It’s time for Blackhawk fans—all of them, not just those who hearken back to the days before 2007 (when, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, things were truly rotten)—to accept a few simple, harsh realities. Or perhaps, first, the management of the team itself.
This team stinks.
It stinks because of several bad decisions by the front office.
And it will continue to stink as long as those aforementioned fans continue to buy in to the “spin” of the front office/marketing/pr monster at 1901 W. Madison.
Those who used to read me over at hockeybuzz will recall, perhaps, my “myth exploding” blogs. This will be one of those. The first myth:
“Bowman won 3 Cups.”
Sure, Bowman was the titular GM for all three Cup wins in 2010, 2013 and 2015. But the fact is, Gordie Clifton, the Official 2nd Rate Lounge Singer of The-Rink.com, could have served as GM and won at least one Cup after inheriting Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Dustin Byfuglien, Brian Campbell, and Dave Bolland.
In fact, while Bowman deserves some credit for tinkering around the edges to optimize his rosters (trades for Michal Handzus and Antoine Vermette before the 2013 and 2015 trade deadlines), the 2013 and 2015 Cup do not happen without the aforementioned core of players that was assembled by previous GMs Mike Smith and Dale Tallon. No, Bowman sank 2-3 relative gimme putts after Smith and Tallon drove the green.
Here’s another myth:
“Tallon couldn’t manage the cap—so he got fired.”
While there may be an element of truth in that, it skirts the larger reason. Team President John McDonough wanted a “company man” in the role of GM. He said as much at the time.
Around that time, the Hawks also clarified a job description for former Norfolk Admirals GM Al McIsaac as McDonough’s “personal adviser” on hockey matters, a sort of “hockey whisperer” to inform a guy who basically knew (and still knows) very little about the game. Or are you forgetting his incisive scouting of once future great Drew Leblanc via “youtubes?”
Later, McDonough would explain to the media how he wanted to “understand” every move of any significance Bowman made—before he made it. Essentially, he wanted to approve any important move, ostensibly with the help of his “hockey whisperer,” McIsaac.
This, I have been told by sources within the Hawk organization and outside as well, made it next to impossible to do “value for value” trades with the Hawks. Certainly, Bowman has done a few of those (with McDonough’s stamp of approval—don’t kid yourself), but they’ve been driven largely by the salary cap or impending free agency (Brandon Saad to Columbus in 2015, Artemi Panarin for Saad in 2017, Niklas Hjalmarsson to Arizona in that same year), and they haven’t turned out very well.
Oh, finally, who was the assistant GM in charge of the cap during Tallon’s tenure as GM? Right.
“Bowman has drafted well.”
That’s somewhere between debatable and flat out inaccurate. Many fans (and writers) have jumped to point out that Bowman drafted Saad at 43rd overall in 2011 (the same year he took Mark McNeill at 18th). And many of these same fans now also rush to point out how Saad is “ a bum,” because “he don’t score no goalsss.” Another metric used in support of Bowman’s “shrewd” draft moves was grabbing Alex DeBrincat at #46 overall in 2016. Meh, ok.
But just for the sake of comparison, Columbus took an arguably slightly better version of DeBrincat, Cam Atkinson (he’s much faster, and just as much a scorer), in the 6th round in 2008.
The point being, in the 10 years Bowman has been running the Hawks draft, he has not drafted a single elite player, and most of his 1st round picks are either on other teams or no longer in the NHL. And all those players picked with selections gained during the great talent sell-off of 2010? Pffffffft.
The big myth this year:
“We still think this is a playoff team.”
This was the myth that Bowman and McDonough floated when they made Hall of Fame head coach Joel Quenneville the fall guy for their abject failure as NHL executives, and replaced him with 33 year-old Jeremy Colliton. It’s since been embraced and amplified by Hawk ticket reps. Leave it to McDonough to completely miss on the gravitas necessary to coach storied veterans with all kinds of achievements in the pro game, in favor of hiring a guy with 5 years of pro coaching experience, 4 in Europe and 1 in the AHL. And this is not an indictment of Colliton, who was clearly put in position to fail. But the calculus that getting decent production out of a team of 21 year olds would translate to the 2018-19 Chicago Blackhawks was just plain stupid. Remember, it was McDonough and Bowman who made the call—and who felt Colliton was the right guy to optimize the performance of their veteran-laden roster.
“Bowman needs to go.”
Bowman needs to go, but so does McDonough. Because anyone McDonough hires to “replace” Bowman will just become another extension of the crowded, dysfunctional management apparatus at the top of Hawk hockey operations. I am not a betting man by nature, but I would not hesitate to put several thousand dollars on a wager that, if the Hawks continue to suck the exhaust of the rest of the NHL this season, Bowman’s will be the next body McDonough throws on the fire. But it won’t change anything, unless you believe McDonough can recognize how his style and his choices have contributed to this mess. Don’t bet on that.
“You can’t deal any of these big contracts.”
You can, but it won’t be easy or cheap or popular. It may mean parting with other assets you wanted to keep. It may mean retained salary. It definitely means—as an NHL exec suggested to me a few weeks ago—a new, objective leadership team that isn’t trying to force old narratives, cover their past moves, and delude a fanbase into buying a sub-standard product..
The last myth. Wait, no it’s a mentality.
“But if you trade (insert name here), there goes our (insert function here)”
This is what is keeping this team in the Land of Make Believe—“we can still make the playoffs,” “next year will be better when all our young (tiny, fragile, bad in their own end) defensemen magically matriculate from the NCAA and junior.” Did you watch the Winnipeg Jets absolutely blitzkrieg the Hawks in the first period last night before setting it on cruise the rest of the way? The Jets had to go through a few years of stinking—and drafting a raft of exciting young talent (Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, etc) to get where they are now—big, fast, talented, dangerous.
This last bit is also not a myth.
Having been a fan of this team since the mid-70s, I have seen how front office dysfunction, massive egos, bad personnel decisions, and dishonesty with fans can ensure mediocrity—not just year after year but decade after decade.
The Chicago Blackhawks, led by Chairman Rocky Wirtz, need to bite the bullet and clean house from the top down. Soon.
Bring in a Team President who is either a legitimate hockey person, or possessive of an ego that will allow him to get out of the way and let hockey people do their jobs. Followed by a GM with a scouting/playing background. And the right head coach for the roster. In the end, maybe that is Colliton. Maybe not.
Regardless, the chain of decisions and the decisions themselves need to be made the right way, for the right reasons, with painstaking honesty. Or expect things to get worse and stay that way for a long time.