Some of you may still remember that old staple of ABC daytime tv: Let’s Make A Deal, wherein host Monty Hall would give participants the opportunity to choose prizes that lay hidden behind numbered doors.
But I digress.
For Blackhawk GM and metaphoric game show participant Stan Bowman, there are two clear choices this summer, and another that’s a lot more ambiguous—as far as an overall goal for the offseason—each with uncertain outcomes.
But regardless of how history judges Bowman’s work this summer, he needs a clear goal.
He is not, however, obliged at this moment to publicize it—yet he absolutely must a have a plan in mind.
Otherwise? Well, that’s the point of this article. So let’s play:
Door Number One: Rebuild
I’m not here to make the argument for beginning a rebuild in earnest this summer. I have an opinion and a preference. But the fact is, Bowman is the GM, John McDonough, the President, Rocky Wirtz, the owner. This is their decision. And to take the likely enormous financial and brand equity hit for a few seasons, that a real rebuild would bring about, would be a courageous decision indeed.
All that said, if the goal is to get back to dominance, a true tear down/rebuild might in fact be the best bet.
As I write this, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, a first year expansion club, are about to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. Let that sink in, especially with regard to how quickly a team can rebuild into contention with cap space and high draft picks (both of which the Hawks have a measure of this summer—and would have in a true rebuild for the next couple of summers).
I’ve written many pieces and discussed at length what a tear down and rebuild would look like for the Hawks.
But the Hawks recent decade of success has made the task all the more difficult. Some Hawk fans are more Hawk fans than hockey fans, and they have a bit of a warped perspective on just how good this current Hawk team, and most of its players, are versus the rest of the league.
Bowman, himself, only adds to this, with public statements promising a team next year that looks much like last year’s—sort of an arrogant optimism that has accompanied three disappointing seasons in a row, culminating in the 2017-18 campaign, which was essentially a disaster.
So, yes, to undertake a serious sell-off and rebuild through the draft and free agency would be daring and exciting and fraught with risk—and a very hard sell to corporate sponsors and fans who hold out for another run with this core.
But the Vegas model shows how starting fresh, with no sacred cows—building around and executing a plan off the ice and on—can quickly lead to success.
Door Number 2: Reload
So here’s the deal (pardon the pun).
If you’re not rebuilding, and you’re maintaining your core, then—in terms of what your team can accomplish on the ice—what are you really setting out to do?
Put another way: with so much money in vested in a core of “stars,” if the goal is not winning a Stanley Cup, then what is it? (More on that in Door Number 3)
Door Number Two, the Reload Door can also be called “all in.”
What this means is Bowman and company go out this summer and go big. In trades and in free agency.
Do whatever is necessary to restore this roster to Stanley Cup contention while there’s still some tread left on the tires of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford (if healthy) and Patrick Kane.
You have nearly half your salary cap commitment tied up in those 4 players alone.
But fans need to be prepared here. If you are going to honestly and earnestly go out and make these big moves, it will mean making hard decisions and perhaps even sacrificing a favorite player, high draft picks, a prized prospect.
There are always message board and twitter scenarios that seem to rely on the premise that other teams are out there waiting to take the Hawks unwanted contracts, walking wounded veterans or faded prospects. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
Bowman will have to give to get.
Which would lead some to ask, “why give up my favorite prospect or young player to get someone else’s prospect or player? How does that improve the team?”
Because the construct and chemistry of the current team got to 13th place in the Western Conference, that’s why.
And then, someone might say, “but that was without “Crow.” When we get “Crow” back, we’re a playoff team.”
Which means you’re counting on a guy who just missed a half season due to concussion issues (not his first episode either), and who turns 34 this year, to hoist this team on his back, with its porous defense and weak center depth, and carry it to Cup contention. Good luck with that.
But . . . that might be Bowman’s bet. Or what he wants fans to pin their hopes on anyway.
However, if the intent to make one last run is sincere, then Bowman and the front office must be incredibly shrewd, bold and creative this summer.
A rebuild would take likely a couple of years minimum. So the immediate stakes are not as high—and time gives you some freedom to adjust on the fly.
But the reloading for a Cup run scenario requires immediate payoff this season. And no room for error.
Door Number 3: Two Plans—Or No Plan At All
This last choice might best describe where the team has been the last couple of years—not in rebuild mode, but trying to lighten the long-term cap commitment, and fill in around the edges with rookies and bargain basement free agents—while remaining competitive.
It does seem, when you step back and look dispassionately at what Bowman has been up to, especially last summer, the team is trying to rebuild “on the fly.” Which is really trying to make two plans work simultaneously.
The “on the fly” approach, in theory, means being a playoff team, keeping fan expectations high and the turnstiles moving—while also trying to find and develop the next generation of stars.
But no one in the front office, or the fanbase, saw the epic fail of 2017-18 coming.
And there’s the problem with having “two plans.”
The new generation of talent has not been enough to overcome both the ravages of the salary cap and the rapid deterioration of some of the older generation of talent. Which is how you get to 13th in the West.
Alex DeBrincat was, for some (like me) a pleasant surprise in his rookie season. And good on him. I’ll even go as far as saying he has some more upside to attain. But he’s also not—and likely never will be—a Patrik Laine or a Vlad Tarasenko or even, perhaps, a Viktor Arvidsson.
And that’s just in the Hawks’ division.
Nick Schmaltz can skate like the wind and has a great ability to recognize and distribute the puck—but there’s absolutely zero evidence he can be a factor in the much more physical hockey of a long playoff run. And some evidence that suggests he won’t be. It’s also still unclear, with a miserable 40% on faceoffs, whether he can even be a full time center in the NHL.
And yet, it appears Bowman is counting on these players, along with the likes of Erik Gustafsson (who can pass and score like a forward, and covers in his own end like a 16 year old Junior B defenseman) to make a fairly significant step up next season, as the core gets all that much longer in the tooth.
So yes, these younger players saw a lot of NHL action last year—which is good for their development—but it was not nearly enough to overcome the losses of Artemi Panarin and Niklas Hjalmarsson, season long defensive struggles and a serious injury to Crawford.
Question is, even with a “healthy” Crawford back between the pipes, is this a playoff team, much less one that can get past Round 1?
And where, taking this approach, does the team find itself in 3 years, when Crawford (if still playing), Toews, Kane, Keith and Brent Seabrook are all well past their primes?
Is Schmaltz, at that point, the next Toews? DeBrincat the next Kane? Brandon Saad the next Marian Hossa? Gustafsson the next Keith?
No, no, no, and no.
Or does this approach just kick the can down the road to a point where it doesn’t really affect anyone presently in charge—when McDonough is maybe the commissioner of the NFL and Bowman running some other NHL front office?
So, the choices, fellow fans, are really rather simple: you seriously rebuild, you seriously reload, or you stay the present course—which may not be a plan at all and hasn’t worked so far.
Choices are hard. Making no choice is easy—just crank the propaganda machine up to 11, and see y’all at the Fan Convention.
As Winston Churchill used to say: courage.
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