The Big Gainers – Part 1: Chicago Blackhawks

In my recent look at the Flames cap situation, I noted the club is probably going to want to accelerate the rebuild somewhat in the face of an impending cap crunch. All of the franchise’s cornerstone kids (and their cornerstone captain) will be expensive come 2017. It’s one thing to be a rebuilding club with cap space, but it’s another to be capped out and still struggling to get over the hump. 

This is a not insignificant challenge, despite the Flames’ success this year. Calgary was the third worst possession club in the league 2014-15 and history tells us teams like this face overwhelming odds to make the post-season every year (they miss the post-season almost 98% of the time), let alone win a Stanley Cup. 

To be true contenders, the Flames need to become a positive possession team, preferably north of 52%. That’s the threshold annual favourites tend to meet or exceed every season. But is it possible to improve a club’s underlying numbers so drastically in such a short period of time? 

As it turns out, yes it is. In this series I will investigate six modern NHL teams who have rapidly improved their possession rates over the course of just a few years. We’ll take a look at what changed for each club and if there are lessons the Flames can apply to their own situation. 

First up, we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Big Gain

2006-07: 47.7% corsi

2007-08: 50.2% corsi

2008-09: 56.2% corsi

Chicago shifted their possession ratio nearly 10% in the space of two seasons, going from Western Conference basement dwellers with 71 points to NHL favourites with 104 points. Of particular interest is the fact that they won the first of their two recent cups in 2009-10.  

What Changed? 

The Blackhawks were gifted with back-to-back superstars in the 2006 and 2007 drafts where they took Jonathan Toews (3rd overall) and Patrick Kane (1st overall). Toews played one more year in college before making the team as a teenager and instantly impacting the club’s underlying numbers. Kane made the jump straight out of junior in 2008 and immediately led the club in scoring, managing 21-51-72 in his calder trophy debut. 

That’s the obvious stuff.

Less obvious was the maturation of a collection of other prospects over the same time period. From 2006-2009, Chicago saw Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglien, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Kris Versteeg, James Wisniewski and Dave Bolland all go from hopefuls to quality NHL contributors. Of those players mentioned, Keith was the only guy over 24 years old. Niklas Hjalmarsson would play his rookie season as 21-year old in 2009 as well before eventually becoming a fixture on the Blackhawks blueline. They also traded for 20-year old Andrew Ladd in 2008. 

That’s a lot of nice internal depth that happened to come together at roughly the same time. Of course, it wasn’t just a roster of rookies and sophomores. Chicago also acquired or retained a number of quality veterans to help buttress the younger guys as they matured.

In 2006 the org acquired 26-year old Martin Havlat from the Senators. They also had 24-year old Patrick Sharp in place from a deal with the Flyers in 2005. In the summer of 2008, Chicago signed 29-year old Brian Campbell to a big, fat contract to fill out their blueline depth. 

Here’s how the Blackhawks roster evolved from 2006 to 2009:

2006 

  • Havlat – Smolinkski – Vrbata
  • Hamilton – Arkhipov – Sharp
  • Lapointe – Williams – Bondra
  • Bourque – Handzus/MacDonald – Salmelainen
  • Aucoin – Cullimore
  • Keith – Seabrook
  • Barker – Kukkonen/Wisniewski

2009

  • Kane – Toews – Havlat
  • Sharp – Bolland – Ladd
  • Versteeg – Pahlsson – Brouwer/Byfuglien
  • Eager – Fraser – Burish/Adams
  • Keith – Seabrook
  • Campbell – Wisniewski
  • Walker – Barker/Byfuglien
  • Hjalmarsson 

A pretty drastic transformation. And don’t forget the Hawks would swap Martin Havlat for Marian Hossa in 2009.  

The final major change that likely spurred the great improvement was the decision to fire struggling neophyte NHL coach Denis Savard in favour of the much more established and capable Joel Quenneville. 

This change was made just four games into the 2008-09 season, the year the club jumped from a middling possession club (50.2% corsi) to elite (56.2%). No doubt roster improvement and development helped Chicago become dominant, but there’s little doubt the shift from Savard to Quenneville was also a major factor.

The Hawks have been Western Conference heavyweights ever since.

Summary

A lot of things went right for Chicago all at once for them to go from the basement to the penthouse in such a short period of time. In summary, here are the key pieces to their transformation:

– Drafting a pair of superstars (Toews, Kane)

– Simultaneous development of supporting internal prospects (Keith, Seabrook, Byfuglien, Versteeg, etc.)

– A trio of home run trades (Martin Havlat, Andrew Ladd, Patrick Sharp)

– Landed a premier UFA to bolster depth (Brian Campbell)

– A major upgrade in coaching (Savard to Quenneville)

That’s a lot of coin flips all landing on heads. 

Which is why the Blackhawks are probably the most extreme example of the “big gainers” I could find in the modern era. On one hand, their meteoric rise to the top proves that such rapid improvement is at least possible. On the other hand, we can see how difficult and unlikely this level of change is when we take a look at their circumstances. 

In comparison to the Flames, no doubt people will draw favourable comparisons between the Hawks young stars and the Flames Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. A Keith-to-TJ Brodie parallel could also be argued. If you squint, you can say the Hawks adding Campbell and the Flames keeping Giordano could be a saw off as well. 

Beyond that, Calgary’s challenges are developing or acquiring other supporting pieces on the level of Havlat (and, later, Hossa), Ladd, Seabrook, Byfuglien, Versteeg and Sharp.  If you want to strip things down to the basics, we can say Calgary would to need at least find Ladd, Havlat and Seabrook equivalents in the next season or two to have a hope of taking this kind of step forward. We will also see if Bob Hartley can go from a coach doing his best with a plucky band of misfits to a guy who can craft a strategy around a true contender.

This is the top of the mountain. It can be done, but Treliving and company will need to make a lot of good bets between now and 2016-17 for something like this to happen in Calgary.

  • mattyc

    I think this really emphasizes what the Flames’ biggest need in their rebuild is: functional depth. They probably have their top-end talent set between Gaudreau, Monahan and Bennett up front and Brodie/Giordano on the back-end. They also have a few really good secondary pieces in Backlund and Russell. But realistically, they’re still missing at least one more reliable top 4 D, and quite a few middle 6 fwds. Some of that will maybe be internal, but they are still going to need to import a few non-negligible bodies if they want to make that improvement in the next year or two.

    • Parallex

      Finding a Byfuglien will be almost impossible… Byfuglien is almost a magical unicorn in his uniqueness. Ladd is far more conventional, a good kind of conventional to be sure but conventional none-the-less… we might even already have a guy kind of like him in Poirier (By which I mean a gritty complementary winger with finish).

  • Parallex

    “In comparison to the Flames, no doubt people will draw favourable comparisons between the Hawks young stars and the Flames Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.”

    Stylistically yes the comparable is favourable. I’d rank Toews and Kane above Monahan and Gaudreau… that’s absolutely no slight to either of our guys as Kane and Toews are two of the 5 best hockey players in the world (IMO). If you want to extend the roster out further I could see Ferland being a Bickell type player and I’ve already said how I think Backlund compares to Bolland… again this is all stylistic comparisons but the nucleas is there… at least at forward we need to up our talent level on the blueline (and I like what we have in net and upcoming in net more then what Chicago had at the time in Khabibulin/Huet/Niemi/Crawford)

  • wot96

    Calgary’s D is also much older than Chicago’s was when the Blackhawks turned the corner. Calgary really needs to find two top four D to make it a perennial thing.

    • Parallex

      Absolutely true. When they got him Campbell was the old man on the blueline at the ripe old age of 29… the average age of Calgary’s D-men is probably over 29.

      Flames should do a really hard sell to Mike Reilly, grab a lot of high upside defenders at this years draft… maybe even consider offer sheeting Dougie Hamilton if his contract negotiations with Boston go south. And consider signing Franson.

      • Parallex

        I would rather see Flames give up young assets & 2 of our 2nd rounders to acquire a really good 22-23 year defence man to grow with Brodie & Russell. Keeping Gio is mandatory as Kent says & even if we have to give more $$$ & longer term to keep this piece in place, you do it.

        So, what would it take to offer a rebuilding team like New Jersey to acquire Larsson or Gelinas? Granlund & Agostino & a 2nd rounder or two 2nd’s? How about Klimchuk & a 2nd? We have the depth & assets to do this. How about Granlund & the 15th pick for Larsson & Jersey’s 2nd rounder?

        • Parallex

          Honestly… I have no idea what it would cost (although if we were to make a play for one of those guys I easily want it to be Larsson… played well in more minutes and in harder circumstances, Also shoots R).

          • piscera.infada

            You gotta wonder what it would take to get that #3 pick from Arizona. Hanafin is the no brainer selection but they have a pretty solid young D core that is well into their development. They are pretty solid in centre prospects but they could use more forward bluechips. Would a deal like Klimchuk & Ortio & our 15th & 45th picks be enough to extract that #3 overall?

            Before crucifying me about Ortio & Klimchuk, here is my take. Ortio would definitely attract Arizonas attention, perfect age & well into development with some impressive results. Klimchuk is a bluechip LW they really need. Plus the picks are still pretty significant in this draft. Do a deal like that & then I would resign Ramo, have 1 more year of Hiller (no value in trading Hiller), Gilles gets top minutes on the Farm, MacDonald is probably still another year in the Quebec league. If Gilles isn’t ready the following year, there are always a lot of back up goalies for Ramo for reasonable $$$. Huge price but Hanafin probably could make the team in our bottom pairing next fall.

            I know Im stretching, would Arizona even consider this? Would we?

          • piscera.infada

            I’m not so sure Hanifin is the “no brainer” at 3 anymore. You’re more like to see one of Proverov/Marner/Strome taken there. The latter two are likely who Phoenix would target.

          • That would make acquiring Hanafin that much cheaper 🙂
            Everyone thought Ekblad was going to drop & he didn’t & he had a pretty good year. Heard Hanfin is targeted to be better than Ekblad. If we don’t have to give up Brodie/Gaudreau/Monahan or Bennett, a combo of several other assets to acquire him would be a very smart thing to do

            Wonder what Carolina or Jersey want for #5 or 6? Cany see anyone moving a top 8 pick this year. We may have better chance targeting Larsson.

          • piscera.infada

            Ekblad had a killer draft-age season. Hanifin has, by all accounts, been fairly lackluster. I’m not saying he’ll fall to 15 or anything, but he’s not the surefire 3rd overall pick anymore.

            As for trading to 3-6 in this year’s draft. What would it have taken for you to move down to 15 the last two years? That means swapping Monahan or Bennett out. Would 15th overall, a late first rounder (who hasn’t even played pro yet), and a mid-second have gotten it done? Not for me.

  • wot96

    I think the key thing here is it only takes 2-3 players and sustained development to make a huge difference.

    Look at the Flames this year, there were only four significant upgrades and those were Hiller, Gaudreau, Jooris and Engelland(?), and more specifically the first two. But along with those there was continued strong development/career years amongst many players.

    If the Flames can repeat that next year with continuous veteran development and key additions of Bennett, Ferland, Poirier, Ortio and one or two of Wotherspoon/Morrison/Nakladal/??? they stand a great chance to significantly improve their overall league standing.

    • piscera.infada

      The Avs got 112pts 2 years ago.

      They added Iggy, got their veteran development from both of their Calder trophy winners + ROR etc. And they dropped 30pts this year.

      Saying we stand a ‘great chance to significantly improve our league standing’ next year is rose coloured kool-aide guzzling.

      For me the problem with the Hawks comparison is Keith/Seabrook factor. We could arguably say Brodie/Gio are comparable. But will Gio maintain? If those guys were both 25 right now we’d be a bit closer.

      We need a few 22-23 year old elite d men prospects to mature with the core. I know I’ll be shot for saying this but I think we should trade Gio for a 22 year old d man. Realize that we are 2-3 years away and cash in at the high point with a d man who can be in the same age group with JG/M/SB. Then Brodie can be our veteran old man in a few years.

      My 2 cents, trash away.

      • Parallex

        If you want to compare the Flames to a team that didn’t progress, fine, but this article is comparing to a team that did, which is just as valid.

        As for the Avs, they let their #1 centre walk for nothing as a UFA, their goalie who was a strong Vezina candidate got injured and only regained form late in the season, their Calder winners didn’t progress but the latest had a Sophomore slump (MacKinnon) and what did they add? 1 player, an over-the-hill vet that never drove play. What they did is a possibility but irrelevant to the discussion.

  • Parallex

    Great article. As much as I like Monagan and Gaudreau, comparing them to Kane and Toews is a stretch. We will need to find our own unique formula to the promised land.

  • Parallex

    @ Kent Wilson

    Very nice article looking forward to the rest of the series.

    The one thing that bothers me is those coin flips, what if they call tails when the coin is in the air 😉

  • Parallex

    I would just stay the course. Sign franson if it’s a descent deal. Use their 5 picks in the first 3 rounds to pick 3 or 4 dman. No more goalies, no more centers.

        • piscera.infada

          I actually do very much agree with you on Franson. Guy’s the youngest and one of the best UFA defensemen. He’s going to be paid stupidly somewhere (te and dollars).

          I’ve always thought of him as over-rated–I think he’s too risky with the puck at times, doesn’t play very structured in his own end, and has a tendency to over-commit offensively (particularly on the pinch). There’s some upside there, but I’d rather not have to commit somewhere between $5 and $6 million over six years to sign him. I see that as horrible use of cap-space. Even at significantly less dollars, a term longer than 3 years is too much for Franson in my books. Big no-go.

  • Parallex

    Now all you need to do is trade for Toews and Kane. Silly article…Can’t really see any comparisons other then their both in the NHL. Could of had your Toews or Kane this year but you kept winning too much…Maybe next yr.

    • Parallex

      We haven’t exactly lit up the league either since then…and i have a feeling we will be experiencing some more growing pains in the next couple of years. I’ll be extremely surprised if we can repeat what happened this year. love for this squad to prove me wrong. Go Flames!

      • piscera.infada

        Growing pains should be expected by most hockey literate fans though. I see this team’s development arc being very similar to Tampa of the last four seasons–unexpected playoff berth with moderate success, followed by a year or two of additional asset accumulation (as Treliving has stated), then full-steam ahead with the new, young core. That’s the hope anyway.

  • piscera.infada

    Byfuglien was a winger for Chicago, and not a particularly effective one (possession wise). Finding an equivalent for Calgary should be relatively easy.

  • piscera.infada

    To try and accomplish a transition like the Hawks did will be difficult to do however we have some pieces that have some similarities. We already have one defensive pairing as good as the Hawks and we have a second pairing that is effective (it would be better suited to be a third pairing). So we need 2 higher end defenders to help this out. How do you acquire these? The Draft; unless you are drafting in the top 5 it usually takes players 2-5 years after draft to make an impact so we should not expect any immediate help here. Development: who do we have in the organization that is in the development stage: Spoon entering his 3rd pro season, Ramage entering his 3rd pro season and some others like Cundari and Billings whom we still hold the rights to; are any of them going to be an upgrade on Russell and Wides? Then we have the crop of 2nd year pros including Culkan, Kulak, Sieloff and Morrison(his age outs him here IMO); Culkan according to all reports was develoing nicely before he was injured a Kulak made huge strides in the last 1/4 of the season; again I don’t see immediate help here. This group has the potential to help us in 2016/17 not next year.

    Free agents: The signing of the Czech should help, Schlemko is probably an upgrade of depth defencemen but not really the 3/4 spot. So who else is there; Franson, Petry but both will want big paydays and term (more than Brodie and quite frankly that does not sit well with me. BT could go after some older guys on shorter term to shore this up or look at a balanced approach guys like McQuaid.
    Trades: we can all have fun speculating here. But whoever you want is going to cost and no team is looking to swap a 3-5 defender for spare parts.