Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman promised that changes would be in the offing when the team was swept out of the playoffs in April, and that’s exactly what happened over the weekend as the Windy City hosted the NHL Draft.
The weekend started with a pair of blockbuster trades, as the Blackhawks said goodbye to defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and forward Artemi Panarin. In their place came a familiar face, as Brandon Saad returned to the team, and some unfamiliar ones, as Laurent Dauphin and Connor Murphy joined the organization.
The overhaul continued during the draft itself, as the Blackhawks used their stockpiled picks to execute a change in their approach to their farm system. Puck moving defensemen were targeted, with Henri Jokiharju and Ian Mitchell were both selected in the first two rounds, and strong two-way forwards with a nose for the front of the net and an ability to shoot were also pinpointed, with Evan Barratt selected in the third round.
Amid all of the hubbub surrounding the Blackhawks over the weekend, one theme was made clear over and over again: this team is looking to go back to the identity that they had when they first won the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Gone are the days of trying to focus exclusively on veterans and retreads who have been through the battles on the ice before. Instead, the Blackhawks are focusing on getting younger, getting more skilled, and building more speed and puck possession into a plan of attack that has sorely lacked those qualities over the last few seasons.
The Blackhawks turned the keys over to some younger players during the 2016-17 season, but even more will be tossed into the pool this time around. Bowman specifically targeted defensemen Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling as players that will need to step up their games next season, but other players like Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat will certainly be among the group the Blackhawks will hope can carry the team forward into a new era.
That movement toward speed and youth is a calculated risk for Bowman, who is trying to maximize a championship window while he still has the team’s key players in their prime. It feels like just yesterday that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were terrorizing the league as youngsters, but with both players entering their 11th seasons, the time to contend for a Stanley Cup championship is right now.
Trying to rebuild team depth and still contend for championships is a very difficult tightrope to walk, but the moves Bowman has made are designed to maximize the team’s chances. Both Murphy and Saad are cost-controlled, with contracts that last five and four more seasons respectively, and so Bowman will be better able to project out his team’s future financial outlays with them in the fold instead of Hjalmarsson and Panarin.
Whether or not Bowman will be successful in this latest endeavor remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: he is taking a big chance by getting rid of dependable players like Hjalmarsson and potential superstars like Panarin, but the gamble could pay off in a big way if the team’s architect plays his cards correctly.