The Chicago Blackhawks made for fun viewing when the NHL’s 24-team bubble tournament commenced Aug. 1. They squeaked into the elimination event holding the NHL’s 23rd-best points percentage. Facing the top seed of the Western Conference play-in bracket, the Edmonton Oilers, the Hawks faced zero pressure. Veteran goaltender Corey Crawford, coming off an outstanding regular season, was the healthiest he’d been in years, having shaken off post-concussion syndrome and even a bout of COVID-19. The Hawks’ group of multi-time Stanley Cup winners, from Jonathan Toews to Patrick Kane, played like their old star selves and scored a thrilling upset over the Oilers in four games.
Exciting? You bet. But did it fool GM Stan Bowman? No. There was no big decision at stake as he watched his team advance to the Round of 16. He wasn’t deliberating over whether to rebuild or retool his team. Under the traditional playoff format, the Hawks sat six points out of contention when the NHL shut down March 12. They’d also iced a historically bad defense in 2019-20. No team allowed more shots or scoring chances or high-danger chances at 5-on-5. They were just the eighth team this millennium to surrender more than 35 shots a game in a season.
So Bowman had a realistic understanding of his team’s identity by the time the in-depth chats with Danny Wirtz began.
The Blackhawks had fired president and CEO John McDonough in late April, and owner Rocky Wirtz installed his son Danny as an interim replacement. With no hockey during the spring, Danny had lots of time to discuss business initiatives with Bowman, and when the bubble tournament began, the pair had “nothing but time,” as Bowman puts it, to start talking hockey. They spent most of every day together. They ate together. They got to know each other well. Wirtz became extremely interested in the long-term vision of the team. He asked lots of questions about the potential of a rebuild versus a retool, about how close the Hawks were to contending.
Wirtz began to put himself in the fans’ shoes and realized they might want the same transparency he was receiving from Bowman.
“He certainly had knowledge, but he said, ‘Even some of this stuff was very helpful for me to learn,’ ” Bowman said in a phone call Thursday. “ ‘I think our fans would like to know this stuff. I think it would be better for everybody if we said, ‘How come we don’t tell this story better?’
“And I just said, ‘That’s a good point. We probably should.’ ”
It worked for the New York Rangers, after all.
Flash back to 2018, when an icy bucket of truth splashed across the faces of New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, president Glen Sather and owner James Dolan in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline. The franchise had enjoyed an extended run as a powerhouse, reaching the 2014 Stanley Cup final, winning the 2015 Presidents’ Trophy and coming within a victory of reaching a second straight final in 2015. But 2016 and 2015 yielded third- and fourth-place finishes, respectively, in the Metropolitan Division, with playoff exits in the first and second round. By the middle of 2017-18, the Rangers’ grip on a post-season rung was buttery at best.
This team had no stars, let alone superstars, a future Hall of Fame goalie in his mid-30s and a malnourished prospect tree after trading so many draft picks in the name of win-now strategizing. The Rangers’ farm system regularly ranked among the league’s weakest according to The Hockey News’ panel of NHL executives and scouts in Future Watch. The long-term forecast looked tempestuous. “As the season was evolving, it was becoming clearer and clearer that we were going to fight for eighth, and how good were we, really?” Gorton told The Hockey News in 2019. “How legitimate were we? Did we think our team was as good as we were in the past?
“We kept coming back to: ‘No.’ ”
The hard part was over. Denial became acceptance. It was time for Gorton, Sather and Dolan to pen ‘The Letter.’ They published the 341-word pledge Feb. 8, 2018, with the Rangers grinding out a .509 points percentage at the time, their lowest since 2003-04. “As a member of the Blueshirt Faithful, we consider you a part of the New York Rangers family and always want to ensure we share important news about the organization directly with you,” the letter began. “Today, we want to talk to you about the future.”
The mini-manifesto’s most important takeaway was that, with the trade deadline approaching, the Rangers announced a commitment to “adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill and character.” It was a progressive statement from a franchise long known for hurling briefcases of cash at the priciest veteran free agents available. From 2013 through 2016, the Rangers had gone four drafts without a first-round pick. They were finally ready to adopt the modern game plan for success in the NHL.
So far, so good, right? It’s remarkable how quickly the Blueshirts have altered the perception of their franchise. The team that used to burn draft picks has picked in the first round eight times in the past four drafts. Perhaps the philosophical evolution produced a magical karmic shift, as the Rangers scored consecutive lottery wins, yielding Kaapo Kakko at No. 2 in 2019 and Alexis Lafreniere at No. 1 in 2020. The trajectory improved so much, so fast that it allowed New York to woo an elite UFA in Artemi Panarin last year and begin an accelerated rebuild. The team looks ready to start “win now” mode as soon as this season.
The Blackhawks studied the Rangers’ success closely, and it certainly influenced the decision Wirtz and Bowman made to create The Letter 2.0, the Chicago version, which they published this past Tuesday. You can read it in its entirely here. The language includes proclamations like, “We’re committed to developing young players and rebuilding our roster.” Similarities to Ranger letter are not coincidental.
“We did look at it,” Bowman said. “I had talked to Jeff in the past about it. This is going back even probably nine months ago to a year ago. I had (asked): How was it received? What was your experience? Do you regret doing it, or do you think it was a good step for your organization?”
As Bowman explains, he’d been thinking about it for a while because, really, the Blackhawks have been rebuilding for a while. The letter exposed the process, but it didn’t start the process. By the end of their dynastic run of three Stanley Cups from 2010 to 2015, Bowman was willing to dangle first-round picks in pursuit of more championships. Chicago didn’t pick in Round 1 for the 2015 or 2016 draft. But the Hawks have been first-round mainstays at the podium since 2017, nabbing Henri Jokiharju (traded for Alex Nylander, who is also a first-rounder); Adam Boqvist, Nicolas Beaudin, Kirby Dach and Lukas Reichel with five first-round picks across the past four drafts. The Hawks traded for Dylan Strome and Dominik Kubalik. They opted not to re-sign Crawford despite his stellar year. As their letter states, they were the youngest team in the 2020 playoffs.
“The thing to try and clear up, and it’s hard because I think people tend to look at things in black and white: we’re not endeavoring to just tear this thing apart and start from scratch,” Bowman said. “What we want to do is build more depth by investing in younger players, and that’s going to be our guideline going forward. So, in order to get back to the top of the path that we’re going to take, rather than going out in the free-agent market and bringing in guys in their late 20s or 30s who might have a couple years left and might be more ready-made to help than younger players, that’s not the road we’re taking. But we’re not really endeavoring to totally rip this down, and we’re trying to support – we’ve got some really good players here. Some really good veterans and some good young players. We’re not at a zero starting point. We’ve got some elements. We don’t have enough of them. We need more depth up and down our lineup, and the way that we’re going to move forward is to invest in young players through draft, trades, free agency. “
So far, Bowman’s off-season transactions reflect that mentality. He let Crawford walk and traded two-time Cup winner Brandon Saad. Bowman’s additions were all of the depth variety. The likes of Nikita Zadorov and Olli Maatta will push Chicago’s young blueline generation of Boqvist, Beaudin and Ian Mitchell but aren’t good enough to block the kids long-term. Bowman hit big bringing over Panarin five years ago and will try to unearth another gem at forward in Swiss League MVP Pius Suter, who is 24, the same age Panarin was when he signed.
So the Blackhawks’ vision is clear, and they’ve communicated it to their fans like never before. But where does that leave the veteran stalwart group, the remaining core four from all the 2010s championship teams? Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook haven’t been happy. Toews expressed his dismay at the rebuild mentality in a recent story in the Athletic. Bowman had to do damage control. Managing those egos can’t be easy when they’ve been Chicago royalty for a decade and have built close relationships with Bowman. But it was a matter of clarifying the message sent by the team’s moves so far and by the letter.
“Of course it’s been hard,” Bowman said. “I talked to all four of them a few days ago, right before the letter was released. We went over everything with them prior to it going out, and I think the common denominator for everyone on this team is just, they just want to win. What I heard from them is, ‘Look, I just want to win. We’ve won before, we know what it feels like, and we’ve been frustrated that we haven’t been winning lately,’ and that’s where the commonality is. I’m on the same page as they are. I want to win as well. That’s why we’re doing this together. I think the difference is they want to win right away, which we do as well, but the path for us to win again…I’ve had to explain to them why this is our best opportunity to do it as opposed to any other approach.”
Bowman believes his core group understands now that, to actually chase a championship again, Chicago may need to step backward to step forward. More importantly, he wants his players and his fans to understand the step backward already happened a couple years ago. The letter is more of a rundown of what has already been happening than what is about to start happening, meaning he doesn’t feel the team is years away from contention.
“You look back at what we’ve done over the last couple years – we’ve traded players away at the deadline,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a couple years trying to get assets back. This isn’t something that’s starting. We were at the top of the mountain for a long time, we dropped down, but we’re on our way back up already.”