After spending a good part of yesterday reading comments on social media and message boards of other Blackhawks news and fan sites, it is quite clear that a substantial proportion of the fanbase is upset and frustrated with the Blackhawks public statement declaring the state and direction of the team.
I would like to think that I’m not one to tell others how or what to think about the team they love. Everyone has a right to how they feel, too. Instead, I would like to share alternative perspectives to ponder as food for thought.
For this article, I would like to offer up my interpretation of the statement and pose a few questions to consider that may help reframe conversation.
First, let’s take a look at the statement again:
"We recently said goodbye to a pair of popular, two-time champions and acquired some new players via trade and free agency. We understand it was tough to see those respected veterans go and realize you may have some questions about our direction. We’d like to address that direction and share why we’re hopeful for the future of Blackhawks hockey.
We’re committed to developing young players and rebuilding our roster. We want more than another window to win; we want to reach the summit again, and stay there — an effort that will require a stockpile of emerging talent to complement our top players. The influx of youth and their progression will provide roster flexibility and depth throughout our lineup.
We were already the youngest team in the 2020 playoffs and several Blackhawks experienced that intensity for the first time; this will help to further establish a culture that embraces the grind of improvement driven by competitors who are relentless, engaged and motivated by a team-first mentality to win.
As our young players develop and learn how to win consistently, they’ll make some mistakes. Inevitably, we’ll miss the mark sometimes, too, but we’ll communicate openly with you on this journey together.
We know that what comes next must be more than just words, and that inspires us."
I bolded the parts that stand out to me. Let’s now look at each of those parts, one by one.
"We’re committed to developing young players and rebuilding our roster"
Nothing new here as far as a formal pronouncement of a youth movement.
Danny Wirtz and Stan Bowman have discussed this new direction gravitating towards youth and innovation in a couple of interviews this past summer.
However, the term rebuilding is used for the first time in a public manner. More on that term later.
"...an effort that will require a stockpile of emerging talent to complement our top players"
At face value, this line doesn’t seem new either as it reiterates the nod towards youth.
Yet, one phrase that is noteworthy is “stockpile of emerging talent” which refers to not only the entry draft but also acquiring new players via trade or free agency including those Canadian junior, NCAA, and European league prospects who either went undrafted and/or unsigned.
Additionally, though, this phrase alludes to taking on as many prospects as possible. Not all prospects will make it and some that do develop well could be trade assets to obtain talent that address areas of need. The Henri Jokiharju trade for Alex Nylander is a recent example of the latter.
Think of it as lottery tickets. The more you have, the greater your chances of winning. Some tickets have zero matching numbers, some have one or two, some have more, and some may have them all. So stockpiling prospects increases a franchise’s chances of hitting on more prospects than missing.
Another noteworthy phrase is “to complement our top players.” Having incoming prospects complement the top players is essentially a given for almost every sports franchise. The term top players is what gives me pause to stop and think.
Who are the top players?
Are they automatically the core as in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook?
Does this cohort of top players now include up-and-coming teammates in Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik, Alex DeBrincat, and Adam Boqvist?
Or is that term top players nebulous?
In other words, perhaps top players isn’t meant to identify any specific players since this cadre will naturally evolve over time and even annually.
Building around the top players isn’t a novel concept. All teams do that.
But what I believe the Blackhawks are leaving in the past is centering every personnel decision around the core. Barring the restraints of the significant amount of cap space they consume, doing everything for the core limits decision making.
Flipping an older top player for a budding player who is poised to be a top player in due course is a tantalizing move.
However, the team eliminates this option to improve the team if the mantra is myopically focused on winning another Stanley Cup while the core’s window is still open.
"...provide roster flexibility and depth throughout our lineup"
A predominant recipe for a contender is rolling four effective forward lines and three defense pairs while also having reliable 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th string goalies to back up the starter. Furthermore, depth provides an insurance policy for when injuries are inevitably to happen.
Roster flexibility may be represented in a number of ways such as positional flexibility for a center to be able to shift to wing or a defenseman playing the opposite side with ease in addition to capacity to play up or down the lineup without losing impact.
One example of a current player who may not contribute to desired roster flexibility is Dylan Strome. Not only did he struggle playing wing during a stint last season but he also has a combination of strengths and weaknesses that isolate him as a top 6 center. That isolation is fine if there’s a spot open on the 1st or 2nd line yet his situation becomes problematic if forced to the 3rd line.
On the flipside, examples of players who supply roster flexibility are Andrew Shaw and Drake Caggiula (the healthy versions, of course). They can slot anywhere from the 1st line down to the 4th line and not miss a beat in terms of creating space for their linemates to thrive and agitating the crap out of the other team.
"...further establish a culture that embraces the grind of improvement driven by competitors who are relentless, engaged and motivated by a team-first mentality to win"
This last part of the statement points to the drum that I beat constantly which is for every player to compete hard every shift, contest every puck, and commit to defense in every zone.
Doing all three demonstrates the willingness to lay it all on the ice, do the little things that help the team win, and prioritize the team over the individual.
As many coaches profess: “No passengers.” Playing your role, playing within the system, and playing to the whistle is half the battle.
The other half is trusting your teammates to do the same.
One question that has been the focal point and a source of consternation is whether the Blackhawks are truly rebuilding.
Some argue that Bowman and the rest of management are flat out lying because a rebuild occurs a particular way which is stripping the team down completely and starting from scratch.
How can the Hawks be rebuilding if Toews, Kane, Keith, and Seabrook are still on the team and not expected to be shipped out? Is the team in a rebuild then?
Yes and no.
No in the sense that it's not a traditional rebuild. If rebuilds are strictly defined as trading away the core for futures and going back to square one, then I would agree that the Hawks aren’t rebuilding.
Yes in the sense that management is redefining what it means to rebuild. The parts of the statement that I dissected above illustrate how I think the Hawks are revolutionizing the term rebuilding to align with present circumstances as well as the new era of professional sports impacted by both a pandemic and socio-political factors such as racial identity.
Another question is whether there is a time stamp on the rebuilding plan.
I would suggest no. While it does mean surrounding the top players with a well-balanced team, it doesn't specifically mean Toews, Kane, Keith, and Seabrook are the centerpieces. Rebuilding isn’t confined to their career window.
Instead, every team in different spans of time in franchise history will evolve who the top players are yet the goal is still to surround them with a well-balanced team. Applying theatrics, the script of the play is the same but the actors change.
If the actors change, what are the constants in the script?
The answer is quite simply a team-first mentality predicated on competing hard every shift, contesting every puck, and committing to defense in every zone.
It also helps to have a solid talent pipeline from scouting to drafting to developing whether in the minors, college ranks, juniors, or overseas then graduating ready prospects to the big club while others continue to marinate.
And a final question is whether there is zero point to a rebuild if there is no grade A talent in the system?
Using baseball as an analogy, teams shouldn’t rely on the homerun at every at bat. Small ball is winning baseball. Crank out singles, doubles, and triples in addition to the dingers. Steal some bases, too, and make some sacrifices whether ground balls, pop flys, or bunts.
Player personnel decision is the same way. A team can still win without having the 1st overall like Kane or the 3rd overall like Toews and Dach. Gems can be found in later rounds, with undrafted free agents, and even with reclamation projects of highly touted prospects who lost their luster.
A corollary of this line of thinking about player personnel is time spent in the minor leagues. Just because prospects can’t make the quantum leap from juniors and college to the NHL doesn’t mean that they’re junk.
On the contrary, for many prospects, the longer they spend time developing the right way at the right pace and in the right environment, the better they will be in the long run. Playing the long game can be a good thing for those who are more raw than others and just need the time for refinement.
See you on the boards!