Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson’s Early Moves Proving Successful

Kyle Davidson hasn’t been afraid to be aggressive. After taking over for Stan Bowman on Oct. 26 as interim general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, Davidson fired then-head coach Jeremy Colliton 11 days later amid an abysmal 1-9-2 start. Since then, Davidson has made a series of trades that have had little impact for the Blackhawks on the ice but have been smart decisions given the team’s current state. Here’s a breakdown of Davidson’s moves so far, grading each one.

Nov. 6: Firing Colliton

Davidson’s first move for the Blackhawks wasn’t a small one. Losing 5-1 to the Winnipeg Jets the previous night served as a perfect metaphor for Chicago’s season 12 games in, and firing Colliton was not just the right decision but one that was long overdue. His defensive system just wasn’t clicking with the team, and his refusal to start certain players, such as Dylan Strome, was hurting the Blackhawks more often than helping.

Colliton also lacked personality, and while character isn’t necessarily the most important factor when it comes to coaching style, his stubbornness and stoic persona weren’t doing Chicago any favors as they continued their season-opening free fall.

Honestly, Colliton was never ready for this gig. When the Blackhawks stumbled to a 6-6-3 start in 2018-19, Bowman rushed to fire three-time Stanley Cup-winning head coach Joel Quenneville and quickly put Colliton in his shoes despite never having coached in the NHL before. Now, the same is true of Colliton’s replacement, interim head coach Derek King. But, he has a much more relaxed approach, which has seemed to pay dividends for Chicago both in the locker room and on the ice even if he isn’t the team’s long-term answer behind the bench.

Derek King Rockford Icehogs-Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson's Early Moves Proving Successful
Derek King, then-Rockford IceHogs head coach (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Ultimately, firing Colliton was a move that needed to happen, but it shouldn’t have taken this long for the Blackhawks, especially playing in a tight Central Division. However, that isn’t necessarily Davidson’s fault, and I appreciate his willingness to make the move considering he had been at the helm for such a short period of time.

Grade: A

Dec. 2: Trading Malcolm Subban

Malcolm Subban, a 2012 first-round pick of the Boston Bruins, has now become a journeyman in net, having spent time with the Bruins, the Vegas Golden Knights, Blackhawks, and now the Buffalo Sabres. Although Subban never quite flourished during his Blackhawks tenure, he showed decent flashes of potential as a backup behind Kevin Lankinen during the 2020-21 season. This season, however, Subban was getting buried in the American Hockey League (AHL) with Lankinen and 2021 Vezina Trophy winner, Marc-André Fleury, splitting the duties in Chicago. Subban is nowhere near a No. 1 and might be running out of chances in the NHL, especially after recently undergoing season-ending surgery. With that said, he showed he was decent enough to succeed while put in the right position, which wasn’t happening with the Blackhawks.

Because his NHL playing time was getting limited, Davidson wisely traded Subban to the Sabres, a team needing help in net, in exchange for future considerations. Subban ended his Blackhawks tenure with a 6-8-1 record, 3.20 goals-against average, and a .900 save percentage. Between Lankinen and Chicago’s current development of prospect Arvid Söderblom, Subban was never going to be a long-term option in Chicago, and trading him was the right move even though his return remains undetermined. A solid first deal for Davidson.

Grade: A

Dec. 9: Chad Krys for Kurtis Gabriel

Exactly one week after trading Subban, Davidson shipped a 2016 second-round pick and defensive prospect Chad Krys to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for depth forward Kurtis Gabriel. The trade came two days after New York Rangers’ defenseman Jacob Trouba devastatingly hit Blackhawks’ forward Jujhar Khaira, who is known for his gritty style of play.

While Gabriel has played just two games with the Blackhawks so far, there’s reason to believe Davidson was trying to fill the void left by the 27-year-old Khaira while adding additional forward depth, as Gabriel is known for his toughness and physical presence despite having just five points in 51 career NHL games with the Blackhawks, Maple Leafs, San Jose Sharks, Minnesota Wild, and New Jersey Devils.

New Jersey Devils Kurtis Gabriel-Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson's Early Moves Proving Successful
Kurtis Gabriel (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

While out of the two players, Krys is younger and has a higher ceiling, he wasn’t going to get an opportunity with Chicago anytime soon. After putting together a remarkable career at Boston University, Krys’ opportunities with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs were limited, especially after undergoing shoulder surgery last March. and with the development of defensive prospects Ian Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin, Alec Regula, and others. In eight games with the IceHogs this season, Krys recorded just one point with a minus-2 rating. Moving Krys probably won’t have much negative effect on the Blackhawks’ future even if he pans out in Toronto, which seems unlikely at this point.

Grade: B

Jan. 5: Alex Nylander for Sam Lafferty

There are two ways to look at Davidson’s most recent trade, shipping forward Alex Nylander, the eighth overall pick in 2016, to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for yet another depth forward, Sam Lafferty.

On one hand, Nylander was not living up to his first-round pick status and probably wasn’t going to have a regular spot in Chicago’s top-nine moving forward. After Bowman acquired the 23-year-old forward from the Sabres in July 2019, Nylander recorded 26 points in 65 games during the 2019-20 season before missing all of 2020-21 after undergoing knee surgery.

This season, the Blackhawks simply couldn’t find a good spot to use him, instead, giving top-six opportunities to forwards like Henrik Borgström, Brandon Hagel, and Philipp Kurashev. While Nylander did record a solid 12 points in 23 games with the IceHogs, he likely wasn’t going to get many opportunities to play in Chicago’s top or middle-six with the development of the aforementioned players and others, which is where he seemed to succeed during his first season with the Blackhawks.

Related: Blackhawks Prospects Report: Teply, Commesso, 2021 Draft Class & More

On the other hand, Lafferty isn’t an improvement over Nylander. He is simply another bottom-six forward, which the Blackhawks have a plethora of between Khaira, Brett Connolly, Mackenzie Entwistle, Ryan Carpenter, and others. Lafferty does bring versatility, being able to play all three forward positions, and has solid size at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds. However, he hasn’t shown much offensive upside just yet with the Blackhawks and recorded just two points in 13 games with the Penguins this season.

By no means does having Lafferty hurt the Blackhawks, but with so many depth forwards in Chicago already, I’m not sure how much he helps either. While Nylander’s ceiling may be dropping pretty quickly at this point, he is no doubt the more useful player of the two when it comes to offense, which the Blackhawks could use more of right now.

Grade: C+

Davidson Moving forward

Despite having no previous GM experience, Davidson has been with the Blackhawks since November 2010, beginning as an intern before rising up the ranks to assistant general manager in 2019 and now interim general manager. Although he is less than three months into his tenure, his boldness has stood out, as well as his willingness to look toward the future and do what’s in Chicago’s best interests.

While the Blackhawks have yet to name a full-time replacement for Bowman, Davidson would be a breath of fresh air from his predecessor, as he is just 33 years old and has plenty of time to establish his credibility around the league. There are a number of directions the Blackhawks could go when it comes to the position, but Davidson has shown so far that he is more than capable of making good decisions for the franchise, even if they aren’t the most exciting ones.

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