Hearken back to the NHL draft lottery this past Spring, when Blackhawk GM Stan Bowman smiled like the Cheshire Cat at learning his team would be picking third in the upcoming draft.
Bowman knew as well as anyone, he had lucked into a prime position, after his team had finished twelfth in the Western Conference the previous season—a position that typically would have a team drafting between 7th and 10th—where Bowman was in the previous year’s draft.
The rest, as we know is history: Bowman selected Kirby Dach, a talented young player with a high ceiling. The problem is, to paraphrase, man does not win by Dach (and/or Boqvist) alone.
A lot of Hawk fans forget, or simply weren’t around or engaged, the several years of sucking the franchise had to endure in order to acquire the picks that became Patrick Kane (first overall in 2007) and Jonathan Toews (third overall in 2006). They also take for granted the big walloping draft successes that previous GMs Mike Smith and Dale Tallon had in unearthing Dustin Byfuglien, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, Niklas Hjalmarsson and others in the draft’s later rounds.
Because another fact is that Bowman’s drafting past the first round has not been stellar through a now decade long tenure. Sure, everyone points to Brandon Saad and Alex DeBrincat, while conveniently forgetting many more Bowman second rounders who never amounted to squat. And where are the later round value picks? Unless you count Andrew Shaw, not on this roster.
The truth is, getting value past the first 15 picks of the first round is hard. Scouting is better than ever. Teams know more about the prospects now than ever before. The other side of the coin is, the value at the top of virtually every draft now is also hard to dispute.
For evidence, look no further than two of the Hawks’ recent games: thorough beat downs courtesy of the Colorado Avalanche.
I remember going to a game at the UC in 2013, just after Christmas, where the Hawks put the same kind of beating on Colorado, 7-2. Back then, the Hawks were the elite team and the Avs were the doormat.
Had to suck to be an Avs fan back then. But ask most pre-2007 Hawk fans: that’s what you need to go through to become a great young team again—as the Hawks were from 2008 or so to 2015.
Unfortunately, the Hawk front office, while they know this all too well, also knows that if they really tank—in order to really rebuild—a lot of fans and corporate sponsorship dollars are going to head for the door.
Yet, look at the Avs, who paid that price for several seasons:
Gabriel Landeskog, drafted second overall in 2011
Nathan MacKinnon, first overall, 2013
Mikko Rantanen, tenth overall, 2015
Cale Makar, fourth overall, 2017
You can say I’m cherry picking. But take a look at another former Chicago doormat in the Central Division, the Winnipeg Jets: same thing.
And, again, take a look at the arc of the Chicago Blackhawks themselves—not just from 2006 to 2015, but causally, from 2003 to 2007, when they absolutely sucked. Weren’t fun to watch. No one came to the arena. When they traded away fan favorites like Alex Zhamnov, Marty Havlat and Steve Sullivan—but accumulated tons of draft picks (that turned into the Dave Bollands and Bryan Bickells) and quality young prospects. And “earned”—as painful as it was for the organization and fans—the draft position to snag Toews and Kane in consecutive years. And who knows how much better things might have been had they taken someone better than Jack Skille seventh overall in 2005?
Unrestricted free agency is a great (but expensive) way to add a missing piece you need to reach the next level (see: Campbell, B, 2008 and Hossa, M, 2009). But the way to rebuild a franchise remains through the draft—not just having a few later round hits but grabbing at least 3-4 (or more) elite surefire blue chippers at the top of the draft.
Some will now point to Dach and Boqvist as getting the Hawks “almost there.” Except neither has proven a thing in pro hockey yet (and both by the way have concussion histories). But let’s assume both players are going to be a special—that’s a head start. Great. Now what are you going to do with $40 million in cap space wrapped up in players over 30, only one of whom is still playing at a high level.
Meanwhile, the Hawks sit only above the LA Kings in the West, with $11 million in cap hit wrapped up in what they call “the best one-two punch goalie tandem” in the league. Like that matters when you get absolutely shelled the way Crawford and Robin Lehner have most nights.
Wake up. It’s pure marketing bs, people.
This team is not good, but probably just good enough to play its way into a 12-15 selection in the first round year after year, out of the prime spots for great transformational players, while we wait for the contracts of Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Kane, and Toews to run out. Yep, they may get hot again in the next few weeks, go on a 5 or 6 game winning streak. But who wants to bet, before the leaves are on the trees again, they won’t derail and meltdown the way they have every season in recent memory?
Where am I going other than Downer Town?
It’s my belief that aside from lucking into Dach, the Hawks are, by choice, stuck in “half rebuild” mode, and will be for a long time, praying and hoping that Toews and Seabrook and Keith especially suddenly age backward five years, and the Hawks become a competitive team again—without doing anything more than adding an Olli Maatta here or a Calvin DeHaan there.
Yet, every year since 2015, as especially since 2017, we’ve seen this formula fail.
And every year, the Hawk front office goes out and does it again. Not because they’re dumb. Not because they’re insane. But because they know if they really tear down—as in trading Keith or Kane or Toews or some combination thereof for younger players and picks—(most) fans and corporate dollars will disappear from the UC like a pizza at a frat house. No one wants to hear it. No one wants to think about it. “You can’t trade Kane—he’s the only thing that makes them worth watching.”
And you like what you’re watching?
You see, the fact remains, the price of a glorious young team on the way up is typically a few years at least of unquestioned suckitude. A half empty arena. Pain. Discouragement. When it sucks to be a fan of a team—ask those of us who followed this franchise for decades. And you can bring up the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural season as a counterpoint, except they worked expansion masterfully—different circumstances entirely.
The cruel irony is that Kane still in his prime, and what’s left on the tires of Keith and Toews, make this team just good enough to sort of tease a playoff spot for a while every year, and then finish out of prime draft lottery position (this year’s fluke notwithstanding).
Let that sink in.
And then ask yourself, are you happy with this team? Have you liked finishing 12th-13th in the conference year after year?
If so, maybe you just have an addiction to seeing Kane and Erik Gustafsson team up in 3-on-3 a few nights a year and a few “silky” shootout moves—which mean nothing in terms of actual playoff hockey (a phenomenon some Hawk fans have apparently now forgotten)—and you will keep buying tickets and merchandise and argue to keep the #OneGoal Dream alive in vain hope of one last hurrah from “the core.”
Or maybe after another year or two of this “half pregnant,” not rebuilding, not contending nonsense, you’ll have an epiphany of sorts. And realize this isn’t working.