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? 
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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. 
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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.
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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.
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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. 
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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.
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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.