Why the Blackhawks are the new Red Wings

Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane.

When David Bolland’s name comes up with Blackhawks fans these days, Chicago GM Stan Bowman just paints on a smile, and listens. “They say, ‘Gee, I really liked Bolland.’ Well, I like him too,” says Bowman, who dealt the centre to Toronto at the 2013 draft for a second-round pick and two fourth-round selections. He also traded Michal Frolik to Winnipeg that day for third- and fifth-round draft choices, and let Viktor Stalberg and Ray Emery walk as free agents.

“They’re very good players, but not everybody can stay,” says Bowman, who would love to advise fans as such. “We can keep all of those players, but give me someone else then (who leaves)? We’re right at the cap, we’ve got to move someone.”

And so goes the life of the only GM in the National Hockey League with a chance to do what has become the impossible: Win back-to-back Stanley Cups for the first time since the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and ’98. That would be the last step of becoming hockey’s best-run franchise, a mantle that belongs to the Blackhawks today.

Chicago is the new Detroit. As such, Bowman is the new Ken Holland, trying to hold together a nucleus in a cap world, where team success breeds big paydays for individual players. While other GMs are scouring the UFA market for top-six forwards and top-pairing defencemen, Bowman already has those. Instead, he is busy trading away roster players for draft picks, to assuage the cap issues that are inherent with winning Stanley Cups. You’ll notice that Bolland, Frolik, Stalberg and Emery left after last June’s Cup win with not a single player returning to Chicago. That’s four roster players out, and not a single player coming back.

But heading into action on Monday night, Chicago had lost just four of its 24 games this season and was second in the NHL with 36 points. We’ve written the feel-good stories on making up with former stars like Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, and getting the games back on TV in Chicago. But it all means nothing if the front office isn’t perhaps the best in hockey, which Bowman’s crew has surely become.

“You have to do a lot more planning on which players you’re going to commit to. And which salaries are going to jump to another level. Unless that player is part of your difference makers—an absolute—you have to have young players coming in,” he says. “I suppose our concerns are different (than other teams’). We’re not out there trying to find a No. 1 centre, a top goalie or defensive pair. But, we’ve got lots of concerns about trying to sustain. We don’t want short-term success. We want to be an elite franchise year after year.”

Here is the cycle you see emerging from Bowman’s world, where a successful rebuild installed franchise pillars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Nik Hjalmarsson. Now, Bowman’s roster movement comes from the bottom six forwards and bottom three defencemen, whom he trades for draft picks or prospects. Down the road, those returns become players like Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, who fill in for the next departed depth player. And the cycle continues.

The other thing Chicago has done is not overvalue its own picks. Leddy came back in a deal for former Hawks No. 3 overall draft pick Cam Barker, who is now playing in the Kontinental Hockey League. Jack Skille, Chicago’s seventh overall pick in ’05, was dealt for Frolik, who was transformed into a valuable penalty killing, fourth-liner during last season’s Cup run. When the cap crunch came, he was recycled into two draft picks from Winnipeg. “We’re just as busy and focused as anyone else,” says Bowman, who labels as “a mirage” the thought that the job gets any easier when you’ve won two Cups in four seasons. “The type of work might change, but maintaining your level at the top—not slipping—that never changes.”

So Chicago’s Brian Bickell or Ben Smith is Detroit’s Justin Abdelkader or Darren Helm, groomed slowly and properly in the American Hockey League, then inserted into a fourth-line role and left to earn more ice time by playing the game the right way. To cull the herd further, young Blackhawks are constantly in a battle with a crop of young prospects, because with all those trades for draft picks, Chicago has averaged nine selections per year since 2010—two more than the standard seven. They’ve got nine again in 2014 as well, and anyone who knows the draft knows it’s a game of percentages.

Throw in good scouts, and the kids drafted with the Frolik or Bolland picks will be the ones who take over when a Marcus Kruger or Michal Handzus gets too expensive. It is the cycle of success, and after watching Detroit do it for years, Chicago now has it going on better than perhaps any other NHL club. “The Red Wings have had continuity, in their management, coaching staff and their players, and they have a culture of winning,” Bowman says. “You have to sustain that, so when young players come in there’s a way of doing things. The Red Wings are that a model for that. And an inspiration that it can be done.”