The Blackhawks Go to College: How Chicago Maintains Their Talent Pool

My fellow THW writer Jordan Dix recently wrote an excellent piece on how each team in the Central Division was built, and the results were fascinating. One thing that stood out for me when reading that article was how most of the teams in the highly competitive Central (with the exceptions of the slumping Avalanche and surging Stars) relied on the draft to assemble a majority of their roster. In particular, it was noted that Chicago draftees accounted for over 61% of the team’s points at the time the article was written – an impressive figure compared to most other rosters in the NHL.

The Struggle to Sustain

The Hawks paid a steep price to acquire Vermette (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
The Hawks paid a steep price to acquire Vermette (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, it’s no secret that consistent winning has the potential to decrease both the quality and quantity of available draft picks for a team to build with. Not only did winning three Cups in six seasons give the Hawks a lower pick slot in each of those years, it also cost the team future selections in the form of trades for players to improve the roster late in the season. In recent memory, trades that have cost the team significant draft picks include those for Johnny Oduya, Kimmo Timonen, David Rundblad, and Antoine Vermette.

And while previous years saw the team recoup some of those selections in salary cap dumps in the offseason, the scarcity of league-wide cap space has made it difficult for Stan Bowman to receive reasonable returns for his departures. In fact, Bowman basically had to give the Hurricanes a free draft upgrade this offseason when he sent Kris Versteeg, Joakim Nordstrom, and a 3rd round pick to Carolina for two forgettable prospects and a 5th round pick.

This is just another example of how the NHL’s hard cap has changed how general managers do business, and while I’ve previously written about how the cap has impacted the assets GMs are able to acquire, I have also found that it changes how teams initially acquire young players.

Evolving Acquisitions Trends

The Blackhawks are a prime example. Rather than rely on their own draftees to supplement their organizational prospect pool, the Blackhawks have instead turned to the college market – and have been rather successful in doing so. This past year alone, the Hawks tied the Bruins for most early-departure college signings for undrafted players when they picked up Kyle Baun and Nolan Valleau. Baun – a Colgate product – began the regular season on the Hawks top line after a strong camp, while Valleau will be given plenty of chances in the future after the team liked his puck-moving enough at their prospect camp to offer him a contract.

Mike Reilly
The Hawks lost a close race for the services of Mike Reilly (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

And these signings weren’t simply aberrations from the team’s strategy in the past either: the team had previously signed Hobey Baker winner Drew LeBlanc and scored with UNH product Trevor van Riemsdyk in 2014. What’s more, Stan Bowman’s pitch to former Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly put Chicago as one of the finalists for the highly-touted prospect before he eventually signed with the Wild.

The Perfect Fit

One of the major reasons for Bowman’s aggression in pursuing these high-profile college free agents is the success the team has had in recruiting them. While these young players are obviously attractive for the Blackhawks from a simple acquisition cost perspective (they aren’t required to sacrifice draft picks for undrafted players), these players are also very attracted to the idea of playing within the Chicago organization. With Scotty Bowman, Barry Smith, and John McDonough leading the team’s front office, and Joel Quenneville and Jonathan Toews leading the team on the ice, the Blackhawks have arguably the best leadership group in all of professional sports.

This leadership collective combined with the organization’s incredible on-ice success makes the Blackhawks the unrivaled first choice of many young players hoping to break into the league. Overall, these factors have all combined to give the Chicago Blackhawks a new competitive advantage when it comes to acquiring young players, which the organization can use to continue their winning ways.