Life is better when you have a cushion. It is easier to take a test when you’ve done well on all of your previous assessments. Traffic is more tolerable on the way to the airport if you give yourself a two-hour window. And, literally, seats are more comfortable. In the NHL, comfort takes the form of margin of error, like receiving a test with half the bubbles already filled in correctly. In professional hockey, it is a luxury possessed only if your core is remarkably good. In part, the success rendered by the core is rightly attributed to the front office, but arguably when GMs have exceptional players, they become their margin of error.
Two cases in point are the GMs of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Oilers. As GM of a team that has won multiple Stanley Cups, Stan Bowman is heralded as a genius. But the more analytically inclined can’t shake the discomforting possibility that maybe some front-office guys are just lucky while others aren’t.
In the summer of 2009, Bowman was promoted from within because team president John McDonough was unhappy with how GM Dale Tallon missed the deadline for sending qualifying offers to restricted free agents. There are no tea leaves being read here; McDonough acknowledged that Tallon would “probably not” have been fired if not for this mistake.
Bowman had been with Chicago for nine years at the time, two of which he spent as director of hockey operations and two more as assistant GM before he replaced Tallon as GM. It is impossible to tease out who had more responsibility for drafting Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, or Duncan Keith. Or signing free agent Brian Campbell and trading for Patrick Sharp for that matter. Even Marian Hossa’s monster contract was inked just before Bowman took full control. Legendary coach Joel Queneville was hired in October of 2008. Bowman was in the blood stream for all of it, but there is no imprimatur like the Montreal Canadiens had with GM Sam Pollock.
But history has a pattern. Tallon’s footprint will fade while Bowman’s mark will become more pronounced. The Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups in the last seven seasons while Bowman was in charge. And while Bowman has made some shrewd moves to help shore up weaknesses and strengthen the front and back ends, possessing the Kane-Toews-Keith nucleus has cocooned him from negative consequences. And press. The worst outcomes were two straight first-round playoff exits in 2011 and 2012. But concerns were quashed when the Blackhawks won two of the next three Stanley Cups. Running an NHL team is a position fraught with insecurity, but Bowman’s accolades have him on an extended honeymoon.
This season the Blackhawks have the best record in their conference. But their forward group is top heavy, and come playoff time it is hard to escape the sinking feeling that, if Kane’s line doesn’t produce prolifically, this team is toast. Plucking Artemi Panarin from Russia was a stroke of brilliance (seriously, he is pound-your-fist-on-the-table incredible), and the Artem Anisimov trade has worked out very well, but things become murky when the focus shifts to the rest of the forward lines. What about Toews? The captain turns 29 in April and currently has the lowest points per game (.60) of his career. In 2015-16, he had a .73 ppg which was the second lowest of his career. History says his scoring prime is finished. So what’s the solution? He will occasionally be paired with Kane. But more often, the Blackhawks revert back to the Marian Hossa-Toews pairing as a lifeline for each. Sandwiched between the future Hall of Famers is typically a skater who injects energy but lacks sufficient skill. And for a player who is almost 40, Hossa is still heavily relied on.
Every time a forward misses time, the fragility of the team’s depth up front is conspicuous. The two best draft picks of the last six years have been Brandon Saad and Teuvo Teravainen, both of whom are now succeeding with other teams. Mega contracts limit Bowman’s options for signing valuable role players, but there are other reasons why Chicago’s role players are mediocre. Chicago has made short-term, win-now moves of questionable logic and sacrificed its franchise depth in the process.
In the summer of 2015, Bowman traded Patrick Sharp and Stephen Johns for Trevor Daley and Ryan Garbutt. Sharp flourished last year, but this season his numbers have sharply declined and he has been injured. Good instincts by Bowman to not pay an aging sharpshooter. But the issue lies in the package received. Neither Daley nor Garbutt are still on the Blackhawks, and Daley has flourished on the Penguins, even seeing some time in the No. 1 defenseman role en route to their Cup win. The decision to trade him seems even worse because of the struggles with Chicago’s defensive group last season after Daley left. While it may seem like revisionist history to slam the move because Daley exceled with Pittsburgh, part of the bewilderment lies in what the Blackhawks received back. He was traded for Rob Scuderi! Scuderi is atrocious, possibly one of the worst NHL defensemen who saw regular action last season.
By discarding Sharp and other productive but dispensable players, Bowman wants room to maneuver, and he tries to maintain cap space so he can make a big trade-deadline move. But this reasoning must be questioned as well. Andrew Ladd was the headline acquisition last season, but only because of what Chicago surrendered to acquire him, not because of what he did on the ice. The Blackhawks paid the price for a player of influence, parting with a first-round pick and Marko Dano, who has looked like a quality top-nine forward for Winnipeg when healthy.
The issue is that the Blackhawks need to acquire or develop skilled, bottom-six, ancillary forwards. Yet Bowman’s desire to carve out salary space consistently guts his youth by trading blue-chip talent and draft picks. The Predators found Viktor Ardvidsson in the fourth round. The Sharks snagged Chris Tierney in the second round. Those two players are not overly talented, but they can skate, they are smart, and they are sufficiently skilled to contribute scoring. Skating and puck control go a long way. Cheap impact players move the needle in the postseason.
The Blackhawks are depending on Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman to be those players. Hartman, drafted 30th in 2013, and Schmaltz, 20th in 2014, share some of the qualities that make a valued depth forward. But with Toews’ scoring decline and Hossa’s age, the Blackhawks’ cupboard should be stocked with more newfangled weaponry. Bowman has had all of this decade to groom a supporting cast.
The league has been trending younger, which makes the strategy of seeking a singular, transcendent force in a player past his prime look worse and worse. The Blackhawks know what it takes to win a series. They do not need another grizzled veteran with a lot of mileage on him. It would be shrewder to trade for a young, undervalued forward on an entry-level contract who possesses some speed and puck-handling to help bolster their depth. Call up Winnipeg and see if they can get Nic Petan. Maybe offer Carolina something tasty for Sebastian Aho.
Winnipeg and Carolina would likely be reluctant to part with Petan and Aho, and that is where the Blackhawks’ willingness to part with future assets should probably continue. Their window for winning the Cup is open but who knows for how much longer. So when they spend precious capital, they might as well get ambitious, imaginative players with upside to be tapped on their first contract. And it is precisely this affordability component which would possibly enable the Blackhawks to acquire two or three of these depth players. Dano and Teravainen were those guys, but they are long gone. Skewing younger instead of toward someone whose best years are behind him is the single biggest lesson Chicago needs to learn. Yet sometimes the wrong compulsion leads to the right result. Which is what happened two seasons ago.
The Blackhawks won in 2015, but not because they traded a first-round pick for Antoine Vermette. Vermette was an afterthought in most games and barely contributed. His biggest moment was an overtime goal, but for the most part his impact was marginal. Still, these shortcomings do not get exposed when you have a superstar buffer. Keep in mind that this team won the Stanley Cup in 2013 with Michal Handzus as its No. 2 center. The Blackhawks have succeeded with a lacuna existing between the nucleus and the supporting cast, but it might be easier to stomach if the gap were not partially self-inflicted.
Even if Bowman receives a little more credit than he deserves, he does not hold a candle to Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli. It would be a disservice to call Chiarelli polarizing because he is more fascinating and complex than that hoary cliché. It is astonishing to fathom that Chiarelli will likely finish his career with multiple Cups from multiple teams, and yet, in trades and free agency he makes moves so baffling you question whether he has any idea what he is doing. Like a CEO of a financial giant, he manages to be self-destructive and wildly successful.
The Oilers likely won’t reach the Western Conference finals like the Blackhawks did in 2009 – that surprise appearance was the warning shot to the rest of the league that a quasi-dynasty was coming – only because it’s hard to accomplish that without a defensive anchor. And this reality shines a light on Chiarelli’s most reprehensible mistake and biggest advantage. How good a situation do you have to be in where you can trade Taylor Hall for a No. 6/7 defenseman and still have an undeniably incandescent future? Such is life with a teenage Connor McDavid in your clutches.
The talent accumulation that has been in progress for the last several years is hitting a crescendo. The skill and gifts that warranted the hype and fanfare are real. Now the Oilers have three lines of vibrancy. The skating, passing, puck-handling, and intelligence are off the charts. McDavid is an engine of destabilization on defenses that has not been seen since Crosby’s heyday. And this potency by the Oilers’ core greatly alleviates the burden and responsibility for the Patrick Maroons and Benoit Pouliots of the team.
All this makes Chiarelli look like a guy who just inherited a billion dollars, lost $500 million on a bad investment, and then made $100 million back and people are ready to celebrate him. Milan Lucic was a nice signing and Jesse Puljujarvi has a bright outlook, but Chiarelli’s biggest move of his tenure was a disaster. The Hall trade was the worst since the Filip Forsberg catastrophe. But in several years, when the Oilers make a few Cup appearances, Chiarelli will be viewed as a luminary of his time. When you win a couple of Cups, your legacy is cemented; that is the nature of sports. This will ignore the fact that he traded the No. 1 (Hall) and No. 2 (Tyler Seguin) picks of the 2010 Draft, and that both of those players are exceptional.
The biggest questions for the Oilers are how quickly does their defense coalesce and what outside help will they acquire to help mitigate for the unconscionable Hall trade? The Penguins pushed the boundaries of what was possible with a less-than-desirable defense. But that’s also because they had Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel at full bore and because Mike Sullivan turned in the greatest coaching performance I have ever seen.
Forwards are more important than defensemen, and that’s why the Oilers can be floating around the top ten in 5v5 close and all-situations Corsi and field the blue line that they do. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl have demonstrated responsibility and awareness of their 200-foot responsibilities, and McDavid is very good and improving in that respect as well. But combine lack of playoff experience with the possibility of Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell closing out the end of games and logging the most ice time among defensemen, and their Cup prospects won’t be fully realized until Darnell Nurse assumes the No. 1 spot or they solicit some outside help. And the fact that they traded for a defenseman to fill this role who is in no way capable of fulfilling it is directly on Chiarelli. But the powers on the ice are likely so strong that it won’t matter in the long run.
Some economists believe that market forces determine how well the economy does, independent of the president and his economic team. This is not to say that culture and chemistry don’t matter, but the more we understand about hockey, the more we recognize that it is like most things. Free will is illusionary. Randomness is swift and persistent. And it is better to be lucky than good.