(As we begin our State of the Franchise series, we start off with one of the Blackhawks’ biggest recent struggles: the draft)
One of Chicago’s most glaring weaknesses during the last few seasons has been on the blue line, where aging veterans Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook aren’t the same players anymore, and no young talent behind them has emerged — yet — to make up for Keith and Seabrook’s collective regression.
There are many other avenues to explore in explaining the Blackhawks’ recent demise, but much of it boils down to one key failure by this team:
The Blackhawks have failed to draft and develop an NHL-worthy defenseman since Niklas Hjalmarsson.
And Hjalmarsson was drafted in 2005. Since then, it’s been a never-ending list of missed opportunities and unrealized expectations.
From 2005 through 2015, the Blackhawks have selected 30 defensemen in 11 NHL drafts, according to the Hockey Reference. Of those 30, only nine have made it to the NHL and only one — Hjalmarsson — had a career that exceeded 200 NHL games. And Hjalmarsson was a fourth-round pick.
Some hope remains for 2013 NHL third-round pick Carl Dahlstrom, who’s getting his first significant NHL time with the Blackhawks this season. But the majority of remaining names on that list provided little or no value to the Blackhawks. The only one worth mentioning is Klas Dahlbeck, a 2011 third-round pick who was packaged in the trade that brought Antoine Vermette to the Hawks for the 2015 Stanley Cup run.
Many of these picks are in the later rounds, yes, but there are plenty of higher picks among the list of failed prospects. Dylan Olsen was a 2009 first-round pick who played in just 28 games with Chicago before being traded to the Panthers, where he bounced between the AHL and NHL for three seasons and now plays in the UK.
And Chicago hasn’t had much luck in the second or third rounds, either:
- Simon Danis-Pepin, 2006, no NHL games
- Justin Holl, 2010, four NHL games, all with the Maple Leafs, where Holl signed after never signing with Chicago
- Stephen Johns, 2010, 150 NHL games, all with the Stars
- Adam Clendening, 2011, 90 NHL games in five seasons, only four with the Blackhawks
- Dillon Fournier, 2012, no NHL games
- Shawn Lalonde, 2008, one NHL game
- Michael Paliotta, 2011, two NHL games
- Dennis Gilbert, 2015, no NHL games
On defense is where the Blackhawks draft struggles have been the most pronounced, but the Blackhawks’ drafts have, overall, failed to consistently provide its NHL team with quality young talent over the last three seasons, stemming from a string of unsuccessful drafts in the middle of this decade.
After a salary cap purge dismantled the team in the 2010 offseason, the Blackhawks added reinforcements with Marcus Kruger (2009 fifth-round pick), Brandon Saad (2011 second-round pick) and Andrew Shaw (2011 fifth-round pick), who all played key roles in the 2013 and 2015 Cup victories.
But in the middle of this decade, the Blackhawks had back-to-back drafts that failed to replenish Chicago’s farm system, leading to the drought of young talent that sent the Blackhawks into a steady decline during the last three seasons.
The 2014 draft produced nine picks, with only two making the NHL: one is Dylan Sikura, a sixth-round pick who still needs to prove he can be a worthwhile NHLer. The other was first-round pick Nick Schmaltz, who was later traded for Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini (two former first rounders) in a move that could be beneficial to Chicago’s long-term plans. But the inability of Chicago’s front office to find — and develop — draft picks from the later rounds has helped bring on on this decline.
The 2015 draft was even worse. The Blackhawks did not have a first-round pick, but the seven players selected haven’t cracked an NHL roster anywhere. Only defensemen Dennis Gilbert and Joni Tuulola remain with the organization, but neither player made our Top 25 Under 25 prospect rankings earlier this month and don’t appear close to an NHL debut.
Not having a first-round pick can’t be an excuse, either, because the Blackhawks didn’t have a first-round pick in 2016 and still managed to add Alex DeBrincat to the organization.
The Good News
There is reason for optimism regarding Chicago’s draft success, though. DeBrincat’s meteoric rise can create some hope. The 2017 draft added Henri Jokiharju in the first round, while second-rounder Ian Mitchell and third-rounder Evan Barratt are having significant success in the NCAA. And Chicago’s two first-round picks from the 2018 draft — Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin — haven’t done anything to diminish the buzz surrounding them.
But the Blackhawks front office struggled mightily this decade at identifying young talent in the draft and getting it to the NHL level, which would’ve replenished the Blackhawks roster and also saved on cap space, because draft picks arrive on three-year, entry-level contracts that stay under $1 million annually.
Chicago didn’t draft well enough to stay on top of the NHL standings. That’s part of the reason why it’s now looking up at just about every other team in the league. The other reasons? Check back with Second City Hockey for the next part of our “State of the Franchise” series.