Chicago on the move….

Blackhawks moving, Pulford sounds off

By Bob Verdi 

Just about Labor Day, 2019, Chicago Blackhawks GM Bob Pulford, had the look of the worried man. Just 3 years earlier, he was the toast of Michigan Avenue, as the Blackhawks won the Swain Cup, as league champions. Crowds were flowing into the United Center, and TV ratings were sky high. Last season, Coach Billy Reay had quit as coach of the team the year before, and the crowds dwindled at the United Center, as the Hawks finished last overall in the league standings in 2018-2019.

Season-ticket renewals were virtually non-existent. The fans wore paper bags over their faces. Blackhawk sweaters were thrown on the ice by some angry fans. The franchise had hit rock bottom.

He knew things were bad, but they were going to get worse.In late August, 2019, Pully got the bomb that rocked his world; the beloved Hawks, an institution in Chicago, were moving to Montréal, of all places! He had heard rumours that the team was for sale, and he knew with no Montréal connections, and not being French, that he had little hope of moving with the team to Montréal.

The timing of the announcement for Pulford couldn’t have been worse. The league took over scouting duties for the Blackhawk franchise. That is never good for any franchise, especially one with the pedigree of the Blackhawks.

Pulford was told by the new management group that it was his job to draft for the team for the upcoming 2019-2020 season. Many of the scouts had left him, the few that were remaining had no idea the direction the soon to be moving franchise was going to go.

Pulford took a deep drag on his cigarette, and he said, “I’ll show those Montréal SOB’s why I am a Hall of Famer!  I’m just as good in the boardroom as I was on the ice.”

I was given access into the Blackhawk war room, and I will give you exclusive information regarding GM Bob Pulford’s drafting strategy in the 2019-2020 GHC draft..

There were too many holes to fix the Pulford couldn’t do everything he wanted to in one draft. One commentator said that the Blackhawks overall defensive play reminded him of Swiss cheese.   The squad’s defence was in tatters. The team was a bunch of cream puffs. Not much grit. Much too old.   The goaltenders had lost self-confidence.  They couldn’t stop a beach ball.  Antti Raantta got injured.

Many commentators had speculated that Pulford would draft a defenceman to bring some youth to an old and worn-down unit. But Pully had other ideas.  He had another plan.

Miro Heiskanen and Rasmus Dahlin were suspected to be players that the Blackhawks coveted.  They worked out for Pulford, and he was impressed.   Either player would have been a fine selection for the Blackhawks, and no one would have criticized Pulford for picking either one of these fine players. But they didn’t measure up to what Pulford wanted.  Dahlin was not great defensively.   His offensive game was spectacular, but his defence was a work in progress.  Heiskanen was better defensively, but he did not have the upside offensively of Dahlin.  In Pulford’s mind, neither player was worthy of being the first pick overall.

Pulford saw another problem with this team that needed immediate attention. The Blackhawks already had John Tavares as their number 1 centre. But there was a huge void underneath him. Moreover, there wasn’t a lot of depth at the forward position in the draft pool this year.

There was one forward that worked out for Pulford that he thought was head and shoulders better than anyone else in the draft pool. That player was Elias Pettersson.  Pulford was a centre in his playing days, and he knew that a team without strength down the middle would not be a contender for a long time. He noted that Pettersson had a wicked shot, and uncanny hockey vision. This was the man that Pulford thought could be the coveted number 2 centre that all contending teams require.  After the workout, Pulford said to himself, “this young man will be a star, a real star, maybe, a superstar.”

Pulford said,” I will take a lot of criticism for this pick, but this is the pick that this team needs to get back to contention more quickly.”

Having filled his greatest need, Pulford went to work to patch his leaky defence. The Hawks urgently needed man games and bodies. Cloning Zdeno Chara was not possible. The big man looked old, and replacements needed to be found immediately.

By the time round 2 came along, Heiskanen and Dahlin were distant memories it looked like the Blackhawks would not find anyone suitable to fill the gap. Instead, Pulford took a realistic approach.   He looked for youngsters that were promising, but very raw, players who would be good one day, but not in 2019.

Fortunately, the hockey gods smiled on Pully, and he found a young defenceman that he was impressed by, in Filip Hronek.   Hronek was born nearby to Chara in the Czech Republic, and although he lacked Chara’s behemoth-like size and nastiness, he had some of the characteristics that Pulford liked in a defenceman.  He had a good offensive head for the game, and he could move the puck. He showed a bit of a nasty side.  Pully couldn’t bear to watch as the end of the first round unfolded, as he really believed that Hronek would be drafted by someone late in the first round.  He was ecstatic when Hronek was still around as the first pick in Round 2.  He smiled after he made the pick, lit up a cigarette, and said to himself. Hronek could be very good.”

Devon Toews showed flashes of good play in his limited exposure to Pulford, and Pulford thought he was an underappreciated talent.  He was pleased to pick Toews with the first pick of round 3.

Depth defencemen Scott Walker and Sammy Niku were also acquired.

The defence was not necessarily made better, but it was made younger, and players were acquired with some promise.

In the free agent draft, Pulford, at least in part addressed, the Blackhawks need for a defence-first forward with the acquisition of center Philip Danault.  This was the sort of grinding player that Pulford wanted for the Blackhawks. He wanted more just like him, but with many holes and only 6 draft picks, he could only do so much.

The Blackhawks also announced today that Serge Savard will be the team’s General Manager 2020-2021 when it relocates to Montreal.  The coach will be none other than Pat Burns.

Burns was introduced to the media today, and he said, “I like a hard-workingman’s team.  I want guys that will play hard all the time.  We will find some people that will rattle the opposition’s teeth. When visiting teams come into the Bell Centre, we want it to be a hard night for them.  We will be much harder to play against.”

Savard said that season-ticket sales had exceeded expectations to date.  He said, “I will do everything in my power to make this a first-class franchise.  I want to invite the league brass up here to see our passionate fans. I want to build a contending team that the league will be proud of.”



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