Recently I have been reading The MVP Machine, a pretty interesting book about player development in baseball. The opening chapter delves into how the famous Moneyball story led to just about every team in baseball adopting a similar strategy in an effort to build their teams more intelligently. At one point they quote baseball analyst Phil Brinbaum, who once said, “You gain more by not being stupid than you do by being smart.” This quote stuck out to me as one that could apply far more to hockey than baseball, as there are far more GMs in hockey that work themselves into bad situations simply by being stupid rather than helping themselves out by being smart.
And lately Stan Bowman has been pretty fucking stupid.
Heading into this offseason, you would’ve been forgiven if you thought that Bowman’s shopping list was simultanesouly small and difficult to fulfill. Primarily, the Blackhawks were (read: still are) in need of at least two defensemen who could handle at least a top-4 assignment, or at least one or two who could play a much more competent third pair game than Slater Koekkoek and Gustav Forsling. They also could’ve used a more reliable backup/1A goalie, and maybe some forward depth or a top-six guy if they were lucky and the cost was right, but given that they were 8th in the NHL in goals scored but 30th in goals allowed last year, the defense clearly needed far more attention. So let’s call this shopping list: two defensemen, a goalie, and one or two versatile forwards.
On paper, you could easily say they’ve checked off this list. They traded for Calvin DeHann, Olli Maatta, and Andrew Shaw, and signed Robin Lehner and Ryan Carpenter in free agency. But if you’ve been paying attention, you know that even though this group consists of two defensemen, a goalie, and two versatile (used loosely) forwards, the Hawks have done very little to actually move the needle. Maatta stinks, DeHaan could be fine but might only have one shoulder, and neither of them bring anything of value in the puck-moving department which this team also desperately needed and still needs. Lehner could be a great signing, but he’s also been streaky in his career and no one will blame you if you feel icky about him given his politics. Carpenter’s contract bring almost no risk, but he’s a nothing forward and is supposed to be the PK savior apparently even though he was Vegas’ worst penalty killer. We already know Shaw sucks ass, and if you don’t think his 2018-19 production was a fluke I have a bridge to sell you.
A lot of the justification for moves like the above were that Bowman and Coach Cool Youth Pastor apparently thought this team lacked #grit and #toughness. We had “anonymous scouts” telling us that Shaw’s brand of bullshit was fine because of his contract, which it isn’t, and his contract is too much for his role. Maybe it’s the same anonymous scout that thought Top Cat was a 20-goal-max player.
But among all of this, the Hawks passed on a widely-consiered sure thing future 1D in Bowen Byram in favor of skilled but flawed center Kirby Dach at #3 overall. And then there was Tuesday when they went and traded Henri Jokiharju for Alex Nylander. The justification for these moves, both from the Hawks and from some analysts evaluating the trade, was that the Hawks are a team that likes to bet on skill even when there are question marks. And look, in some ways that is true – they did it with guys like Saad, Top Cat, and Strome, and those have all worked out well enough. There are other examples that didn’t work, too, but overall betting on skill is the correct approach, especially in the modern age of hockey.
The problem is that passing on Byram for Dach and trading Jokiharju for Nylander both represent the same mistake – passing on/getting rid of promising defensemen in order to bet on those skilled but flawed forwards. And when you have a giant pile of the Mind Flayer’s melted flesh legions on your blue line, you’re hardly in a position to do that, regardless of how you feel about Boqvist, Mitchell, Beaudin, etc.
But the real issue is that the moves in the Maatta/DeHann/Shaw vein and the moves in the Dach/Nylander vein are contradictory. It makes very little sense to simultaneously load your team up with grinders while also betting on skilled young players, because the best way to help those young players is to surround them with other skilled players. Only a maximum of four players at a time can play with Kane and Toews, and other than those two there are very few skilled veterans on this roster that can truly elevate the talent around them. Dach might not be in the NHL this year, but the Hawks should at least plan for scenarios where he is. If Nylander isn’t, the trade looks even worse. And if both of those guys end up on the roster, you can’t really construct a lineup that maximizes their help without ending up with someone on a third line who should be much higher.
All of this is indicative of a very real and very large problem on Madison St. The Blackhawks have no clue what they are doing. They admitted it earlier this year and then again after they signed Lehner – they don’t have a plan, they’re just flying by the seat of their pants and hoping it works out. They can tell us until they’re blue in the face that they’ve like Maatta and Nylander for years. They can tell us they wanted De Haan last year (if that was the case why did you not sign him instead of Brandon Fucking Manning?). There is zero reason to believe any of it is true, or that it is anything more than lip service. They are a team without a direction, and they keep making it harder on themselves to find one.