On Rebuilding – Part 3, The Chicago Blackhawks



(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.)

By: RexLibris

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

And So…

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.

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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.

    • RexLibris

      For Florida’s sake, I hope it works out better than that draft year did in Chicago.

      The Florida scouts look to have a decent record, to date. Time will tell.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    It looks like in the Chicago experience that winning came from a frugal approach to building a team’s roster for a decade. They were so cheap for so long, and as a result this led them to ‘eventually’ drafting some highend talent. As bad as they were at drafting they hit some big pay-offs over 10 years. I guess it’s true, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    So far Rex, that’s 3 rebuilds and 2 lucky outcomes (Pittsburg and Chicago).

    • loudogYYC

      Hard to call Pittsburgh lucky with Crosby, Malkin and Staal as your 1,2,3 centres.

      It seems more and more like hoarding draft picks is what teams have to do these days to land all that talent at once. The Flames habit of picking between 5 and 7 draft picks a year has to change NOW.
      It would probably do Feaster good to sign a few UFAs to 1 year deals in the off-season. Keeps financial commitment and risk low, and gives him a chance to cash in for more picks at the deadline.

      Great articles, Rex!

      • Stockley

        Might be hard to color them lucky when it comes to Malkin and Staal, they were drafted based on where the Pens finished in the overall standings. They received Crosby because they were lucky enough to win the first ‘real’ draft lottery after the lockout season. Crosby could just as easily gone to Anaheim (2nd), Carolina (3rd) or Minnesota (4th). Winning that lottery changed the fortunes of the franchise. While they would have still been a good team without him, do you honestly see the Pens winning that cup and making back to back finals appearances without him?

        • loudogYYC

          Pittsburgh were absolutely lucky to win the lottery in 05, but reaching the finals 2 years in a row is a team achievement. They probably wouldn’t have done it without Crosby but as far as rebuilds go, Pittsburgh’s management deserves as much credit as any other teams.

          The one constant that you’ll probably find with every cup winner, is that there’s always an outside factor management brings into play . Pittsburgh landing Crosby and hiring Bylsma, Chicago complementing the core with Hossa & Kopecky, Boston picking up Chara or LA giving up prospects for Richards, hiring coach Sutter and then acquiring Carter.

          Oh, and they were all deep at centre, every single winning team is deep at centre.

          Drafting high all the time won’t cut it alone. So sorry to crap on your future, Oilers, but this shiny new core you have won’t win unless your management can pull a few tricks at the right time.

      • ChinookArchYYC

        You may want to read Rex’s Pens article. From ’89-’06 the penguins deliberately sold off all their high priced assets in an effort to save the team financially. So yes, they were lucky, in that this led to drafting 2 of the best centers in the world, becoming Penguins, before either of them turned 21. Most of the timeline (89-’06) was pre-Cap, meaning they couldn’t have possibly expected to keep this young, elite and (at the time) cheap core of players. Of all the recent champs, Pittsburg is by far the luckiest.

    • RexLibris

      I think I understand your underlying position (if you don’t win a cup, is it worth all the pain and effort) and to some extent I agree.

      Rebuilding a team that is a perennial loser is never a bad idea because, in the end, can things really get worse (I’m thinking of Columbus, specifically)?

      My personal opinion with the Oilers’ rebuild is that I am willing to be patient and allow for continued acquisition of depth talent (high-end 2nd and 3rd liners) because I don’t want them to win A cup, I want them to win multiple cups. I have high expectations.

      That being said, if they only manage to replicate what Washington has done thus far, that is still a phenomenal improvement over the previous fifteen years.

    • RexLibris

      They missed the boat on that this past February.

      Feaster had the chance to likely add at least two picks in rounds three and four, perhaps even a 2nd rounder, in exchange for players like Jokinen, perhaps Stempniak, or one of the many other expiring UFAs.

      I said this past February that I believe in three years’ time fans will look back at that month (and perhaps this summer) as a missed opportunity that set the team back at least a year.

      The Flames will be the last in my rebuilding series, and this is one area that I will look at.

  • Nicely done Rex. I would like to do a DNA test on you, I just cant believe you are an Oiler fan, there must be a Flame soft spot in your heart πŸ™‚
    Negril I agree, maybe not being a cap team is going to fast track our demise. Trade the veterans & shorten the drought or make statues of the veterans in the Flames HOF 7 watch the Flames Nation starve for many more years.

    • RexLibris


      Sorry to disappoint you, Kevin. No Flames blood in me. I still despise the ice-slide of Fleury, Pee-Wee Therman’s last minute catch in the dying seconds of a Western Final, and so on.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Greg

    Really enjoying the series Rex! Was hoping you’d look back further in the Blackhawks rebuild though as I wanted to see some analysis of their first, and failed, attempts. To my mind, they weren’t that good in the early 2000’s so there wasn’t much to rebuild at that point. I look back to the late 90’s when they were shedding the Belfour’s and Roenick’s of the league and going with “young guns”… Calder, Bell, Arnason, Ruttu… All decent players but all topped out in the 50 point range and were never enough to form a contending core.

    I think people point to Toews and Kane as “the way to rebuild” but forget about the other guys that came before and the number of false starts the franchise actually went through before a “successful rebuild” finally took hold. Those names always give me pause when I think of unloading vets for picks and prospects.

    I might be remembering it wrong though, did you look at that era and have any thoughts?

    • RexLibris

      You may be the first person in the history of the Nations to say “hey Rex, could you write some more?”


      Thanks for the comment, though.

      I deliberately state in many of these that I am going to have to use a cutoff date for the beginning of our review. Otherwise you are constantly looking back. Each trade, signing, drafting, has an effect on the roster and the team, often with unforeseen results.

      A good example is Tim Thomas: he was in the Oilers’ farm system for a short while but never caught on because he was buried behind guys like Steve Passmore. Here’s the Bulldogs team he played for http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/leagues/seasons/teams/0007911999.html (Joe Hulbig!)

      You’re right in mentioning the early false starts though. Zhamnov, Calder, Bell, and my personal favourite (and one that Sather tried to get out of Chicago on many occasions) Eric Daze.

      When I referred to Bill Wirtz I was trying to encompass much of those earlier rebuild efforts (doing it on the cheap, basically) with his era.

      Also, the advent of the salary cap makes many of the previous rebuilding efforts a bit outside of the same scope of inquiry.

      My thoughts? In a nutshell, Wirtz was a fairly decent owner (he could have been Charles Wang!) but the Blackhawks were very fortunate that his son Rocky had a more ambitious and aggressive perspective on team management.

  • loudogYYC

    Hockey has and is changing. There is no blue print that you can follow to build your team There are just too many variables. For all we know, the Oilers may be on the right path? All I know is that the Flames are not on a good path in anyway and continue to say the same things. Continue to do ( for the most part) the same things and we continue to fall. If anyone believes that hiring a new coach and keeping the same group is a positive move, then the Flames owners love you. The only way that Hartley has a hope in being successful is if we give him a real opportunity. That involves the ability to develop a new core.

    • RexLibris

      I agree that the Flames need a new core group.

      Unfortunately I also believe that the Sutter era has turned many fans off of the idea of drafting and developing that core. Quite often there are suggestions that the Flames need to trade to acquire their franchise center.

      Simply put, I don’t see how that is going to happen. The best opportunity they’ve had recently was Jeff Carter. Prior to that it would have been the Brayden Schenn deal and I don’t believe he is a franchise center.

      The only question I have with Hartley is whether they will stick with him for the length of the contract or fire him before it is through. I’m predicting things will go sideways for the franchise either this season or next and the unknown part, in my mind, is how long management sticks to their alleged plan.

  • loudogYYC

    @ Greg: Yeah many fear we trade Iggy & Kipper & thats it, we wander the desert. If Iggy leaves, those on the blind faith he was going to enjoy being on a non playoff mediocre team for the rest of his career are in disbelief. & if kipper retires in 2 years, you are wandering the desert anyway. Sometimes you need to trade these guys in for some flashlights & supplies. Oh & wear some long underwear because it gets cold in the desert at night.

  • Franko J

    Another great diagnostic on building a championship Rex. Now what I would like to get your take on LA Kings. Or perhaps analyze three teams from the other side of the spectrum and see how difficult it is to build a strong franchise.

    • RexLibris

      It hasn’t been posted yet. I believe Kent is waiting to post it once I have transferred the funds to his off-shore account. πŸ˜‰

      I’m also taking a look at the Leafs, Panthers and Islanders before finishing up with Edmonton and Calgary.

      I could probably do one on every team, but that might get a touch repetitive.

        • RexLibris

          lol, not sure if I should be honoured or offended…

          just kidding


          Jonathan Willis is planning an in-depth analysis of Eberle’s bank ads this summer for ON. No stats though, he says Eberle is just clutch in those and they are a classic case of saw-him-good.

          I can’t wait.

          Way better than Seguin’s Dunkin’ Donuts work. That has rookie written all over it.

          Wanye probably wants a comparison between Eberle’s ads and the GWG ads from the 80s featuring his mispelled namesake.