The Fall Of The Chicago Blackhawks And The Trade That Killed Them

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With the Chicago Blackhawks having just been eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes, I thought it would be a good time to finish writing a blog I started months ago, which looks at the true reasons behind the Blackhawks’ fall from an elite, Cup-winning roster to one of the many, ordinary and flawed contenders. Enjoy.

Part 1: Victims Of A Changing Landscape?

Every time I have watched the Chicago Blackhawks the last two seasons, their weaknesses have been obvious to me. Even at their peak, when they still had Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg, they were a team primarily built around finesse, in a league that rewards finesse less and less with every year that distances us from the 2005 NHL lockout. And this current version of the Blackhawks’ roster has only become more dependent on finesse since winning the Cup, while the league climate continues to punish teams that aspire to play a skilled game.

Indeed, the NHL’s strict enforcement of penalties has dissipated each year since the lockout, as evidenced by power-plays per game averages reaching a two-decade low earlier this season.

Now you can’t even chip a puck by a defenseman without getting interfered with every single time, with no penalty, because a little interference is “okay” again now, just like it used to be before the lockout, during the last dead-puck era.

It gets worse. The “stick lift,” all the way up to the player’s hands holding that stick, is the new hook, except it is legal. I guess if hands can be considered part of the ball in basketball, they can be considered part of the stick in hockey.

Not to mention, there is no such thing as a slashing penalty anymore in the NHL, unless a stick breaks, which often has nothing to do with the severity of the slash because these composite sticks break all the time. It’s hard to get a single shot off now without being smacked with a stick, if not directly on your hands, then your arm or hip–no longer considered penalties, either.

But more than any fixable issue with penalty enforcement, the ice is just too small for today’s game. Skill needs room to flourish, but the amount of space skilled players get to work with in the NHL now actually decreases every year, even if the ice surface stays the same, because NHL coaches keep improving their defensive schemes, or what they call “shrinking the opponent’s ice.”

Coaches are better than ever at employing this strategy, as are the players at executing it, which is great for your team’s Goals Against Average, but terrible for the game as a whole.

These two major factors–lax penalty enforcement and evolved defending that “shrinks” the ice, have conspired to hurt finesse teams like the Chicago Blackhawks most of all. It is no surprise to me that a supremely talented forward like Patrick Sharp struggled to make his mark offensively in the Blackhawks Western Conference Quarterfinals series against the Coyotes; his fast, skilled style of play is simply not molded to succeed in the league’s current climate. Sharp is a player who once dominated with his quickness and puck-handling ability through the neutral zone and in open ice, but that was back when there actually was open ice to skate on and handle the puck through. Not anymore.

Even Jonathan Toews, who you could classify as a more gritty, versatile version of Sharp, is having the same problem in today’s NHL, albeit to a lesser extent. That’s because Toews, at his core, is still a finesse player who has relied on his speed and skill to play and dominate this game all his life, from junior hockey to his early days in the NHL, and he’s running into the same wall as many other skilled NHL players: they simply don’t know how to, don’t have the skill set to, and never before have had to play the game they love in this strange way, where no place in the offensive half of ice is open to take the puck to besides the boards encompassing the opponent’s net.

The Chicago Blackhawks just so happen to be in the extremely unfortunate position of having more of this style of player in their core at the wrong time than most any other team.

If there is another team that comes close, however, it is the Washington Capitals. Indeed, if you’ve ever wondered how Alex Ovechkin and the Caps went from competing for the Presidents Trophy in 2009-2010, with the unexceptional defenseman Jeff Schultz posting a +50 plus/minus rating alongside the nightly globetrotter-esque dominance of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green, to being on the playoff bubble two years later with the same core players, there’s your answer. That was a team built for a league with a requisite minimum amount of space to use their skill, and a strict level of penalty enforcement, that no longer exists.

They were built to do everything off the rush, in open ice, with speed and skill. They were exciting. They scored goals like these.

And these.

But much of that doesn’t work anymore. It’s almost impossible to skate by defenders with the puck now and score off the rush. Skill doesn’t work anymore, at least not nearly as well as it did. There’s usually a blue-line and a few defenders in the way, and when you look to skate around them, you find there’s also a wall (known as the boards) boxing you in where there should be more ice, constantly trapping you in cohorts with the defenders.

That is the transformation the league has rapidly undergone the last few seasons, and the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals are two of its biggest victims, second only to the fans. If they just had room on the ice to use their speed and skill, their lack of size and grinding ability wouldn’t be such a problem, but there isn’t room. Defenses have evolved and shrunk the ice, and the NHL has not compensated.

Now we have slow, plodding, dump-and-chase, grinding NHL hockey, the 2012 version, where 90% of every game is spent battling over pucks along the boards, and a player’s ability to protect the puck along the boards is nearly all that matters, because along the boards is the only place anyone can possess the puck for more than two seconds without being closed on.

This is not Patrick Sharp’s game. It’s not even Jonathan Toews’ game. Even Patrick Kane, who could make highlight reel plays in a key-hole, is having trouble producing offense that matches his skill level.

But that’s the game the Blackhawks are forced to play now, and it’s giving them all sorts of problems. It was always going to. That’s why you can’t discuss the Blackhawks fall from should-have-been dynasty to whatever they are now without also acknowledging the league’s changing environment.

Part 2: A Failure To Adapt

However, it’s also beyond debate that the Blackhawks could have maintained their spot atop the league through these changing tides had the team been better managed after winning the Cup, had management had any foresight whatsoever into the changing landscape of the NHL.

If you don’t remember what happened, here’s a refresher. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2009-2010 while spending right up against the salary cap’s ceiling. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and perhaps others were still on their bonus-laden, entry-level contracts, and all their successes that season, from putting up great regular season numbers to winning the Cup (and the Conne Smyth trophy in Toews’ case), meant they had earned all their bonuses.

But because the Blackhawks had no more cap room that season, the bonus money carried over as a salary cap penalty to the next season. Niklas Hjalmarsson, Andrew Ladd, and Antti Niemi were all restricted free agents in need of re-signing, while significant complimentary players to the Blackhawks successful cup run like Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland were already signed to significant cap hits in the $3M range.

In short, with all the talented Restricted Free Agents in need of re-signing, all the talent already locked up on the roster, and the cap penalties carried over to last season from the season before, the Blackhawks were over the cap limit and needed to either trade away some players, or perhaps demote Brian Campbell’s $7M cap hit to the AHL for one season if no one would take him. The Cup-winning roster’s architect Dave Tallon was fired, presumably for mismanaging the cap in such a way, and the son of coaching legend and “Blackhawks’ Senior Advisor” Scotty Bowman, Stan Bowman, was conveniently hired, in what so far has turned out to be a big mistake.

The Blackhawks, now under Stan Bowman’s management, chose to keep Campbell for that season, which left only one other route for getting under the cap: trading some of the team’s depth away.

The Blackhawks ended up losing their Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi for nothing through arbitration, a disaster in team management, and traded the most important goal scorer of their Cup run, Dustin Byfuglien, who was also the only source of size and grit they had in their top-six, along with gritty two-way talent Andrew Ladd, the young and electric Kris Versteeg, and depth pieces Ben Eager and Brent Sopel.

The Blackhawks barely made the playoffs last season, only qualifying as the eight seed thanks to a Dallas Stars loss on the last day of the season, and they just lost their first round playoff matchup this season in six games to the Phoenix Coyotes.

Did Stan Bowman trade the right players? I never in a million years would have parted with Byfuglien. In my mind he was the definite keep, even above Bolland–the organization’s depth at center be damned, due to his irreplaceable combination of size and skill at that affordable $3M cap hit. But it is beside the point.

This is the point. Since being traded from Chicago, here is what those three players have done.

Dustin Byfuglien has converted to defense, leading the entire NHL in goals for his position last season, and further demonstrating his elite “power forward” skill set, albeit as a defenseman. He followed that effort up this season by finishing second in points by a defenseman, with 53, despite playing on 66 games.

Andrew Ladd has been named captain of his new team, now the Winnipeg Jets, and posted an excellent 29-goal season in 2010-2011, followed up by a 28-goal effort this season.

Kris Versteeg is currently leading a renaissance of the Florida Panthers franchise, along with Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss. He played on the top line for much of the season and produced at a near point-per-game clip before running into injury problems. He still finished the regular season with 23 goals and 54 points in 71 games, and was key in helping the Panthers to their first postseason berth in over ten years. He has already scored 3 goals through 6 playoff games in the Panthers’ ongoing first round matchup with the New Jersey Devils.

In a league where top-six forwards and top-four defenseman are rarely available at all through trade, and cost an arm and a leg to acquire when they are, the Chicago Blackhawks traded three prime assets: a monster 265 lbs top-line power forward/top-pairing defenseman in Dustin Byfuglien, a gritty, physical, second-line-plus 29-goal-scoring captain in Andrew Ladd who plays in all situations, and a highly skilled, dynamic top-six forward in Kris Versteeg, who played as a top-line forward most of the season and performed very well in that role.

To give you an idea what those players should have been worth in the trade market, Dustin Penner was traded at the 2010-2011 trade deadline by the Edmonton Oilers for a 1st round pick, a 2nd round pick, and Colten Teubert (a recent 8th overall pick), and all three of players the Blackhawks’ traded have outperformed him the past two seasons, and done so easily.

And what did the Chicago Blackhawks get back in return for these three prime assets?

In exchange for trading Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg, along with Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, and Akim Aliu, the Chicago Blackhawks received Kevin Hayes (not currently in the NHL), Justin Holl (not currently in the NHL), Jeremy Morin (not currently in the NHL), Joey Crabb (signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs a week later, never played for the Blackhawks), Marty Reasoner (never played for the Blackhawks, was traded for Jeff Taffe during the offseason, who has not played for the Blackhawks, either), Viktor Stalberg (currently playing in the Blackhawks top-six, although he spent much of the season on the fourth line), Chris Didomenico (not currently in the NHL), Phillipe Paradis (not currently in the NHL), Ivan Vishnevskiy (not currently in the NHL), and Adam Clendening (not currently in the NHL).

The Chicago Blackhawks got 10 players back for their three prime assets; only one is now playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg scored 12 goals for the Blackhawks last season as a forward, 8 less than Dustin Byfuglien scored from defense. He improved that total to 22 this season, 1 less than Kris Versteeg this year (despite playing 8 more games), and 7 less than Andrew Ladd (in 3 fewer games). Stalberg’s 43 points from forward this season were still 10 less than Byfuglien amassed from defense in 13 fewer games.

As for the prospects the Blackhawks received in the deal, even the most highly touted of them, such as Jeremy Morin and Ivan Vishnevskiy, have not been able to make the team for good, let alone have a tangible impact on it.

Now, I understand the Blackhawks’ GM Stan Bowman had to trade somebody because of the salary cap, and I understand he was not in a great position, but if you have to trade away three key players like that, you at least want to get a couple prime assets back in return.

Instead, on a team with an already established core and only a few roster spots available for the foreseeable future, Bowman inexplicably chose to acquire quantity over quality. He acquired ten pieces back (including the draft picks he has since used), none of which were of a sufficient quality to help his team, even today.

The net trade can be summed up like this:

Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg were traded, and two years later, all the Blackhawks have to show for it is Viktor Stalberg, who up until a few months ago was still playing on the fourth line just as often as he was on any other line.

Not to mention, adding salt to the wounds, one of the Blackhawks’ biggest rivals, the San Jose Sharks, the one who offer-sheeted their young defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and stole their Cup winning goaltender, netted a 6th round pick out of the trade just to take one of the Atlanta Thrasher’s prospects because this trade put them over their organizational roster limit of 50.

We will have to wait a couple more years to truly judge this trade, but as of today, it stands as one of the worst trades of the decade. Seldom can the net moves of one offseason completely dismantle a team as fantastic and deep as the Blackhawks team of 2009-2010, but Stan Bowman is one of only a handful of GMs in NHL history who can say he accomplished such a feat.

When I talk to Blackhawks’ fans about their team, and ask for their opinions on what’s gone wrong, they might complain about Michael Frolik, or losing Troy Brouwer, or how they’re disappointed in Andrew Brunette’s impact this season.

But those moves are not what killed this should-have-been dynasty. It was a net trade Stan Bowman made that is easily one of the most lopsided and baffling I have ever seen, and no one talks about it.

At a crucial point in the franchise’s history, Bowman traded away all the team’s key forward depth–key not just in overall ability and production, but the distinct styles of that ability in the case of Ladd and Byfuglien which the Blackhawks needed to maintain the roster’s balance–but got almost nothing back in return to replace it.

He chose quantity over quality, and now he has nine minor league players and prospects instead of say three NHL impact players.

Even a prospect like Jeremy Morin, who has potential, is a B-level prospect, not an A. He is the type of prospect who may take four years to develop, when the Blackhawks needed help yesterday, and even then he will only be a top-six or top-nine forward.

For three prime assets, the Blackhawks could have done much better.

That’s what really happened to the Chicago Blackhawks depth, and their would-be dynasty gone with it.

Other trades of comparable incompetence over the last decade, like the Joe Thornton and Scott Gomez trades, got so much criticism and often resulted in firings of the General Managers responsible; it amazes me that this trade by Stan Bowman could go under the radar for so long, and really escape mainstream criticism, just because it was broken up into three separate deals and came the summer after the franchise won a Cup. Because so far Bowman’s trade has proved just as damaging to the Blackhawks as many of the most criticized trades in recent memory have to their respective teams, if not more so.

Part 3: Where Bad Luck and Poor Decision-Making Collide

Unsurprisingly, the Blackhawks have been a shell of that team since the three consecutive trades which dismantled the roster. It doesn’t matter what the NHL landscape is; no franchise can maintain its success through awful personnel decisions, although Toews, Kane, Sharp and company could nevertheless be doing a lot more if they had some room out there to use their skill.

But they don’t have more room, and that’s the bottom line. The Blackhawks’ great players that remain through Stan Bowman’s mega-giveaway are almost all speed and skill, with no muscle; that skill does not have enough room to dominate anymore, and unlike in 2009-2010, the Blackhawks don’t have the balance to make up the slack because Stan Bowman gave it all away.

It makes sense, then, that the Blackhawks went from winning four playoff rounds in one postseason to not winning one since Bowman’s historic first offseason. And if Stan Bowman’s personnel decisions this offseason are at all consistent with his previous decisions, I would not hold my breath for that to change next year, either.

If the Blackhawks want to regain their place atop the mountain of NHL glory, they need a General Manager who can bring some balance back to their lineup, and they need to talk to the NHL about finding ways to give skilled players more room to create plays on the ice.

The Byfuglien/Ladd/Versteeg trade would seem to indicate that Stan Bowman is not ready to be the GM Chicago needs now to repair the damage done to the roster (by Stan Bowman). Why should the very GM who did the damage be the one entrusted to repair it?

As for the issue of giving skill its space back to operate in, it may be that the only way to do that organically, meaning without hurting the game in other ways, is to increase the NHL’s playing surface to a happy medium between the current NHL surface-size, which is too small, and the international size, which may be too big.

My hope for all NHL fans, not just Blackhawks fans or Capitals fans, is that the league does whatever is necessary to bring skill back to the forefront of the NHL game. Because a hockey league where even the most talented players in the world, like Jonathan Toews and Alex Ovechkin, cannot make skilled plays with any regularity, is not a healthy league.

Written by Shark Circle

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A Humorous Look At The NHL In 10 Years
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Examining The Blackhawks’ Predicament As The Trade Deadline Approaches
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