The following feature ran in the December 2016 issue of Blackhawks Magazine. Pick up a copy at the next Blackhawks home game, or by calling the Blackhawks Store at 312-759-0079.
The last time the Blackhawks had a pick in the top half of the National Hockey League Draft was 2008, when Chicago selected Kyle Beach 12th overall. The next season, under new Head Coach Joel Quenneville, the team advanced all the way to the Western Conference Final, and since then the club has made its first pick at the following slots: 28, 24, 18, 18, 30, 20, 54 and 39.
Even for a team that built the foundations of a de facto dynasty through the draft, not having top picks isn't necessarily a huge blow. Overlooked gems are often found in later rounds, and a player's development can be just as dependent on luck and timing as it is on raw potential. But with the core getting both older and more expensive, the task of maintaining the high level of hockey that keeps the team in contention year after year has become a big challenge for the Hockey Operations Department.
Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman's solution is to widen the search for players who are ready to contribute.
The math is simple: The pool of draft-eligible amateurs is capped in the hundreds each year, and rarely does a talented teen go unnoticed by all 30 teams. On the other hand, the potential assets on the pro side are virtually unlimited, ranging from major-junior and the NCAA to the entirety of Europe.
The hunt for the young, the talented and the cheap has hinged on the team's pro scouts, led by directors Ryan Stewart in North America and Mats Hallin in Europe. Around three years ago, the organization started flexing its muscle across the pond, focusing on the older end of the 20-25 age bracket to identify players who can jump into the NHL immediately.
"The majority of players under 25, if they haven't been over [to North America] yet, qualify for entry-level contracts," Stewart explained. "That's proven beneficial to becoming compliant and fitting quality players, more mature players under the cap."
Age and contract friendliness are certainly benefits that appeal to NHL clubs, but there's also the quality and style of hockey to consider.
"The one thing [the European systems] probably stress more so than ours in the developing years is the skill side," Bowman said. "It's not as physical of a game coming up as teenagers, and it's more predicated on making plays with the puck and having a skill level. In particular, Russian players have always spent a lot of time in their youth developing their skating, their passing, their shooting."
Stewart and Hallin talk daily and coordinate extensively with the club's network of area scouts as well as some who make frequent trips between North America and Europe. Players are identified, vetted by a few sets of eyes and, finally, approached by the club if they express interest in crossing over to the NHL.
Experience and connections are also necessary. Hallin and Director of Player Evaluation Barry Smith have deep roots in Sweden and Russia, with a combined Rolodex spanning the best European leagues and a vast knowledge of the continental game, including the labyrinthine system of contracts, free agency and international transfer agreements (or lack thereof, in the case of the Kontinental Hockey League).
Smith, in addition to working under Scotty Bowman in Pittsburgh and Detroit, has extensive coaching experience in Sweden and Russia, including three years with SKA St. Petersburg, the team where a kid by the name of Artemi Panarin would first make a name for himself.
Panarin's arrival in the States in 2015 was greeted with an appropriate amount of fanfare, befitting a 23-year-old fresh off a KHL title, with repeated success on the international stage and explosive scoring ability. Signed to a two-year entry-level deal that has arguably been one of the best values in the league, his debut season was nothing short of sensational, and the chemistry he formed with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov is the kind that most coaches only dream about.
A combination of economic factors both home and abroad -- salary cap stagnation, the decline of the ruble -- helped create an environment where more Russians are looking toward the NHL for opportunities, Panarin among them. Smith's understanding of the situation and familiarity with the club certainly eased the recruitment process, although he notes that Panarin's decision ultimately hinged on his own ambition and character.
"Give him credit, because he left money on the table to come to us, so his mindset wasn't to get paid the most; he wanted the challenge," Smith said.
Hallin, who is in his 11th year with the organization, played professionally in the NHL and in Sweden, then served as general manager for Swedish club Sodertalje for a number of years. When he first started scouting the domestic leagues for the Blackhawks, he was a one-man operation on both the pro and amateur side.
"This is teamwork," Hallin said of the current setup. "There are a lot of hockey people on the same level. Our group now is pretty good. We don't have any restrictions, either, on our budget. We go, and they trust us. When you stop being curious or think you know everything, that's when you start going downhill, so always look for new things and be curious about the game of hockey. We're always changing. That's what Stan is doing; that's what Scotty is doing. Stan is the guy who gets us to do this. I give credit to management overall."
The relative freedom that the Blackhawks have given Hallin and his scouts in Europe has meant the ability to cast a wider net, but actually getting their guy takes a lot more work. Selling a player on the Blackhawks might not seem difficult -- one can find several compelling reasons to sign on the roster page alone -- but Chicago is one of 30 (soon to be 31) teams vying for the attentions of a few high-impact candidates like Panarin or Michal Kempny.
"It can be a positive and a negative," Stewart said. "Obviously, we have some superstars that many players want to play with, but believe me, we don't get all the players we recruit; we're fortunate with some and we lose plenty as well. The counterargument that has arisen is, players are in fear of not being able to play with these guys, which is the furthest thing from the case. We want to recruit guys who specifically can fill a role for us, and we'd never make any empty promises."
Panarin's contract, for example, had a clause baked in stipulating that if he didn't make the NHL roster out of training camp last year, he was free to return to SKA St. Petersburg. But his talent shone despite an injury-shortened preseason, and he became an immediate game-changer in Chicago's uptempo system.
On-ice fit is one thing; someone with Panarin's skill set would be welcomed anywhere in the NHL. But what about the language barrier, the cultural adjustments that would trip up any 20-something experiencing America for the first time?
As Smith put it, "You have to find the right ones to come over, who will fit in and have to sacrifice for it -- because of language, culture, family, distance and so forth -- and flourish."
Panarin certainly has flourished in North America, and Kempny has been a solid addition to the blue line, albeit with less flashy contributions.
"You don't really know how a guy is going to assimilate until he's been put in that position," Bowman said. "You can make a guess on it, but I think it would be dishonest to say we knew they would be able to come over and fit in. It was a concern I had with Panarin: How was he going to cope with living in a totally different country, with different customs and cultures? But he seems very adaptable. You do your best when you're talking to these guys to try and make that determination, but it is still a lot of guesswork."
Bowman believes that these odds can be improved if the club understands and provides the necessary support structures, as the Blackhawks have eagerly done with Panarin and others. The culture inside the room has also helped, starting with the leadership of the team.
"One good thing we have in Chicago that most good teams have is a strong nucleus of veteran players," Smith said. "They respect the guys who come in and they're helpful. Mentorship is huge."
Two seasons ago, Panarin would have been the only Russian in a sea of Canadians, Swedes and Finns. Not only did the Blackhawks sign Panarin's SKA St. Petersburg teammate and fluent English-speaker Viktor Tikhonov as a buffer, they later added Anisimov. While Anisimov was unquestionably a hockey acquisition, he's turned out to be invaluable to Panarin's adjustment both on and off the ice. This year, Kempny has been able to lean on veteran Michal Rozsival, who despite limited playing time has been able to support his fellow Czech.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks are nearly as welcoming to Swedish imports as college graduates looking for affordable furniture. Rather than nationality-based appeal, however, Hallin sees the attraction of Chicago as a natural extension of the on-ice product.
"Probably a little bit the system we play and the players we have," he said. "I would say the environment overall, to be in Chicago. They're very popular here in Europe. The way the Blackhawks are playing, the puck possession game, it's very fun to watch."
"The city of Chicago, plus the product and the treatment of players doesn't go unnoticed," Stewart added. "When showcasing a wonderful destination for players, we feel that's an advantage for sure."
The Blackhawks have enjoyed recruitment success in Europe, but they're not the only team that's been active in recent years. Last offseason, Toronto inked highly rated blueliner Nikita Zaitsev, while Montreal landed former NHLer Alexander Radulov. The New Jersey Devils have brought over defensemen in successive years, Sergei Kalinin and Yohann Auvitu, while Philadelphia has secured forwards Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Roman Lyubimov.
If there's ever a transfer agreement reached with the KHL, there could be even more transatlantic movement in the coming years. However, the Blackhawks aren't worried about copycats, a mindset that works when they've helped set the standard.
"There are a lot of teams who are in the same boat as us," Bowman said. "A few years ago, it was really just us. We were at the top in terms of the teams that had the most need for low-priced players. Now probably half the league is right against the cap like we are, and they're looking for players who can contribute at low dollar amounts."
"Everybody sees what other teams have done and tries to add to it," Stewart said, adding that he expects the competition for European free agents to intensify. "With the success of a Panarin from the KHL as a free player, if you will, certainly it's going to attract the attention of others to try to find that next Panarin."
Panarin's success is the shining example of what happens when everything goes right in the European free agent market, the home run after years of clean base hits. While Russia, Sweden and Finland are still traditional sources of hockey players in Europe, the Swiss league has gained traction in recent years, and Team Europe's success at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey showcased incredible talent from smaller nations. More of a slight shift than a sea change, but it does illustrate the importance of covering as much ground as possible when searching for good hockey players.
As Smith pointed out, "We don't want to leave any league unknown -- look at Slovenia, who would have thought a Slovenian player would be as great as Anze Kopitar? A player is a player is a player, and you have to make sure you have a chance to find out if they fit your needs and roles."