL player for the Hawks. In 2016, they signed defenseman Michal Kempny, goalie Lars Johansson and forward Martin Lundberg. Kempny never established himself with the Hawks before finding success with the Capitals after last year’s trade. Johansson and Lundberg returned to Europe after one year in the Hawks organization.

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Hawks general manager Stan Bowman is not shy about giving opportunities to European players his scouts believe in. Besides having talent, the players who jump to the NHL are typically well into their 20s and have physically matured. That gives them a leg up on draft picks who are in their teens and need more seasoning.

“You have to adapt to the league,” Bowman said. “But it’s important to have those guys. You know they’re a little bit older typically, so it’s not totally new to them. They’ve played professional hockey in Europe for a couple of years, so they have the experience.

“We’re going to continue to look at Europe as a way to find players.”

Twitter @jcgreenx

 
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