There were phases during the latter part of the recent Stanley Cup runs and after the last championship in 2015 when the Blackhawks core was alleged to be mailing it in during the regular season in order to save their best for the playoffs.
A predominant argument was that the core had the reputation and accolades to stop competing because they could flip the proverbial switch to go into beast mode whenever they wanted to. Faith in the core to step up when it mattered most was high.
Part of reality was that the core did have that second and even third gear to bring their A game when the chips were down. They had a killer instinct that was extraordinary and the foundation of being as close to a dynasty in the salary cap era.
However, another part of reality was that it came at a cost. The deep playoff campaigns and three Cup wins were undoubtedly luxurious but a perpetually strained salary structure and a diluted prospect pool were byproducts of that success.
Sustaining a Winning Culture
A glaring negative side effect of those glory years was an unsustainable environment that didn't breed a culture of winning consistently no matter who comprised player personnel. That sustainability is most evident in two areas of a franchise.
The first area is with managing the cap. One problem with the recent Cup era and the years following was the top heavy salary structure where the core earned the lion's share. The rest of the team was a mix of affordable veterans and youngsters on ELCs.
A second area is with having balanced player personnel, not being top heavy again like the previous decade. The goal now is to build a more sustainable model with all-around impact players who compete hard in spots 1 to 23 on the roster.
That new balance is a critical part of the professed direction of today's Blackhawks organization: sustainable growth to avoid the deep valleys that has become a natural part of championship cycles not just for Chicago but other teams as well.
Revolutionizing a Franchise
In order to avoid the consequences of the prevailing model of building a champion, it's time for organizations to revolutionize how they think, decide, and act. Winning the NHL's holy grail doesn't need to come at such detrimental costs.
One strategy is managing the cap wisely when it comes to paying top players. No more monster deals of $10.5M AAV, i.e. see Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Also, no more contracts with extensive terms, i.e. see Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa.
Yes, it's still important to pay top players but don't overpay either. If the rest of the team pulls their weight, then it should theoretically be easier to trade a top player for futures and new assets if their contract demands are too steep.
To put it another way, don't hold on to certain players too long if it's possible to obtain favorable returns on trades to maintain a sustainable salary structure and roster that remains fiercely competitive due to a team-first culture.
A second strategy is to not only draft well but also make shrewd free agent signings of talent in the NHL, Europe, and NCAA. Examples of where the latter has paid off: Mattias Janmark, Pius Suter, Brandon Hagel, David Kampf, and Kevin Lankinen.
Drafting well, though, is a hotly debated topic of late especially during an organizational era that is simultaneously a rebuild and a youth movement but starting to show dividends and positively trending development much earlier than expected.
Finding Talent Everywhere
There are two distinct camps when it comes to this season. One is based on hoping the Hawks land in the bottom third of the league thus being in the draft lottery for a prime 1st round pick. The other camp wants to ride growth and success as far as possible.
For the first camp, who wouldn't be enticed by draft hopefuls such as Owen Power, Kent Johnson, Matthew Beniers, Dylan Guenther, Brandt Clarke, Carson Lambos, or Simon Edvinsson? Any of them could be elite NHL players for whoever selects them.
But in a rebuilding year, is it automatically a failure if the following entry draft doesn't turn up a blue-chip prospect in the opening round who is a sure-fire #1 defenseman or 1st line forward who can be in the big show as early as next season?
For the second camp, Chicago would presumably end up with a 1st round pick in the mid-to-late teens or perhaps in the 20s depending on whether the team earns a playoff berth and how far they advance. Is this bad during a rebuild?
While not all mid-to-late 1st rounders hit, some arguably did or are starting to despite many not being with the Hawks anymore: Kevin Hayes, Phillip Danault, Teuvo Teravainen, Nick Schmaltz, Henri Jokiharju, and Nicolas Beaudin.
Even the 2nd round has turned up a few gems in Brandon Saad, Alex DeBrincat, and Ian Mitchell. Also, recent mid 1st rounder Lukas Reichel and 2nd rounders Alex Vlasic and Drew Commesso are expected to be difference makers once they are NHL ready.
Another angle to consider is how many former 1st rounders of other teams are on the Hawks: Dylan Strome, Alex Nylander, Calvin de Haan, Connor Murphy, Nikita Zadorov, and Malcolm Subban. What this means is the Hawks find ways to acquire 1st rounders later.
Furthermore, current players who are sure-fire top 6 players and some that are budding top 9 players were drafted in later rounds, traded for, and/or signed as free agents: Dominik Kubalik, Philipp Kurashev, DeBrincat, Janmark, Suter, and Hagel.
Even the future blueline is likely to feature just two former 1st rounders both from 2018: Adam Boqvist and Beaudin. Other viable candidates in Lucas Carlsson, Wyatt Kalynuk, Chad Krys, Alec Regula, and Mitchell were all drafted after the 1st round.
Then in net, the current starter and hopefully #1 for the next decade is Lankinen, a European free agent who was never drafted. Their last starter and two-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford was selected in the 2nd round in 2003.
Staying the Course
What does this all mean?
An aggressively ambitious team doesn't need a roster chock-full of 1st rounders whether selected early or late. It can definitely help but players with impeccable work ethic, relentless compete level, and pro skill can be found in all sorts of places.
However, the next question is whether this is good enough to rise to the level of being a perpetual Cup contender. It's one thing to be hard to play against but it's another thing to actually win those battles and accumulate victories when stakes are high.
With that in mind, is this where the top-shelf 1st rounders who can only be found within the top 3-5 slots are the panacea or at least the missing link to move a team from good to great or even from great to exceptional?
It certainly doesn't hurt to snag such a prospect. Yet, they may not necessarily be the savior to carry the team to multiple championships let alone one. Franchise players still need to be surrounded by a supporting cast who know how to win games.
Case in point: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, and John Tavares. None of them have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals yet. It took Steven Stamkos 12 seasons to win a Cup. Alex Ovechkin needed 13.
So is the counter-argument that a roster stocked top to bottom with good all-around players who compete hard every shift, contest every puck, and commit to defense in every zone is better than a team with a few elite players within a mediocre roster?
The Blackhawks seem to be rebuilding toward the former because the latter got the team nowhere after the last championship in 2015. In fact, the latter handcuffed the team until management finally made drastic decisions to right the ship.
In addition to a refreshed team identity based on work ethic and compete level, the new organizational direction now has its bedrock in a sustainable salary structure and balanced player personnel. In other words, moderation is key.
The opposite of a pyrrhic victory is an irenic victory which is classically defined as resolution through -- amongst other characteristics -- moderation. And moderation is what will breed sustainability and enduring success without the deep valleys.
With Carlsson out of the lineup indefinitely and Murphy expected to rejoin the blueline on Tuesday for the Columbus series, there doesn't seem to be any reason to believe the coaches will stray from the 11F/7D format.
If that's the case, expect the D pairs to look something like this:
Keith - Mitchell
de Haan - Murphy
Zadorov - Boqvist
However, if the lineup resets to 12F/6D, then could one of the youngsters set a spell?
Keith - Mitchell
de Haan - Murphy
Zadorov - Boqvist/Beaudin
Or maybe de Haan gets more maintenance days:
Keith - Mitchell
Beaudin - Murphy
Zadorov - Boqvist
Keep in mind that Kalynuk is on the taxi squad. He could have remained in Rockford to play games and gain valuable ice time so one would think he should get a look-see in the near future. With Carlsson out, now may be a good time.
Madison Bowey is also on the taxi squad but -- like Brandon Pirri -- is more of a known quantity compared to rookies such as Kalynuk and Reese Johnson. The taxi squad is tailor made for players like Bowey and Pirri to be practice players.
This week is a busy one for the IceHogs as they have two sets of back-to-back games with all four matches against the Cleveland Monsters. The next four weeks have three games each before a week off in late March.
Just like Kalynuk, Cam Morrison was found money so to speak as no assets were given up to acquire him. He was signed as an NCAA free agent after he didn't sign with the Avalanche who drafted him in 2016.
See you on the boards!