Tom Thompson’s Blog: Blackhawks off-season defined by talent evaluation

Even though the complexities of the salary cap system present challenges to all clubs, effective evaluation of young talent remains the key to success in the NHL.

No. 1 case in point – the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks had a successful 2009-10 season in a number of aspects. They won the Stanley Cup and they were popular champions because of their exciting style of play. They filled the United Center on a regular basis and drew large crowds on the road as well.

The Hawks also realized by the time playoff bonuses were factored in, their payroll would exceed the salary cap by a substantial margin. When combined with the fact some of their top players were going to command substantial salaries, there was only one conclusion to draw: The Stanley Cup champions would have to move some big contributors to their championship season as soon as possible.

Other NHL teams realized the Hawks’ predicament. In spite of this, the Hawks were able to make several important trades soon after their triumph. Key members of their team such as Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel were moved in deals that returned young prospects and draft picks. The team now has some flexibility to meet the financial demands of its key players and will be poised to defend its championship.

Teams that attempt to follow the Hawks’ model may enjoy less success. Several components were crucial to Chicago’s method of approach. First of all, the decisions they made on core players have to be correct. These players had better be good and require the leadership skills necessary to elevate the level of play of their teammates.

Secondly, the team must accomplish its objectives on the ice. Can you imagine the criticism that would be leveled at the Hawks if they were scrambling to dismantle a team that had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs?

Thirdly, the players the Hawks moved happened to be desired by other teams. If they had been trying to deal players who were found to be untradeable, they would really have had a problem. If no one had wanted them, the Hawks would have been forced to move one or more of their core players, reducing their chances of defending their championship.

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In every aspect, talent evaluation is the key component. A successful team must draft and develop players who can fill the roles of stars and supporting cast. These elements provide the basis for a championship season. The team must also include expendable players who are attractive to other clubs. This aspect is crucial for the dual purpose of getting the team under the salary cap and replenishing the supply of young prospects and draft picks. Proper evaluations must take place on the young players acquired in the deals and in the selection of the draft picks.

High rewards often flow from situations where risk is involved. The Hawks risked a great deal on some of their key draft picks maturing quickly enough so that the team could enjoy success before the salary cap became an issue. In today’s highly competitive NHL, a team like last year’s Blackhawks must take the risk that good luck will be with them for four consecutive playoff series. They also have to take the risk on the evaluation of their players they wish to move to other clubs.

Proper talent evaluation will also be crucial for the Hawks in their goaltending situation. The club elected to walk away from the decision of an arbitrator in Antti Niemi’s award. They were only able to do so based on their evaluation of replacement goalie Marty Turco. The defense of their championship will rest partly on Turco’s shoulders and Chicago’s talent evaluators had better be right.

Talent evaluation is a difficult job, especially when it involves projections on the long-term potential of young players. The organizations that best accomplish this will be contending for the next Stanley Cup.

Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He will be blogging for this season.