The future looks brighter for the Blackhawks

By Simon Richard

The Chicago Blackhawks have not won the Stanley Cup since 1961 — the longest drought of any currenly active NHL team.
Between the 1961-62 and the 1996-97 seasons, the Hawks only missed the playoffs in one occasion – 1968. But since 1997-98, they have missed six of the last seven postseason series and they probably won’t make it this year again as they presently have the third-worst record of all NHL teams.

Poor drafting for many years

Drafting and developing prospects is a key component to build a winning team, and the Hawks struggled in that area.  In the 1980’s, especially in the first half of the decade, the Hawks were successful in drafting. The team drafted the three following superstars Denis Savard, Dominik Hasek (who was traded to the Sabres after only 25 games for the Hawks), Jeremy Roenick and a few impact players such as Troy Murray, Steve Larmer, Ed Olczyk and Dave Manson. In 1987, the Hawks also signed the undrafted Ed Belfour. In his rookie season in 1990-91, Belfour won the Calder Trophy as well as the Jennings and the Vezina trophies. He was also named on the First All-Star Team. That led the team to the President’s Trophy in 1991, given to the team who finishes in first place overall during the regular season. In 1991-92, Chicago came close to win the Cup, making the finals against Pittsburgh.

But from 1989 through 2000, none of the 128 players drafted by the Hawks turned out to be a superstar and only one of these prospects became a NHL impact player – Eric Daze (1993).

During that period, the Hawks were particularly ineffective in the first round. In 1989, their first round selection Adam Bennett (6th overall) only played 69 games in the NHL. Their pick from four years later, Eric Lecompte (24th), didn’t play one game in the big league. Dmitri Nabokov (19th), selected in 1995, played only 55 games in the NHL which is still 41 games more than Ty Jones, drafted in 1997 (16th). Daniel Cleary, a high selection of 1997 (13th) played only 41 games for Chicago before being traded to Edmonton a couple year later. Finally, both high selections of 2000, Mikhail Yakubov (10th) and Pavel Vorobiev (11th) combined a mere 110 games in the NHL and are now back in Russia.

The Hawks, thanks to GM Mike Smith, had a clear preference for a while for prospects originating from Russia. Just for the 1999, 2000 and 2001 drafts combined, 12 Russians were selected by the organization. Unfortunately, none of them managed to get a permanent place in the NHL.  

The Hawks had 15 picks at the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. None of them managed to make the NHL.

Overall, the effectiveness of the Hawks at the draft between 1989 and 2000 was poorer in many domains than the average NHL team. For example, only 14 of the 128 Hawks draftees became NHLers (200 games of more) for a 11 percent success rate, while the league’s average was 20 percent for the period. Less than one percent of these 128 draftees became impact players while the average was close to five percent overall in the league.

Things may have changed for the Hawks

After many years with a poor drafting, things may have changed now.  Last year, the Hawks had seven players involved at the 2006 World Junior Championships, more than any other NHL team.

This year again, the team had the most representatives – equal with the Rangers and the Blues – with six prospects playing – Jack Skille (7th, 2005), Daniel Bertram (54th, 2005), Niklas Hjalmarsson (108th, 2005), David Kuchejda (202nd, 2005), Jonathan Toews (3rd, 2006) and Igor Makarov (33rd, 2006).

In the Hockey’s Future’s Organization Rankings published on Oct. 1, 2006, the Hawks ranked third, trailing only the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Los Angeles Kings.

“We like the depth of our prospects pool,” said the Hawks Head Scout Michel Dumas to Hockey’s Future in Leksand in January.  “In the recent drafts, we had a few extra selections in the second, third and fourth rounds that helped us to get a few good prospects.”

Indeed, the Hawks had nine picks in 2006 and 12 in 2005 when the draft had only seven rounds. In 2004, the team grabbed 17 prospects while they have 10 the previous year, nine in 2002 and 13 in 2001. Over the last six NHL drafts, the Hawks had selected 70 prospects instead of the 50 they would have got without getting extra picks from a few trades.

 “I think that we have seven or eight prospects playing in their first season in our farm team in the AHL (Norfolk Admirals). I don’t remember having seen that in the past,” stated Dumas.

Dumas also noted that the Hawks had two good first-rounders at the tournament – Skille and Toews. “We will probably ink them next summer and one of those two guys will probably make the team next fall,” predicted the Hawks Chief Scout.

Despite being just 18 years old, Toews was the leading Canadian skater at the 2007 WJC, selected to the tournament All-Star Team. His leadership on the ice was contagious. Everyone will remember his three goals in the shootout of the semi-final against USA. Toews was there when it really counts. He totalled seven points (4 goals, 3 assists) in the event.

“Jonathan is an excellent hockey player, he skates very well and has improved his acceleration. He is pretty good on both sides of the rink,” pointed out Dumas.

Dumas was also proud of Skille from the USA team. “He is a big guy with an excellent shot, a typical power forward,” said Dumas. “He also skates very well and if he plays with a good center who can set him passes, he will be very successful in a upper level,” observed Dumas. Skille had six points (1 goal, 5 assists) at the tournament.

Igor Makarov also had a good tournament in Sweden with six points as well. “Makarov plays well on both sides of the rink, he is not the typical Russian player we are used to, I mean the one with just skills. Makarov is the kind of energy player the coaches like to have on their roster,” commented Dumas.

Bertram didn’t score any points for Canada in the tournament. He played on the fourth line and on the penalty-killing unit. “He will have to improve a little bit his skating,” admitted Dumas.

Dumas likes Niklas Hjalmarsson very much, the big Swedish defenseman. “He skates very well despite his size and can make a good first pass. He would have made the Swedish junior team last year (2006) but he suffered an injury that led him to miss about half of the season.” Hjalmarsson recorded three points in the tournament.

Finally, the last Hawks prospect in Sweden, Kuchejda, didn’t get any points in Sweden. “This is a very late selection, we think that he can make the AHL some day. If he ever makes the big league, it will be a bonus for us,” stated Dumas.

The Hawks prospects list also includes such talented players as defenseman Cam Barker (2004), right wingers Dave Bolland (2004) and Mike Blunden (2004), center Jakub Sindel (2004) and goaltender Corey Crawford (2003).

With a few other young players like Brent Seabrook and Tuomo Ruutu, the team now has a bright future, something that has not been the case for more than a decade now.

The fans just have to be patient and hope that the team will carefully develop all this young talent — and will keep them in the organization.

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.