(Rex continues his look at recent rebuilds and what, if anything, they necessarily say about "models" for clubs looking to burn it all to the ground and start again. Today he takes a close look at the Chicago Blackhawks renaissance. His prior articles on the Penguins and Capitals can be found here and here.)
“DaleTallon hoarded draft picks because Bill Wirtz was too cheap to pay for top-end talent. The team only improved after Wirtz died and Tallon deserves the credit for being the one to trade for all those picks.”
Sound reasonable? I have to admit that I had always credited Tallon with being one of the brighter GMs who identified the draft as the most valuable team-building tool coming out of the lockout season. It would seem that the Blackhawks felt the same way about Tallon’s impact on the team’s championship. Well, as is our allotted task, let’s see if this holds out to be true.
The King is Dead! Long Live the King!
The Blackhawks officially set upon their rebuild in 2007. September 26th 2007, to be precise. Why that date? Because Wikipedia told me so. After the death of owner Bill Wirtz, the club’s operations were taken over by his son Rocky. It marked a milestone moment, somber though it was, in the franchise’s modern history, when a clear break was made between the old ways and the new.
The new ways were a pretty radical departure: the team announced that they were moving in a new direction, that they were rebuilding and assembling talented young players that would form the core of a new, competitive, exciting Blackhawks team. Rocky set about reversing many of his father’s decisions, from televising the Hawks games locally to creating close affiliations with other Chicago sports teams like the White Sox, and even targeting the big-name free agents.
Rocky Wirtz was largely responsible for the addition of players like Brian Campbell (2008, 8 years $56.8 million) and Marian Hossa (2009, 12 years $62.8 million). The relative merits of adding those contracts to a team with so many pending restricted free agents is obviously debatable, but the move, in and of itself, was a significant break from the senior Wirtz’s legacy. The change of ownership was viewed as ushering in a new focus for the franchise and is now believed to be one of the significant moments of change in the fortunes of the team.
A New/Old Hand at the Helm
Bob Pulford has been the Blackhawks GM four times in the team’s history. First from 1977 to 1990, next from 1992 to 1997, (after the failed Mike Keenan experiment) and then again as an interim GM from December of 1999 to October of 2000, and most recently to replace his replacement (Mike Smith), from October 2003 to June 2005. Any roster and team management decisions that occurred between 2003 and up to the draft of 2005, the period upon which we will be focusing, then belong to Pulford.
Beginning in March of 2003, Pulford’s first trade deadline during his final tenure as Hawks GM, there is a definite switch in the trends of Chicago’s trades from the previous years, wherein players are now routinely being traded for draft picks. In fact, between January 8th, 2003 and June June 27th, 2004 Pulford made 16 consecutive player trades where he received a draft pick or future considerations in exchange for a warm body. The list of Blackhawks players traded doesn’t have the same weight that the Pittsburgh and Washington lists do (Jaromir Jagr doesn’t show up anywhere here), but the moves are significant if only for the sheer quantity: Sergei Berezin, Lyle Odelein, Steve Thomas, Phil Housley, Stephane Robidas, Steve Sullivan, Alexei Zhamnov, Ville Nieminen, and Alex Karpovtsev were all players traded from the Blackhawks between March 2003 and March 2004.
These were significant roster moves because most of thiose listed were players logging minutes on a nightly basis for the team. Pulford was obviously purging a great number of the Blackhawks’ NHL-ready talent in favour of arming his amateur scouts with as many draft selections as possible. It would be up to Pulford’s successor to capitalize on that selection windfall.
Pulford’s ascension also meant that Bill Wirtz fired the director of amateur scouting, Bill Lesuk, and amateur scout, Joe Yannetti, replacing them with former head scout Michal Dumas. It is interesting to note that the last draft held under first Lesuk and Yannetti (2002) and then Dumas (2003) were among the most lucrative in the Blackhawks’ rebuilding period.
Dale Tallon Takes Over And the Draft
Dale Tallon was elevated from assistant GM of the Blackhawks to GM on June 21st 2005 and reigned until July 14th 2009 when he was demoted in favour of his assistant GM, Stan Bowman. In the draft year prior to Tallon’s taking over, the Hawks had 17 picks in 9 rounds. Unfortunately this was also the year they selected Cam Barker 3rd overall.
Pulford and his scouts had a disastrous draft where only two of those seventeen picks made any sort of noise at the NHL level – Dave Bolland and Troy Brouwer. Of the other names selected that have played a modest number of games in the NHL, Brian Bickell (2nd round, 41st overall) and Jake Dowell (5th round 140th overall) could be said to have only just covered the team’s draft-day bet. The Blackhawks had four second round picks that year: Bolland, Bickell, Ryan Garlock and Jakub Sindel. At 50% that was the most productive round of that year’s draft for the club.
Things didn’t improve a great deal for the Blackhawks’ amateur scouts in 2005. To date only Niklas Hjalmarsson, a 4th round pick at 108th overall, has had any impact in the show Jack Skille, taken 7th overall is still struggling to establish himself after 138 NHL games (17-20-37). The 2006 draft year also stands out for Chicago, and has an eerie similarity to Washington’s 2004 draft year, in that, after Jonathan Toews was selected with the 3rd overall pick, the other eight players selected have yet to play a single NHL game. The names that follow Toews are a cavalcade of nobodies: Igor Makarov, Simon Danis-Pepin, Tony Lagerstorm, Ben Shutron, Joe Palmer, Jan-Mikael Jutilainen, Chris Auger, and Peter Leblanc.
Kane was drafted in 2007 after the Blackhawks won the draft lottery and went from picking 5th overall to 1st. This has to be taken into account as a tremendous windfall and would later play a pivotal role in the team’s fortunes. This draft year is one very similar to that of Toews in that, following Kane, there are only two other players selected by the Blackhawks (out of their six selections that year) who have played in the NHL; Bill Sweatt, currently in the Vancouver Canucks farm system, and Akim Aliu, most recently of the Abbotsford Heat in the Flames farm system. They each have played two NHL games.
The elite-level talent that the Blackhawks gained in these two years has helped to insulate popular memory from what those draft years were for Chicago: near disasters. For a team committed to a rebuild, this kind of failure to capitalize, even at the most modest of success rates (anywhere from 20% to 23% over a ten-year period), on the preferential order in subsequent rounds can be catastrophic. In the years that Tallon was GM, the Hawks typically had the average, or only slightly above average, of NHL draft picks in each year. In 2006 they had 9 picks in 7 rounds, in 2007 they had 7 picks, in 2008 7 picks, in 2009 8 picks.
Compare this with the 17 picks they had in 2004 and 12 in 2005 under Bob Pulford and we begin to see a new light cast on our earlier premise.
So What Are We To Think?
It was Bob Pulford who made many of the trades that would load the Hawks up with draft picks for the 2004 and 2005 drafts (not that the scouting team was really able to capitalize on it). It stands to reason, as well, that the failure of the scouting staff is also on Pulford, as well as the late Bill Wirtz. It was their responsibility to hire, employ and fund the scouting department, as well as hold them accountable for failures.
A rebuild is usually estimated to take somewhere around six years from tear-down to Stanley Cup contention. The Hawks rebuild is often said to have begun on September 26th, 2007 following the death of the elder Wirtz. By that timeline the team exceeded expectations by winning a championship three years later. However, many of the talents that precipitated that success were acquired, through drafting and trade, prior to Wirtz’s passing. The Blackhawks were fortunate when they were trying to be frugal and were snake bitten when their intention was to improve their chances on the draft floor.
Many of the principal parts of their eventual Stanley Cup-winning team were drafted prior to the team’s intentional sell-off and cost-cutting between 2002 and 2006 in Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Byfuglien, Ladd, Bolland, and Brouwer. Their winning the 2007 draft lottery and having the opportunity to select Patrick Kane is the luck that some teams look back upon after winning a championship.
In the End
There are many interwoven threads in the tapestry of Chicago’s rebuild. Many factors had a hand in leading them to the team that is often held up today as a successfully drafted and developed squad. The failure of Chicago’s scouts to capitalize on their draft day windfalls in 2004 and 2005 should not necessarily be used to determine the relative merits of trading players to acquire draft picks. Instead, one might contrast that missed opportunity with the team’s later (and earlier) successes.
And in spite of its being missed, should be viewed as a cautionary tale. As much so, I would argue, as the oft-cited example of the RFA-gaffe by then-assistant GM Stan Bowman, which eventually resulted in the Blackhawks having to disassemble the roster that had only just won a Stanley Cup. With proper drafting and development a team can recover from such attrition. However, six years after the 2004 and 2005 drafts the Blackhawks had few available talents to call upon to replace the absent Byfuglien, Ladd, Kris Versteeg and others.
Did Tallon sell everything and hoard draft picks? No, that was Bob Pulford. Tallon didn’t focus entirely on either acquiring draft picks or roster-ready players, but spent his time balancing between the two and trying to polish up the final product. Did the team only improve after Bill Wirtz died because his son was now free to spend the money needed to win a championship? Insofar as one can determine a cause given that the alternative result is unknowable…perhaps.
Much of the talent that forms the Blackhawks’ core was drafted under Wirtz’s ownership. That they were selected and then developed into the players that they are today is neither entirely due to, nor in spite of, Wirtz’s ownership. Rocky Wirtz did make roster additions that would have been almost unthinkable during the elder Wirtz’s tenure including Campbell, Huet and Hossa.
However, this change in management had the largest effect on the business side of the organization. The core of Kane, Toews, Sharp, Keith and Seabrook were in place prior to the change of ownership. The Chicago Blackhawks were a bad team and drafted very high during years where their later organizational needs would be met. They had scouts with some luck and foresight to select well in Keith, Seabrook, and others. The team found a significant windfall in drafting Patrick Kane. And the coronation of a new owner with a more aggressive business plan allowed the team to develop and retain much of their drafted talent so that they could flesh out a roster around a talented young core.
The roles of Bill Wirtz and Dale Tallon are only a small part of the overall history of the Chicago Blackhawks rebuild.