Just the other day, I took a moment to check the final regular-season standings from the 2005-’06 NHL season. (You will recall that was the first season coming out of the lost-year lockout.) The Maple Leafs missed the playoffs for the first time with Pat Quinn as coach, as the outstanding veteran coach—having had to relinquish his GM duties in the summer of 2003—was left with a weak roster when the organization was seemingly unprepared for the post lockout world.
But what I was really double-checking was exactly where the Chicago Blackhawks finished. In fact, the Hawks were pretty dismal that season, finishing in 14th place in the Western Conference standings.
These days, of course, the Hawks are considered something of a modern-day hockey dynasty. They have just earned their third Stanley Cup in six years.
Interestingly, every summer we hear how the Hawks are up against the cap, and will have trouble adjusting the roster before next season without losing some key pieces. But every summer management makes it work, shedding salary through judicious trades while still holding on to the team’s true core. This happened after they won their first Cup under Joel Quenneville a few years ago, and the organization will move pieces around again this off-season.
Looking at the 2005-’06 roster, it’s interesting to look at who was on that team. Corey Crawford played two games in goal, spending most of his 20-year old rookie pro season in the American Hockey League. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were young, emerging defensemen, just out of their teens. Patrick Sharp was adjusting to life in the NHL as a forward in his early 20s.
Much of the rest of the roster is long gone from the NHL, though names like netminder Craig Anderson, Mike Brown, Radem Vrbata, Tuomo Ruutu and Rene Bourque have remained contributors elsewhere over the years. Dustin Byfuglien is a star with the Winnipeg Jets.
The roster check did cause me to pause and reflect somewhat.
In today’s cap and free agent world, it’s almost surprising when any team has more than a player or two on its roster for a decade. So the fact that the Hawks have largely built over the past near decade around a goalie (Crawford), two stud defensemen in Keith and Seabrook and forwards like Sharp maybe sheds a bit of light on the Hawks’ philosophy when it comes to building teams.
It’s about defense and strength down the middle, for sure—building around young, talented (and rugged) defensemen, and giving your goaltender a chance to develop.
Now, hitting near rock bottom in the standings has allowed them to also scoop up future game changers in Jonathan Toews (more stretch up the middle) and Patrick Kane via the draft. They picked the “right” guys, as recent history demonstrates.
They’ve lost good players over the years, too, but have added others like Marian Hossa (and more recently Vermette and Brad Richards), who was once thought by some to be a talented guy who played on teams that didn’t win. That certainly hasn’t been an issue for him in Chicago.
Of course, they’ve always found useful role players (and some like Brandon Saad who have become more than that), with the required character traits that make those players invaluable to a team-first philosophy.
This all leads me to where we are with the Leafs. Some have suggested here that the Leafs, with a new coach in tow, are not really that far away from contending. Others see a major roster overhaul still ahead.
We’ve all recognized that there has been skill on the Leaf roster the last few years, but have also noticed that somehow the roster, as constituted, was not able to play with the consistent quality needed to win at this level. Whatever confluence of events it was—coaching, the wrong system, rushing some players too soon, a lack of commitment to real team defense, poor player development, middlish drafting—the team fell short of expectations several years running under Wilson and Carlyle.
Now Shanahan is in charge. His assistants are key decision-makers. And Babcock will be a high expectations coach.
Is there enough of a core here to provide legitimate hope for the future?
Morgan Rielly certainly brings some of that. Can he be a difference-maker like a Keith or Seabrook?
Can Kadri be our Patrick Sharp?
Is Bernier a keeper like Crawford has been in Chicago?
Will Nylander be a Kane-like talent?
Who else provides that hope?
I can throw out the usual “prospect” names, like Connor Brown, Frederik Gauthier, Tom Nilsson and Petter Granberg, but for me they are just that right now—names, prospects who may be Leafs soon.
We also have the fourth overall pick in the draft, so more help is on the way. Will we also trade to grab another high first round pick?
There are already some good NHL players on the current roster. Trades will no doubt be made and of course there is free agency.
I’m not sure I want to say the Hawks are the model franchise that must be followed. After all, there is no single way to get to the top. Every good organization does it a bit differently and what is needed to win seems to shift every few years, though the essentials are the same.
It takes all the things we’ve talked about here at VLM for years: skill, coaching, proper player development, leadership, veteran experience, a roster full of determined players who hate to lose and a management team that stays true to its vision but can also adjust to a changing landscape. (Supportive ownership that won't get in the way doesn't hurt, either.)
The Hawks, like the Wings and Devils have been over the past two decades (and the Bruins perhaps more recently) are indeed a team to at least look at when it comes to asking yourself: how do you build a champion?
Shanahan and the new Leaf brass have the opportunity to work from a fairly fresh canvas. They have lots of examples of recent success to analyze.
Decades ago, Frank Sinatra wrote about doing it “his way”. Great teams have a vision and, for the most part, stay with it. The Leafs just need to determine what “their way” is.