“We’ve said all along that the key to sustaining a team is bringing up young players year after year.” That was how Stan Bowman viewed the Chicago Blackhawks’ posture going into the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. As a Stanley Cup Champion, the Hawks executives clearly felt they could afford to look at prospects who would pay off long term, rather than focusing on immediate returns. The choices also reflect some of the new trends in player development.This year’s draft set records for high school players chosen—twenty-two; as well as US-trained players chosen, eleven in the top 30.
Whatever the outcome, Hayes will have time to mature while being guided by the organization. The team is also relieved of the burden of carrying him on their minor or major league rosters; while delaying his exposure to free agency. When the Hawks have a cap situation as tight as theirs is, every advantage counts.
Nowadays, when one watches high school and minor midget hockey, one can be astonished to see so much skill and poise on the ice. The ‘pro moves’ are there from 17 year olds down to 14 and even younger, and not just in a few players.
The high schools in the US also appear to be developing a competitive environment analogous to that of basketball and football, which in turn feeds an expanding system of college and university hockey.
If one can judge by their demeanor during media interviews, many of today’s budding talents have a sense of direction and purpose in their desire to make hockey their professional future. The possibility of earning millions of dollars playing the game they enjoy is a unique motivation.
The Blackhawks have had success developing their own prospects, with nearly half the Cup-winning club being built through the draft.
Toews, Kane, Seabrook, Keith, Bolland, Brouwer, Byfuglien and Hjalmarsson are the most notable standouts among the players Chicago has selected, going back to the days of Bob Pulford and Mike Smith as General Managers.
Between them, Smith and Pulford selected Seabrook, Keith, Bolland, Byfuglien, Burish and Brouwer, as well as other draft picks currently in the organization, like Corey Crawford, Jake Dowell and Brian Bickell. This contradicts somewhat the popular perception of Dale Tallon as ‘architect’ of the Hawks’ Championship team (though his choices of Toews, Kane and Hjalmarsson were undoubtedly key).
A look at the Hawks’ draft history prior to 2010, going back all the way to 1963, can be found here: http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/draft/teams/dr00005218.html
Over the years, the names of high round aspirants who never lived up to their status are more numerous than the ones who made the grade.
Remi Royer (1996), Mark Bell (1998), Steve McCarthy (1999), and Mikhail Yakubov (2000) never set the NHL on fire; Tuomo Ruutu (2001) and Anton Babchuk (2002) crept out of the Windy City quietly.
Some number ones, like Dan Cleary (1997), were busts as Blackhawks, only to return later in the garb of hated rivals (ironically, the Red Wings) as a nemesis to their original employers.
Before he left the GM post a year ago in June, Dale Tallon gave a clue to the direction of the team: “We’re going to get younger.”
Observing the tendency for teams to increasingly bank on youth, the trend paid dividends for the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche last season, with the ultimate prize going to the Hawks, one of the youngest teams to capture the Cup in years.
The Stan Bowman Era begins with the Blackhawks addressing a different kind of challenge: being saddled with the final pick in each round, instead of the first or top 5 (as from 2004 through 2008). The Entry Draft being a calculated gamble as it is, the importance of first-class scouting asserts itself, especially when other teams have an earlier shot at the prime targets.
But not having to ‘fill holes’ immediately, as had been the case in previous years, but instead choosing and grooming talent at a more measured pace, is not a ‘gimme’. Staying at the top is just as difficult, if not more so, than getting there.
Scotty Bowman’s decision to join his son in Chicago brought the knowledge of how to draft while a Stanley Cup Contender and/or Champion. The elder Bowman, schooled by the legendary Sam Pollock, architect of the Montreal Canadiens’ perennial powerhouses, refined that knowledge during his time in Montreal, St. Louis, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
In the fifteen years following Scotty’s arrival, Detroit has become particularly respected for its ability to find talent in later rounds and turn those players into Cup winners, like Nicklas Lidstrom (round 3, 53rd overall), Henrik Zetterberg (round 7, 210th overall), Pavel Datsyuk (round 6, 171st overall), and Tomas Holmstrom (round 10, 257th overall) just to name a few.
Today’s Hawks have been compared to the Wings of the Bowman years, for their puck possession game and system-first play; they may also eventually be compared for their ability to sustain contender status, if The Bowman Blueprint is implemented according to plan.
One of Stan Bowman’s post-season priorities was to trim the bloated payroll of the Blackhawks, while minimizing ‘salary dump’ trades.
The skeptics waited for the sky to fall in on Bowman.
Instead, his moves opened up the cap room to tender qualifying offers to Restricted Free Agents like goaltender Antti Niemi, the unexpected playoff hero; Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has already become a Top 4 defender; and Andrew Ladd, who has become a well-rounded two-way forward who brings robust play and clutch scoring.
Not only did Bowman meet his immediate objectives—in the face of the clamoring of those who insisted the team would have to be ‘dismantled’—but Bowman obtained an additional first round pick along with some valuable prospects in return for shipping out role players.
The transaction that sent Dustin Byfuglien (round 8, 245th, 2003), Brent Sopel (signed as a UFA by Tallon in 2007), Ben Eager (acquired in trade by Tallon in 2007), and former 3rd round pick (by Tallon in 2007) Akim Aliu to Atlanta in no way diminishes the Blackhawk roster.
While Byfuglien proved his playoff usefulness, his role as a big, net-crashing forward can be filled by less expensive players like Brian Bickell and Troy Brouwer. Brent Sopel’s shot blocking and penalty killing is already being assumed by Hjalmarsson. Eager’s pugilism will be replaced as well, by some of the bruisers in the pipeline, or a budget price free agent. Aliu’s reported discipline issues saw him demoted from the AHL to the ECHL; the Hawks’ patience had evidently run out.
It appears just a matter of time before another Tallon signee, goaltender Cristobal Huet’s $5.625 hit and remaining two years, are erased from the Hawks’ salary cap, even if he might be paid by the organization to toil in the minors.
According to ESPNChicago, Bowman has said “the Hawks have some ‘situational needs’ and that they need to fill them with ‘low dollar-guys.’” Other local sources like the Chicago Tribune and Daily Herald confirm this stance, reporting that Bowman feels he doesn’t need to make any more moves at the present time to reduce the salary mass, but will monitor opportunities as the free agency period begins.
The scuttlebutt from national reporters like ESPN’s Pierre Lebrun is that Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd are ‘being shopped’, but Lebrun admits he is just guessing.
Stan Bowman has shown that he ‘plays poker’ with the same straight face we’ve become accustomed to. The acquisitions he has made may be relative unknowns, but that may just be another aspect of Stan’s poker hand.
So who are the ‘known unknowns’ who are now members of the Blackhawks’ asset base?
Not only did Bowman get the 24th overall pick from Atlanta (used to select Hayes), he received a former first round choice in Marty Reasoner (14th overall, 1996) and a former 45th overall pick (2009) in Jeremy Morin.
Assuming he stays with the Hawks, Reasoner’s ability and experience should make him a fit for the spot occupied by John Madden, who is not expected back, for less than half of Madden’s $2.5 million price. A fast skater and excellent penalty killer, the 33 year old
Reasoner, at 6’1” and 205, is a tenacious competitor honed in ‘two-way play’ by the coaching of Craig McTavish (having spent six seasons with the Oilers) and John Anderson.
American Jeremy Morin has been praised by Bowman as “having the skill to play with Toews and Kane. Simply put, he’s a scorer,” he told NHL.com TV in a recent interview. Bowman feels the 6’1”, 190-pound 19-year old has the pedigree: being nearly a goal per game player in the highly competitive Ontario Hockey League, a second team OHL All-Star, and a point per game player at the World Juniors for Team USA.
After picking Kevin Hayes on Day One, the Hawks selected ten players during Day Two of the Draft. These are:
–35th pick 6’3” WJC Team Sweden left winger Ludvig Rensfeldt, who says he patterns his game after Vincent Lecavalier;
–54th pick Justin Holl, a 6’2” American high school d-man, one of the ten finalists for the Mr. Hockey Award for outstanding high school players;
–58th pick Canadian goalie, 6’3” Kent Simpson from the Western Hockey League Everett Silvertips, coached by former Hawks bench boss and all-star NHL defender Craig Hartsburg;
–60th pick Stephen Johns, a 6’3” USHL under-18 Gold medalist from Western Pennsylvania who will attend Notre Dame, Stan Bowman’s alma mater;
–90th pick Joakim Nordstrom, a 6’1” Swedish junior center ranked 37th by NHL Central Scouting;
–120th pick Rob Flick, a fighting 6’ 2” Canadian center from the Ontario Hockey League;
–151st pick 6’ center Mirko Hoefflin, a selection obtained in the trade for Colin Fraser, who is already playing for Mannheim, one of the top clubs in the German league.
–180th pick American Nick Mattson, a 6’1” defenseman from the US under-18 Development Program;
–and 191st pick Matt Carruth, a 6’2” US-born goalie from the WHL Portland Winterhawks, the same franchise that produced this year’s premium picks Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Johansen. Coincidentally, the Winterhawks wear uniforms that echo the Blackhawks, and also once had a promising young player named Marian Hossa.
Running down the list of prospects, it should be remembered that Stan Bowman expects them to get significant time to develop before joining the NHL squad. Again, this echoes the approach of the Red Wings (and Pollock-era Canadiens): get the young talent into the system, educate them in the ways of the organization, and upload them only when they are deemed to be ready.
Taking the long view, one supposes that ‘bad habits’ acquired in their youth can be modified through careful coaching, and that they will arrive, if that day comes, thoroughly familiar with the tactics and mind-set of the big club.
Players can also learn to function in a variety of situations and can thus be slotted in wherever they are needed with little adjustment, rather than the club having to adjust to them. The so-called ‘team chemistry’ thus remains consistent.
It also means that turnover does not adversely affect the team, but is part of the normal process of the team’s progression.
From a return on investment perspective, it is also important for a team to manage its assets so that players currently in the system have a chance to pay off. Letting a player go too soon means another organization reaps the rewards; not filling the pipeline sufficiently means that the level of competition within the organization is not enough to drive the hunger for jobs.
Again, the Canadiens of the 60s and early 70s set the tone. They constantly had youngsters pushing the veterans; and could afford to jettison quality players like Ralph Backstrom, Bobby Rousseau, Andre Boudrias, Jim Roberts and Claude Larose, without missing a beat. The Red Wings were able to do the same years later, when players like Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and Steve Yzerman left.
In a nutshell, the philosophy being advocated is, “Winning teams built for the long haul, keep on winning”.
Simplistic as it sounds, it requires a buy-in from the top. This comes back to Rocky Wirtz’ statements in his July 2009 Chicago Tribune interview: “Everything we said we’re going to do in terms of building this into an elite franchise, we’re on the road to doing. My dad, my grandfather, my uncle…the Wirtz name used to be synonymous with successful hockey in this city. I want to bring that back.”
That statement was pooh-pooed at the time by Detroit-based Advance Newspapers’ George Malik, who called Wirtz’ words “self-aggrandizement”. One wonders if Malik’s disdain has now been muted by the Hawks’ dethroning of his favorite team.
The vision of the Wirtz family , and the current reality, also contrast sharply with the critique penned in February 2007 by ESPN’s Scott Burnside, who proclaimed “The litany of problems facing the Chicago Blackhawks, on and off the ice, is so great, it appears to have created a kind of paralysis.”
In retrospect, it appears the word ‘paralysis’ could not have been more misused by Mr. Burnside. Three years after his scathing review, the Blackhawks, one of the most dynamic teams in the NHL, are Champions.
The Wirtzes, however, were prescient. As Rocky’s brother Peter stated at the time of Burnside’s broadside : “We’re not going to take a Band-Aid approach to this. We’re going to take a long-term look at this organization. There is no question that there will be a 100-percent commitment from my father, my family and everybody in our organization to do everything in our power to turn this around.”
Having turned it around, the crop of young men harvested at this year’s draft may or may not be worthy of becoming members of an elite franchise.
Stan Bowman’s assessment is to the point. He admitted it was a long shot for any of the eleven draftees to be Blackhawks in 2010-11. “The key was filling the pipeline again. And we did that.”
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.