Anatomy of a teardown: Why the Blackhawks are doing what they’re doing

The Hawks’ recent rate of turnover on the ice, behind the bench, in the front office and beyond has been stunning. But for the most part, this was a mess that needed this kind of deep cleaning.

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Alex DeBrincat, Seth Jones and Kirby Dach in warmups last season.

Alex DeBrincat (left) and Kirby Dach (right) are two of the highest-profile of many major Blackhawks departures over the past year.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

In the wake of the Kyle Beach sexual assault scandal, the Blackhawks vowed to scrub their organization of anyone involved in the 2010 cover-up.

Less than a year later, it turns out the Hawks are scrubbing the entire organization. This is a comprehensive teardown.

The state and composition of the franchise come October, when a bleak 2022-23 season will begin, will be virtually unrecognizable from any previous version of the franchise, even from just a year or two before.

On the ice, Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach, Brandon Hagel, Marc-Andre Fleury, Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik, Calvin de Haan and others have been jettisoned. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews almost certainly will be gone within a year, if not sooner. They’re the only two of the Hawks’ top seven forward point producers from last season still on the team.

In fact, Kane, Toews and Connor Murphy are the only three players from the 2019-20 Hawks roster still on the team.

Off the ice, Stan Bowman, Al MacIsaac, Ryan Stewart, Mark Kelley, Jeremy Colliton, Marc Crawford, Pat Foley and plenty more are gone, even if most cases are for the better. Eddie Olczyk, arguably the man most associated with the Hawks across generations, is still without a contract.

Even on the business side, changes are rampant. The Hawks have made significant layoffs this summer, according to several sources. Many of those who remain have been repurposed or reassigned in restructured departments.

If not for their trademarked name and perhaps “Chelsea Dagger,” the present-day Hawks could hardly be described as the Hawks.

The teardown has been prompted in part by financial implications. The Hawks remain an immensely valuable franchise, valued in December by Forbes at $1.4 billion — fourth-highest in the NHL. But like everyone, they’ve struggled because of COVID-19. The Hawks’ operating income was $41 million in the red in 2021, Forbes estimated.

As the pandemic fades, leaguewide income is generally stabilizing and increasing again. The Hawks, however, will have to deal with an awful on-ice product for the next few years denting ticket sales and TV viewership. Reducing the cost of 84% of their season-ticket packages for next season, some by significant margins, will help keep seats occupied — but it’ll certainly affect the team’s revenue.

The biggest reason for the teardown, however, is that new general manager Kyle Davidson inherited a disaster of a hockey team. He had few options other than to rebuild.

The group Bowman assembled and expected to be a playoff contender in 2021-22 turned out to be one of the league’s worst. Even worse, it was crammed up against the salary cap, giving the Hawks no leverage at a time when cap space is more valuable than ever.

But worst of all, the prospect pipeline was direly lacking in talent. Bowman and Kelley had not only drafted inefficiently for years, but they traded away most of their draft successes in ill-advised, nearsighted moves. Every first-round pick Bowman made either didn’t sign with the Hawks, didn’t pan out as an NHL player or was traded early in his career. In January, shortly after Davidson’s takeover, the Hawks’ prospect pool was ranked 25th in the NHL by The Athletic.

So Davidson, without exactly saying such, decided to basically start over. That decision wasn’t completely clear or certain during his first few months, but it is now.

DeBrincat, Dach and Hagel were realistically the only assets he had that were valuable enough to get first-round picks in return. Considering most teams’ salary-cap situations, the Hawks wouldn’t get that much for Kane, Toews and Seth Jones because of their massive contracts, even if they requested trades and waived their no-movement clauses. Just look at the Golden Knights trading Max Pacioretty to the Hurricanes on Wednesday for literally nothing.

Davidson’s managing hasn’t been perfect. No GM’s is. It would’ve been nice to get more for DeBrincat. It would’ve been nice to see Strome, Kubalik and de Haan turned into assets, even small ones, at the trade deadline in March. Some of the Hawks’ 11 new draft picks won’t turn into anything. Davidson will inevitably make more mistakes in the future, too, and take heat for them.

And this process will only get worse before it gets better.

The Red Wings are a good example. They largely bled their organization dry while hanging on too long to the remnants of their dynasty era before finally tearing it down in 2016. Six years later, they’re on an upward trajectory with plenty of young stars and excitement, but they’ve yet to even return to the playoffs.

This is the path the Hawks have chosen, though, and they’ve done so with plenty of logic supporting their decision, even if their approach of eschewing nuance and empathy in favor of absolute destruction has rubbed some the wrong way.

So what’s the correct reaction to it all?

Is it outrage over the ruthlessness of the teardown, the good people and players sacrificed in the mess, the slaphappy embrace of tanking, the lack of respect for fans who spend and have spent thousands of dollars through their fandom?

Is it relief and optimism that there’s finally a firm plan and vision moving forward, that those who made unforgivable decisions in 2010 have been ousted, that fans will hopefully be able to enjoy another Hawks ascension over the next decade?

Or is it ambivalence because the Hawks are no longer relevant and because there are plenty of other things to spend life caring about?

At the moment, equally sized groups of onlookers — Hawks fans, hockey fans, Chicagoans and more — fit into each of those three buckets. Over time, as the teardown gradually evolves into a buildup, the franchise’s leadership is counting on the majority eventually trickling into the second group.

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