What Can We Learn From the Blackhawks’ Last Two Decades of General Managers?

Kyle Davidson

Look, I get it. Fans are really struggling to bridge the two realities we’re living in with the Blackhawks right now.

On the one hand, it’s really hard to get excited about a team trying hard but winning so rarely that we’re popping champagne bottles when the Hawks get a dub. In the final year of the contracts of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, two players who really brought thousands of fans back into the United Center with their arrival together, it feels disrespectful to be this bad.

On the other, we’re being sold the dream of Connor Bedard coming to Chicago. The next great superstar in a Blackhawks’ sweater? Yes please. And his seven-point performance in the World Juniors last night was a stunning reminder of just how good this kid can be.

Unfortunately, when you try to understand and appreciate the feelings on both sides, it’s impossible to do so in the comments section or on a social media app. Tweets and Facebook comments are constantly blasting the organization for the chosen direction, even if general manager Kyle Davidson has been transparent throughout the beginning of his intentional rebuild.

Lots of fans like to point fingers and blame, or assign credit for past successes of the franchise. Sadly, I find myself continually reading the same cliché talking points getting regurgitated when “discussing” the direction of the Blackhawks. But our collective recollection of Blackhawks’ history shows its holes when these conversations happen.

So let’s take a quick moment to wander back to the turn of the century and have a quick reminder about the history of Chicago Blackhawks general managers, shall we? Because the Blackhawks have had five different gentlemen hold the title of general manager since the turn of the century.

Lots of fans have apparently forgotten the name Bob Pulford. He was the general manager in Chicago on four separate occasions; he was always available when the Blackhawks felt like they needed to fire the guy in the job. Pulford initially replaced Tommy Ivan as the team’s GM in 1977 and had a terrific first run in the job, leading the team to 13 playoff appearances before he was replaced by Mike Keenan in 1990. For the purposes of this conversation, I’m going to hit fast forward to 1999, however, when Pulford replaced Bob Murray as the Blackhawks’ interim general manager.

Bob Pulford1
Dec. 1999 – Sept. 2000

This is the first of two times Pulford will appear on our list. He took over for Murray in early December and babysat through the summer, giving up control before the 2000-01 season began.

Draft Class: the 2000 NHL Draft was nine rounds in length. The Blackhawks owned the 10th and 11th overall picks and made 15 total selections. The 15 players they selected in 2000 appeared in 186 total NHL games, with no player skating in more than 57. If you want to have some angst over the class: the Blackhawks passed on Henrik Lundqvist nine times before he was selected by the Rangers in the seventh round (No. 205 overall).

Mike Smith
Sept. 2000 – Oct. 2003

Mike Smith is a fascinating character in Blackhawks’ history. Many fans forgot he exists, while others will insert his name into the conversation of dynasty architects as an individual who made an enormous impact. The reality is somewhere in between, where Smith gets the credit he’s due for making some of the more impactful draft choices in the history of the franchise.

Mark Lazerus at The Athletic wrote a marvelous bio on Smith back in 2020, and his first paragraph has always struck me as a terrific summary of the state of affairs at 1901 W. Madison roughly 20 years ago.

Mike Smith is talking about xenophobia in the Blackhawks front office, about Bob Pulford’s relentless two-year quest to get him fired, about the organization actively sabotaging his chances at landing future jobs, about how his name has been all but erased from the history books when it comes to the modern Blackhawks resurgence.

Draft classes: Smith was the general manager responsible for three draft classes 2001, ’02 and ’03). In 2001, he made two significant picks: Tuomo Ruutu in the first round and Craig Anderson in the third. Only the first four players picks in that 13-player draft class appeared in an NHL game but Anderson is still the starter in Buffalo (which is crazy).

The 2002 draft started the build of the dynasty teams. Smith selected nine players and four of them appeared in at least 289 NHL games. His final pick in that draft, Adam Burish, appeared in 89 more games than his first pick, Anton Babchuk. And James Wisniewski was a decent player while in Chicago. But the winner here was the 54th overall pick, Duncan Keith. He’s arguably the greatest defenseman in franchise history and is a sure Hall of Famer.

The 2003 draft was historically good to the NHL, and the Blackhawks were no exception. The Blackhawks made ten picks that year and three players — Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Dustin Byfuglien — became heroes on championship teams. It’s still crazy to me that Byfuglien was an eighth-round pick; the draft now is only seven rounds.

Credit where it’s due: Smith drafted a few key pieces to the Blackhawks’ dynasty, most specifically Keith and Seabrook. But he was fired in October of 2003, so while we’ll give him the credit for identifying the players let’s not get wrapped up in the idea that he had anything to do with their development. When the axe fell, Keith was just starting his first of two seasons with Norfolk (then the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate).

Bob Pulford2
Oct. 2003 – June 2005

Round Two of Pulford in this era (round four in total) saw him come in to babysit the team through one draft class (2004). The 2005 draft was at the end of July; he handed the organization off before the names were called. But this was kind of how the Blackhawks were run back then: a guy gets a couple years to do something, and then Pulford comes in for 6-24 months to do it his way until they hired someone else.

Draft Class: the Blackhawks’ 2004 NHL Draft class was one of the biggest in league history. Chicago made 17(!) selections in the nine-round draft. And there were a few gems in there. Though selecting Cam Barker third overall is not received well historically (Blake Wheeler went fifth), the Blackhawks got Stanley Cup contributions from Dave Bolland (second round), Bryan Bickell (second), Jake Dowell (fifth) and Troy Brouwer (seventh).

Four of the 17 players drafted by the Blackhawks that year appeared in at least 300 NHL games. Brouwer (851) led the way, followed by Bolland (433). Ten of the 17 players never appeared in the NHL and two others, Adam Berti and Peter Kontiola, appeared in just two and 12 games, respectively.

Credit where it’s due: if you get four guys who have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup in one draft, it’s a win.

Dale Tallon
June 2005 – July 2009

Tallon’s era produced the most impactful draft picks and free agent signings in the history of the franchise. Of course fans want to ignore that he passed on Anze Kopitar at No. 7 overall in 2005 to take Jack Skille… Tallon hit big on some of his most important picks, but his drafts left a lot to be desired as well.

Draft Classes: as I mentioned above, he did take Skille seventh overall in 2005. But he also picked Niklas Hjalmarsson 108th overall that year. So it worked out fairly well I guess… when you consider the Blackhawks drafted 12 players and two — Skille and Hjalmarsson — appeared in more than 127 NHL games and only three of the 12 appeared in more than four games at the highest level.

In 2006, Tallon made nine selections. Jonathan Toews was the only one that mattered or did anything — literally (the other eight picks appeared in one combined NHL game).

In 2007, Tallon made seven selections. Patrick Kane wasthe only one that mattered or did anything — literally (the other six picks appeared in ten combined NHL game).

In 2008, Tallon made eight selections. Kyle Beach was his first round pick that year. Ben Smith appeared in 237 NHL games; Shawn Lalonde appeared in the only one other NHL game from this entire draft class.

In 2009, Tallon made eight picks, half of which appeared in at least 100 NHL games. The only one of note for the Blackhawks was Marcus Kruger, who was selected in the fifth round.

Credit where it’s due: Tallon’s resume are highlighted by the acquisitions of Patrick Sharp from the Flyers via trade in 2005 and signing Marian Hossa to his long-term, franchise-changing contract before he was unceremoniously replaced by Stan Bowman. But he also acquired Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd via trade and signed Brian Campbell to a contract that may have been as important — I submit possibly more — than Hossa’s. Campbell’s contract showed the Blackhawks meant business and wanted to win after years of not offering players a penny. THAT contract changed the perception of Chicago around the league.

  • Credit where it’s due 2.0: I would be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that Rick Dudley was the Blackhawks’ assistant general manager for three years while Tallon was the GM. He resigned from the Blackhawks in June of 2009 to become the GM of the Atlanta Thrashers. Tallon lost his job soon after.
  • Blame where it’s due: yes, Tallon drafted Kane and Toews and made a series of fantastic trades that led to the end of a nearly 50-year Stanley Cup drought. However, the failure of the Blackhawks’ front office to get qualifying offers faxed (yes, back in 2009 the fax machine was a thing) to players on time led to unfortunate raises for a few players (specifically Versteeg) and, ultimately, Tallon’s dismissal.

    Blame where it’s due 2.0: yes, Tallon drafted Hjalmarsson, Kane and Toews. Those three players (to date) have appeared in 3,007 combined NHL regular season games. The other 40 players Tallon drafted have appeared in 1,784 combined NHL regular season games, of which almost 800 come from Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger. The point being: Tallon hit grand slams on a few picks. He had lots of misses, too.

    Stan Bowman
    July 2009 – Oct. 2021

    Stan Bowman’s resume will always be something that is held in different opinion levels by Blackhawks fans. My take is that he inherited a great team in 2009 that won the first Stanley Cup, but then he had to burn it to the ground, deal with the drama of the Hjalmarsson offer sheet and Niemi leaving, and then turned around and built two more teams that were good enough to win the Stanley Cup (and I might argue 2014 was good enough, too).

    Credit where it’s due: he drafted Brandon Saad and Alex DeBrincat in the second round of their respective drafts. He drafted Andrew Shaw in the fifth round. He signed Artemi Panarin as an international free agent. He did build the second and third Cup teams around the core he inherited, and that takes a lot of skill to do in the tight salary cap era. He also flipped bad assets (Barker, Cam) for young talent (Leddy, Nick) at times and it worked out.

    Blame where it’s due: too many players drafted by Bowman went on to make a more significant impact somewhere else. From the first player Bowman selected in his first draft (Kevin Hayes) to Phillip Danault, Ryan Hartman, Justin Holl, Joakim Nordstrom, Vinnie Hinostroza, Teuvo Teravainen, Tyler Motte, Nick Schmaltz, Henri Jokiharju and, most recently, Adam Boqvist, he actually drafted quite well but traded players before they developed to buy veterans. If you read those names, you’re probably sick to your stomach. And I didn’t mention Panarin getting away, either.

    Moral of the Story

    At the end of the day, the Kyle Davidson took over a broken, bloated, top-heavy franchise that has some intriguing prospects coming on the blue line but very little to write home about at forward. They want to win again at some point, but that was never going to happen drafting in the early- to mid-teens every year while maxing out against the salary cap. It was time for things to get burned down, and the new front office has been given the grace to go with it.

    You can see Davidson’s complete record of transactions here.

    The moral of the story here is there is a lot of good and bad on the ledger of any general manager. Cam Barker was a bust who was taken third overall by the Blackhawks; he was traded for Leddy and that worked out great. But other deals (cough, Danault to Montreal, cough) backfired like an ’87 Camaro. And that happened far too many times over the past seven years.

    The only guy on this list who really started to put a plan in place and act on it was Tallon. Obviously there were a few factors that went into his dismissal, so he wasn’t in the GM seat when the fruits of his labor were realized. But it took a lot of drafts, trades and signings to make three championships happen. There’s credit that needs to be given to guys like Mike Smith, Tallon and even, yes, Bob Pulford. But there’s plenty of blame to go around as well.

    But if we don’t afford any GM the patience to see things through, either another person benefits from their hard work or they get completely lost in history books somewhere. And repeatedly replacing general managers rarely works; it takes time and commitment to a vision for things to really work out well, and that’s if everything falls into place.

    So let’s all keep this in mind when we want to say the Blackhawks have nothing to work with right now. Yes, they’re bad at the NHL level. They’ve been bad before. But the right pieces developed the right way with a little free agent luck — whether it’s Brian Campbell or Marian Hossa or… Auston Matthews? — can turn the thing around in a big way. That’s the task of Kyle Davidson and Co. now.

    written by

    Tab Bamford has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks for almost two decades. He joined Bleacher Nation as the lead Blackhawks writer in May 2022. Tab is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and is the author of two books about the Blackhawks: "100 Things Blackhawks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" (Triumph Books) and "Chicago Blackhawks: An Illustrated Timeline" (Reedy Press, 2021). Find him on Twitter/X/Instagram/Threads at @The1Tab

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