Carl Dahlstrom, photo courtesy of Rockford IceHogs – April 18, 2015
Roughly half of the following piece first appeared in The Committed Indian program on May 21st. Also included here are quotes and further detail and analysis that didn’t fit into the first-run story.
By Chris Block
As great as the past seven or so years have gone for the Blackhawks, there are causes for concern as to whether or not the organization can sustain this reign of success going beyond yet another cap crunch that awaits Stan Bowman and company this summer.
Patrick Sharp’s days with the organization appear to be nearing an end due to the mammoth Toews and Kane contracts kicking in next season. And Marian Hossa may have only another year or two left in him before he retires. On the blue line, Brent Seabrook has one more year before he’s an unrestricted free agent. When that day comes, Seabrook will be a 31-year year old, 11-year NHL veteran.
Brandon Saad and Teuvo Teravainen are top-six talents who will help smooth that transition. Future Hall of Famers Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are so good the Hawks will always be a threat no matter what.
But what has separated the Blackhawks in their championship runs, as well as the near miss in 2014, is the team’s depth. A third and fourth line that matches or exceeds that of any of their conference and playoff rivals; as well as a top four defense that is as good as it gets in hockey. Whether the fourth guy was Brian Campbell or Johnny Oduya, it didn’t matter. The Hawks are filthy rich in elite defensemen with Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson leading the way.
Most of this depth and embarrassment of riches came from the prior regime, led by Dale Tallon. As flawed as Tallon’s reign was as Blackhawks general manager was at times, his handprints are still all over today’s Blackhawks. Tallon might still be the Hawks GM today had he better adapted to the change in philosophies and structure implemented by John McDonough. But Scotty Bowman’s arrival on the scene in 2008 probably had a lot to do with it as well. However, the overriding factor in the orchestration of Tallon’s dismissal in the summer of 2009 was his struggle to get on board with, and ‘do business’ the McDonough way.
The Stan Bowman and Al MacIsaac led Hawks has mostly rode a hot hand. They’ve had their hits (Nick Leddy, Johnny Oduya) and too many misses to list. That said, there’s been no real reason to criticize management too much over the past few years. The results are what they are – If it’s not broke, it doesn’t need fixing. Chicago is an elite organization. But their mettle is about to be tested.
The sense of finality is very real in this season’s quest for a 3rd Stanley Cup in 6 seasons. While the Hawks aren’t about to fall off the map anytime soon, the roster will look a lot different next fall, and moreso especially in the fall of 2016 than it does now. New second, third and fourth liners must emerge and at least one (more like two, and soon) of the defense prospects will have to follow the Hjalmarsson or Seabrook career path if the Hawks are to still be legitimate Cup contenders in 2017.
Which is why player development has never been more crucial.
But what has grown more in recent years is an apparent disconnect between the amateur and pro scouting staffs, led by Vice President and General Manager, Stan Bowman.
The Blackhawks employ one of the biggest scouting and development staffs in hockey. Other teams, such as Toronto, have since followed suit.
Team president John McDonough has assembled an impressive staff of some of the more respected minds in hockey – Scotty Bowman, Barry Smith, Mark Kelley, Norm MacIver and Pierre Gauthier to name a few. Others, like Marc Bergevin and Kevin Cheveldayoff have gone on to become GMs in other cities. Stan Bowman sits at the head of the table of command that is overseen by McDonough and his right hand man, Al MacIsaac.
There are many influential people on the inside of Hockey Operations and all have some degree in say to what goes on. I’ve been told by a few people independent of one another that it takes a lot of Yeses to get most anything done when it comes to hockey operations. Stan Bowman does all the legwork of a GM, but the buck does not begin, or stop with him.
After my 2015 prospect rankings were first published back in January, I got some solicited and unsolicited feedback from a few sources. None of this feedback went into much detail. Generally, the responses were that the rankings mirrored the general consensus, for the most part. Everyone has their own opinions and ideas of which prospects will make the most impact at the NHL level in the end (which is what the rankings are aimed at projecting). There was some “He’ll never make it here” commentary and “Well, this guy’s a little high” and “It’s a little early to put him there” and so on. There was alternate commentary on certain prospects offered as well. I take it all into account. I’m one person watching a ton of hockey and doing my best to give my take. I don’t have a small army of veteran hockey minds at my every day disposal. I take the rankings seriously as a project. Player development is also a fluid thing that can change week to week, so it’s not something I dwell on after it’s published.
Because he’s recently become a topic of conversation, I will say one player in particular whose position in our January rankings was scoffed at to a degree was 2013 2nd round pick, Carl Dahlstrom.
Dahlstrom rated #11 on our January list and 5th among defensemen. His height and reach give him a distinct advantage as a defenseman and he acquitted himself very well against men in the Swedish Hockey League this year, a league that compares very well to the AHL. The rankings calculate a mixture of factors but are heavily weighted toward skill and ultimate probability of impact at the NHL level, not a gauge of who is closest.
The draft pick used to select Dahlstrom came from Toronto via the June 30, 2013 trade that sent Dave Bolland to the Leafs. Effectively, in the end, the Bolland trade netted four draft picks the Hawks used to obtain three defensemen – Dahlstrom, Robin Norell, Luc Snuggerud and winger Fredrik Olofsson – all players who ranked in our top 25 prospect rankings in January.
Dahlstrom is a 6’4” Swedish defenseman who was the Hawks second pick in the 2013 draft. He was brought over in late March after his season with Linkoping concluded to finish out the year in Rockford.
At the same time, the Blackhawks also summoned Robin Norell and Robin Press, also both unsigned recent draft picks, to come and get a taste of North American hockey.
Norell had a hand injury at the time, and even he admitted to us later on that he was surprised that the Hawks even wanted him to travel over to Rockford because of that. Norell didn’t make his IceHogs debut until the second round of the playoffs against Grand Rapids. Norell played for Team Sweden in the World Junior Championships in late December and early January.
Robin Press had spent the season playing in Sweden’s “B” pro league, but was one of the league’s top defensemen scoring leaders and had gotten rave reviews in reports being sent back to Chicago all season. Dahlstrom’s season was more under the radar, playing second pairing and penalty kill minutes for Linköpings in the Swedish Hockey League (“A” pro league).
The real reason the three players were brought over was so the Blackhawks Front Office, scouts and player development staff could see them play. I guess because flights to Sweden aren’t in the budget or they don’t have access to the same international video feeds I used to watch Dahlstrom play this year.
What they hoped to determine was which of the three Swedish defensemen were ready to play in the American Hockey League in 2015-16.
There is no rush to sign any of the 3 defensemen. Since Norell, Press and Dahlstrom were all 18 and playing for European clubs at the time they were drafted by NHL clubs, the Blackhawks have four years from the time of their drafts to sign each player.
Dahlstrom got into 2 games for Rockford. The first was at Charlotte on April 12. Dahlstrom picked up an assist on his first shift as an IceHog, a shot he sent on net that was tipped by Tanner Kero. Dahlstrom acquitted himself fine in that game.
His second, and only other appearance came in the IceHogs regular season finale at home against Toronto. Rockford, with a win and a Grand Rapids loss that same night, would have won their MidWest Division.
But with many of the Blackhawks scouts and player development staff in town, the decision was made to scratch six IceHogs regulars so hockey operations could evaluate Dahlstrom, Robin Press, Vince Hinostroza and others.
Rockford lost the game, 3-1 to Toronto. Grand Rapids lost theirs as well.
Dahlstrom did not play well against Toronto. His gap was too laxed on Willie Nylander’s goal early in the first period and Dahlstrom had a few instances in the game when he mishandled the puck.
As result of that, after one viewing, hockey ops decided Dahlstrom would not be brought over to North America next season. Dahlstrom has a year left on his contract with Linköping, but he had the ability to get out had the Hawks signed him and worked with Linkoping on a release. After that game, Dahlstrom told us in an interview that he wasn’t sure if he would play in Sweden or Rockford next season.
“I don’t know,” Dahlstrom said when asked if he knew if he would play in Rockford or return to Linköping for the 2015-16 season. “We’ll see what happens. I’m taking it a day at a time.”
“Right now, I’m looking forward to playing in Sweden next year, but you never know what happens. We’ll see.”
What Dahlstrom didn’t know at the time was how much importance Blackhawks management and staff was placing on that single game and Dahlstrom’s performance, as well as others. The reviews for Dahlstrom’s game that night were scathing. He had a bad night, and he knew it too. He probably, however, couldn’t fathom the scale of weight that one performance would go into planning is career trajectory.
Dahlstrom would not see the ice for the IceHogs again.
“Starting to settle in now,” Dahlstrom responded when asked about his first two games in North America.
“Obviously I didn’t play as good this game. But, I don’t know, think I’ve got to grow into it a little bit more. I don’t know, it feels better every day. It’s a little bit faster here. But I’m used to fast hockey back in Sweden as well. A little bit more physical over here, maybe.”
In fact, Dahlstrom was sent home early from the IceHogs before their season ended. Norell and Press stayed, which prompted a stream of questions and speculation from fans as to why Dahlstrom had been sent home early.
When I did a little more digging on this I discovered that internally the Blackhawks have had a negative impression on Dahlstrom since they first saw him at prospect camp. Sending Dahlstrom back to Sweden wasn’t at all a situation to akin to when Kyle Beach and Akim Aliu were sent packing from a playoff series in Milwaukee years ago for disciplinary issues. The Hawks simply aren’t happy with Dahlstrom’s level of play, based on what they saw that night against Toronto.
“No puck skills” is the internal performance review. The Hawks would also like to see Dahlstrom be more assertive in his play. Not just more physical, but showing more willingness to step up and make more puck plays.
I asked Dahlstrom to describe himself as a player. He’s a soft-spoken and humble young man, and he lightly joked in his response, nodding to his disappointing night against Toronto.
“Normally, I’m a two-way defenseman. That’s what I’m trying to do. Join the rushes and try to be good defensively. Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do.” Dahlstrom added, “The skill level is pretty much the same back in Sweden, so I’m kind of used to it. It is a little more north-south (style of play) here.”
Knowing now that the Hawks scouts and top brass have had a negative opinion of Dahlstrom since almost the week after they drafted him, that begs the question – Why did they draft him?
Did they not scout Dahlstrom extensively? If so, why utilize a 2nd round pick on the player?
Is the amateur scouting staff recommending the type of players Stan Bowman and company desire? How much communication is there between the pro and amateur staffs? Where does the accountability fall here if the most influential guys in the front office have so quickly passed judgment on a 2nd round pick?
Why would Blackhawks management undermine Stephen Johns, Mark McNeill, Ryan Hartman, Phil Danault, Ville Pokka and others ability to challenge for a division title on the final night of the regular season? Isn’t that an instance for a great opportunity in the development of those players careers, players who will need to be impact players in the NHL some day and possibly be in that exact situation again in Hawks sweaters? Who makes the decision to forgo the achievement or heartbreak of winning or losing a battle for the division crown? At what point do you wonder if job justification is getting in the way of true prospect development?
With a staff so expansive and an organization supposedly so “All-In” on analytics (still the best joke I’ve heard all year) why would one viewing so heavily impact the review of any player?
All questions we won’t get answers to, most likely. I’m not the one to ask them because I’m not allowed to talk to anyone in hockey ops on the record, as decreed by the media relations bosses and McDonough, himself. Regardless, they are questions McDonough and Stan Bowman should be asking themselves nonetheless.
When you examine player development over the past seven years, the Hawks haven’t developed much in the way of contributors to their own roster. Kids once thought of as top prospects have come and gone. They’ve wasted picks before, and apparently consider this another case of that. Questions about player development from the outside led Kevin Hayes to reject the Hawks and sign with the Rangers. Another wasted top draft pick. That can’t continue to happen from this point forward.
Aside from Brandon Saad, the 2nd round hasn’t been kind to the Blackhawks in the Stan Bowman era.
Saad was a draft tumbler in 2011, falling from an expected mid-1st round projection to the Blackhawks in the middle of the 2nd round. In fact, the Hawks themselves passed on Saad three times before selecting him with their second pick in the round (Calgary’s pick obtained from Toronto two years earlier in what, at the time, was an innocuous pre-training camp trade in 2009, swapping draft picks that in the end netted Saad and Michael Paliotta in the 2011 draft). The Hawks took Adam Clendening with their initial second round pick that year, then Saad. So, while you have to hand it to them for taking Saad at all, they only ‘took a chance’ on Saad because they had that extra pick.
Dillon Fournier (2nd round-2012) spent much of his first pro season in the ECHL. He was good in spots after his recall to Rockford late in the season but a broken finger took Fournier out of the lineup in April and he never got back in. Next year is crucial for his development.
Obviously Clendening was traded away in late January because the Hawks felt he needs more time to develop (if he’d measure up to their expectations at all is another question) and were afraid they’d lose him in the fall when he’d be waiver eligible.
Going back to 2010, the first Stan Bowman led draft, the Hawks had four picks. The last, Stephen Johns, provided this year’s bout of injuries is largely an anomaly, will be a star for the Blackhawks. The highest, Ludvig Rensfeldt, a tall Swedish winger who played in the OHL after his draft, was never offered a contract by the Hawks. Justin Holl, a defenseman by trade, who spent a lot of his career at Minnesota at forward, played this season in the ECHL for the Blackhawks affiliate Indy Fuel, but under a minor league contract. Kent Simpson, the 58th pick in 2011, is still a young goalie though was largely terrible as an IceHog (after a few incredible 50-plus save nights his career began with) and was a throw-in dealt along with Nick Leddy to the Islanders prior to this season.
You can play the “who they shoulda drafted game” for a couple minutes. Boone Jenner went to Columbus one pick after Clendening in 2011. Jason Zucker went to the Wild one spot after Kent Simpson in 2010. Justin Faulk, Tyler Toffoli and Calle Jarnkrok were other players on the board when Bowman and his staff selected Rensfeldt.
Not every pick is going to hit. There will be misses. Drafting is such a difficult game because some players peak in their development earlier than others and because of that it’s as much of a guessing game as anything. Which is why I don’t like playing the “Who they shoulda…” game, myself. It’s a tough business. But they are professionals scouting, evaluating and predicting career trajectory for a living, so they’re going to be judged by their body of work as compared to their peers.
Dahlstrom appears to be a slightly different case though. Why is it that the internal reviews on him have been so negative essentially since day one?
I expect Dahlstrom will be brought back. He should be at prospect camp again this summer where he’ll be watched especially closely by everyone now. And with a good enough year in Sweden he’ll likely return for another game or two evaluation by Blackhawks management next spring.
So, will have to wait and see what happens. Dahlstrom still has a lot of room to improve. And considering that, he’s still a very intriguing prospect. He’s playing against men in Sweden’s top league and doing quite fine there. I don’t think he’ll ever be a mean, nasty type blue liner which was also part of Dylan Olsen’s undoing (a small part albeit), but Dahlstrom’s still a player worth tracking and bringing back for further reviews. I stand by my assessment and ranking of him base on my viewings – four SHL games this season and two with Rockford. Six is not a lot, but it’s still more than one.
Our summer Blackhawks prospect ranking list will be published on June 22.