In the salary-cap era, there’s only so much money that an NHL team can invest in their roster at one time, theoretically leading to a level playing field for all 30 clubs. The Blackhawks’ sustained success in a league of parity—becoming the first team to clinch the Stanley Cup twice since 2005—not only points to shrewd player management at the NHL level, but also speaks to smart investments behind the scenes. Player development is one such area where the organization’s focus has paid dividends, producing the depth needed to win titles.
Instant superstars such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane appear once or twice a generation, but for the majority of NHL players, their success at the pro level is emphatically tied to the quality of their development in the years prior. Goaltender Corey Crawford, for instance, spent seven years honing his game in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the American Hockey League before grabbing the starter’s job in 2010-11, while 2013 playoff hero Bryan Bickell made brief impressions in the NHL over three seasons before claiming his place on the Blackhawks roster in 2010.
The organization’s commitment to the future is helmed by experienced personnel who have gladly accepted the responsibility of developing the next generation of Blackhawks stars: the Corey Crawfords and Bryan Bickells who could lead the team to even more future championships.
COMMITTED TO THE CAUSE
The Blackhawks have put a premium on player development for years. Assistant GM Norm Maciver served as the organization’s first-ever Director of Player Development from 2008-11, and the title is currently held by Barry Smith, a hockey lifer whose résumé spans decades and reads like a hockey enthusiast’s travel checklist: the NCAA, NHL, Swedish Elite League, Kontinental Hockey League and international tournaments with both the U.S. and Sweden. The vast and varied experiences Smith picked up both at home and abroad have helped shape his current philosophy.
”You [approach player development] with the coaching hat on, because the stronger your players play individually, the better chance you have of your team playing well collectively,” Smith said.
Working directly under Smith are Player Development Coach Keith Carney, who played over 1,000 games at the NHL level and works primarily with defensemen prospects; Development Forwards Coach Yanic Perreault, who finished his 13-year pro career with the Blackhawks in 2007-08 and is known as one of the best faceoff men in recent history; and Developmental Goaltending Coach Andrew Allen, whose coaching career took him from Ottawa to Japan, where he worked with their nascent national program before succeeding Wade Flaherty—now Winnipeg’s goalie coach—in his current position.
Carney’s role as a mentor to younger players toward the end of his NHL career helped him make the transition to a development coach who guides prospects along the winding path to the pro game. Players used to travel that road virtually alone, but not anymore.
”It’s very different from when I was coming up,” Carney said. ”After getting drafted by a team, you really didn’t know how they felt, because you didn’t have any contact with them. Now we have lots of contact, and they know we’re trying to help them reach their goal of playing in the NHL.”
It’s the same with goaltending: Although nearly two-thirds of NHL clubs employ a second coach focused on prospects, this wasn’t always the case.
”Chicago was one of the first, if not the first, to have a second guy [working with prospects], and I think it’s vital for young goaltenders,” Allen said. ”When I was playing, if you were on an NHL contract, you got to talk to the NHL coach, but [otherwise] you didn’t see him very often. Having that sort of support system from somebody on a daily basis is immense for our goalies to develop and work their way up the ladder.”
The most basic tenet of running a successful development program is establishing a feedback loop between coaches and players. Smith and Carney travel frequently to observe prospects as they compete with their junior or college teams throughout the season, although their on-ice involvement is limited due to the sheer number of prospects under their purview.
The Blackhawks currently have six defensive prospects in college, five of whom are upperclassmen, and adhering to NCAA rules on player contact presents an additional challenge for Carney.
”We have a lot of young defensemen who are finishing up their college careers and have a lot of potential,” Carney said. ”It’s a tricky situation. We’re able to have conversations with them after they play, and we’re able to do some video work with them. That’s been really helpful, for us to be able to show them things that they need to work on.”
To keep tabs on as many bodies as possible, the development staff has extended their policy of open communication to amateur scouts, who sometimes lend their eyes and insights while observing draft-eligible players across North America and Europe.
”They’re very good about calling us and telling us who had a good weekend, who had a bad weekend,” Smith said.
There are fewer bodies under Allen’s supervision, which allows him to form tighter personal connections with the goaltenders in the system—a contrast that is even more heightened at the NHL level, where a goalie coach will focus on two or three players at the most.
Allen, who serves as de facto goalie coach for Rockford and the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye, sets aside 5-10 days per month to travel and work with goalies in the system. This season, with 2010 draft picks Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth both in the pro ranks, and 2012 seventh-rounder Matt Tomkins entering his first collegiate season at nearby Ohio State, Allen’s longest journey will be to Victoriaville, Quebec, where 2012 pick Brandon Whitney is in his third campaign as a starter for the Tigres.
Since joining the organization in 2011, Allen has spent the bulk of his time working with Simpson and Carruth, who represent the next generation of homegrown netminders.
”He came out to my junior team a couple times, and we built a relationship that way,” said Simpson, who played the majority of his first pro season in 2012-13 with Toledo. ”He doesn’t try to change anyone. He works with what you have and tries to build on that. He’s helped me a lot with my post play and being a consistent, all-around good goaltender—the list goes on.”
”Andrew is a really positive guy who likes to stay upbeat, and he’s definitely helped get my mental game where it should be,” Carruth added.
Goalies, maybe more than any position player, require solid mental bedrock in order to handle the day-to-day pressures of the pro game.
”They don’t know what to expect in a lot of situations, and when they get into those situations, they’re not sure how to handle it,” Allen said. ”In pro hockey, there’s more of a mental side to it than actually doing drills on the ice. When a goalie is feeling confident, they react naturally. If they’re thinking too much and they’re a little hesitant, their natural ability doesn’t come out, and that’s when you see them start to struggle, and that’s when their confidence goes down.”
Simply being available is a huge help for young goalies—it builds trust, both in the coach and in the organization that the player hopes to dress for one day.
”There’s a lot that goes on in your head, and it helps to talk to a guy who’s played the game and is always there, ready to answer a text or a phone call, just to talk about the game or practice, whatever it may be,” Simpson said.
ALL TOGETHER NOW
The Blackhawks’ annual Prospect Camp, which took place earlier this year from July 8-12, provided hockey ops with another benchmarking opportunity, this time in a unique environment, pitting rookies against returning faces in a competitive atmosphere. For new draft picks and free-agent invitees, camp is often their first lasting impression of the organization, a glimpse of what their futures could hold.
”Our main goal is to get them in here and give them a taste of what it’s like to get to the next level—let them be around the staff and the environment and see some Blackhawks players as well as the facility,” Carney said. ”It just helps them realize that they’re getting close, they’re taking the right steps, and now they just need to continue to work hard over the next few years and hopefully be a Blackhawk.”
But for returning players, camp serves as a launching pad for each season, and they know how to reap the benefits from getting put through their paces by former NHL players and coaches.
”One of the best things about Prospect Camp is that there’s a lot of one-on-one time [with coaches like] Keith Carney, who does a lot with the defensemen,” said 2011 draft pick Sam Jardine, a three-time camp participant. ”They’re always picking apart our game, noticing little spots where we can get a little better, and that’s valuable information heading into next season. Obviously they’ve been through exactly what we’re doing right now as young guys trying to prove ourselves. They know the situation that we’re in, and they respect our game. Can’t say enough about the help that they give us... You can feel yourself getting better year after year.”
Daily off-ice workout sessions with Blackhawks Strength and Conditioning Coach Paul Goodman also give players an edge in their offseason preparations.
”Paul’s a fitness guru, for sure,” said Mark McNeill, a 2011 first-round draft pick who began his first full pro season in Rockford after leading the Western Hockey League’s Prince Albert Raiders in regular and postseason scoring in 2012-13. ”He knows his stuff. If there’s a flaw in something you’re doing, he’ll find it and tell you how to fix it. It’s good to have Paul around, and a lot of the guys are in contact with him [during the] summer, getting little pointers on things they can work on.”
Between the on-ice drills and scrimmages, the off-ice conditioning and mental evaluations, Smith hopes that Prospect Camp can lay a solid foundation for the season for each player, no matter what stage of development they’re currently at.
”You have to find the right progression,” he said. ”There’s no point in working on other aspects of your game if your skating is poor. That’s where [we look at their] skating, their hands, puck control, passing and so-forth. Those are the things we have them work on. And when you first meet players, you get to find out what their head is like. It gives you an idea of where they’re at, what their strengths and weakness are.”
Two players who have progressed the furthest under Smith’s watch are McNeill and fellow 2011 first-rounder Phillip Danault, who were appointed team captains for their third Prospect Camp.
”You expect them to play better,” Smith said. ”They’ve been with us longer; they’ve played at a higher level. The only way you get them to be a leader is if you give them a leadership role.”
Strong performances by camp veterans have a trickle-down effect, according to Carney.
”A new player who’s just been drafted sees that and thinks, ’I need to get to that level,’” he said. ”The competition is great. We have free agents from college, 20-somethings playing against 18, 19-year-olds. That competition is good for them, gives them something to strive for.”
”I don’t know any other camps that have three scrimmages like we do, with full teams,” Jardine added. ”It gets very heated...[especially when] we have a trophy on the line, so that’s always fun. Very high intensity, but that’s what makes us better, and that’s why we play.”
Before the Blackhawks held their training camp in September, a gaggle of prospects participated in the 2013 Rookie Tournament in London, Ontario. And throughout the year, there’s no shortage of opportunities for players to make a strong impression on the club and for hockey ops to take stock of the future.
”All summer you’re training for Prospect Camp, and when it ends, you’re getting ready for the rookie tournament and then main camp,” McNeill said. ”It’s a neverending process. They call it the offseason, but you’re focused and working hard for next season.”
WRITING THE NEXT CHAPTER
As prospects scattered back to their respective teams in the fall, wearing their expectations for the season like a new coat, Smith and his staff also began preparing for the long months ahead. Player evaluation is an endeavor that spans not just the next campaign, but also all the ones that follow. The process is long, but the reward is worth the wait for the organization.
”Sometimes you don’t see results immediately when you’re working with 18-year-olds,” Smith said. ”Andrew Allen’s best teaching won’t be seen for a few years.”
Relationships of trust take time to cultivate, which makes consistency in the coaching staff a major priority for Smith.
”It’s very important, so that the players won’t have to start over with a new guy telling them something different,” Smith said. ”The hardest thing for players is to hear the right voice, to concentrate and not do multiple things. You have to go through one part of your game and improve, then move on to the next.”
The next season or two can be viewed as a changing of the guard in the minor ranks of the organization: As one class graduates from Rockford to the NHL, another group takes its place after completing their junior or college careers. While Jimmy Hayes, Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin and Brandon Pirri make their cases for permanent roster spots with the Blackhawks, recent signings like McNeill and Danault are in the process of becoming everyday AHL contributors.
Making the NHL doesn’t mark the end of the development process, though, whether a role player or a superstar.
"It’s a big accomplishment, but they can’t just rest on that,” Allen said. ”To see [goalies] work all the way from juniors or college to the pro ranks and become a starter and a mainstay in the NHL—that is mission accomplished. As long as they hit their full potential, that’s the best that can happen, and hopefully that is as a starter in the NHL.”
”The biggest thing is not just getting a player there; you want a player who gets there and has the confidence and ability to play hockey the best wherever he is,” Smith added.
Smith knows from his days in coaching that his role in developing players is never over. Not only does he fine-tune Prospect Camp from year to year, the system as a whole requires constant upgrades in order to stay ahead of the competition.
”It’s a nonstop process,” he said. ”Every single year, we have to look back and see what we can do better—what other technologies can we use to improve ourselves?”