Let’s step a back from the ice for one week and take this series upstairs to the front office, shall we?
Spend some time among certain factions of the Chicago Blackhawks fan base and there’s a debate raging about who was the “true” architect of the team’s current run. There are those adamant that current GM Stan Bowman is responsible for the team’s Cup success, while there remains a steadfast group which attributes this honor to former GM Dale Tallon.
That specific debate is largely irrelevant for this Blackhawks history lesson, though, because the GM who preceded those two was responsible for acquiring three players in the early-2000s who remain active — and vital — members of the Blackhawks roster.
Mike Smith never played in the NHL, with his hockey career ending after his time at Clarkson University. He later transferred to Syracuse and coached at the Christian Brothers Academy, a prep school in Syracuse. In 1979, he was hired to coach a team in the Winnipeg Jets organization and remained there in various positions for 14 years.
Smith was a scout with the Blackhawks when the Toronto Maple Leafs named him associate GM in 1997. Two years later, he was back to Chicago as the team’s general manager. In the 2001-02 season, the Blackhawks made their first postseason appearance in five years and Smith was named “Executive of the Year” by The Sporting News.
That title didn’t last long, though.
By October 2003, the Hawks were back to being league doormats and Smith’s clashes with then-head coach Brian Sutter resulted in his dismissal from the organization.
Smith oversaw four drafts in Chicago, starting with 2000. The Blackhawks had four picks in the first three rounds and three of those picks were Russians: Mikhail Yakubov (10th overall), Pavel Vorobiev (11th overall) and Igor Radulov (74th overall). That trio combined for 153 career NHL games and just 63 points.
A quick side note: Smith had a fascination with Russian hockey players, stemming from his belief in the style of hockey made famous by the Soviet Union teams of the 70s and 80s, which was more of a possession-based game. While that’s popular now, it wasn’t as much in the 90s and 2000s. So Smith, who possessed a doctorate in Russian studies, was heavily criticized for constantly picking Russian players in the draft that he felt were overlooked by the largely Canadian GMs of the NHL. This helped Smith earn the moniker “Smithov” during his Chicago tenure.
The 2001 draft included two quality NHLers: forward Tuomo Ruutu in the first round and goaltender Craig Anderson in the third. Ruutu played in 735 games but never quite reached the potential of his ninth overall selection. Anderson didn’t emerge as a No. 1 goalie until playing with the Colorado Avalanche in 2009-10 — four years after he’d left Chicago.
But the 2002 and 2003 drafts were different.
In 2002, after picking Anton Babchuk in the first round — another Russian player! — Smith selected Duncan Keith in the second round (54th overall). James Wisnieweski (fifth round) and Adam Burish (ninth round) were also Chicago selections in 2002, who each enjoyed solid NHL careers.
Smith’s picks were even better in 2003. In the first round, he selected Brent Seabrook 14th overall and then took Corey Crawford in the second round (52nd overall). Perhaps his best pick, in terms of value, was nabbing Dustin Byfuglien in the eighth round (245th overall).
Just look at some of the other players the Blackhawks could’ve had instead of those franchise fixtures. The two players selected after Keith were Denis Grot and Vladislav Yevseyev. Neither made it to the NHL. After Seabrook came center Robert Nilsson and forward Steve Bernier, who both reached the NHL but never became top-line players like Seabrook. After Crawford? Evgeny Tunik, another player who never made it to the NHL.
Next time that Bowman/Tallon debate rages somewhere, feel free to point out that neither GM was responsible for picking the top D pairing for three Stanley Cup-winning NHL teams and the goaltender who was in net for two of them.