CHICAGO – Six days after he clinched the Cup for Chicago, Dave Bolland was traded for the first time in his NHL career, sent back home to play for the Leafs. Hours after the deal was finalized, the 27-year-old observed similarities between the team he had just departed and the one he was set to join.
"I think this is one team like the Blackhawks team that's coming up and is going to do great things – hopefully like we did (in Chicago)," said the Toronto native back in late June.
With a pair of Stanley Cups in the past four years and the potential for more in the years ahead, the Chicago Blackhawks are a representation of what the Maple Leafs would one day like to become.
"I think they're a model for the league, not just our hockey club," said Randy Carlyle of the defending champions, who topped the Leafs in a one-sided 3-1 decision at the United Center on Saturday.
That model has seen the Blackhawks grow from the nothingness of a perennial bust in the late 90's and early 2000's into a feared Cup contender, one that erased a 49-year drought in 2010 before celebrating once more this past June.
How did they do it and how might the Leafs follow (or be following already) in their direction? The path began with the establishment of a core.
"The one thing that they've been able to do is they've collected a core group of players and they've built their team around them," Carlyle said.
Fronted by their captain Jonathan Toews and furthered with Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and Niklas Hjalmarsson (and Bolland prior to his trade to Toronto), the Blackhawks established a fearsome foundation from which to build their team. And because those key components were secure and in place en route to victory in 2010, they were able to re-invent most of the roster upon capturing the Cup once more in 2013.
Only nine players in fact stuck around to win both.
"They've got a core group that they seem to have been able to acquire and maintain and they're just adding pieces around it," Carlyle said, noting the additions of no. 1 goaltender Corey Crawford and playoff hero Bryan Bickell to that mix in recent years.
In Toronto, the building blocks are gradually being put into place.
Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak have all been locked up and are considered key components of the Leafs core, joined by Carl Gunnarsson, Nazem Kadri, Morgan Rielly, and Jonathan Bernier. Contracts await Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, James Reimer, Bolland and a number of others this summer.
That foundation, while not yet at the level of the Blackhawks, has improved considerably from where it was just a few years earlier.
"They've built from within their system," Cody Franson noted of the Chicago formula. "They brought in pieces that were proper to the way that they wanted to do things and I think we've done the same thing. We've got guys that came up through our system and are playing big roles and we've brought in guys like (Bolland) and (Clarkson), guys that fit in with what we're trying to accomplish here. I think it's a good way to do things."
Unlike the folks in Chicago, the Leafs, led initially in their reconstruction by Brian Burke and now by Dave Nonis, built their foundation almost entirely from the outside. Of the aforementioned group, only Gunnarsson, Kadri, Reimer and Rielly were drafted by the organization, the others landing with the club either via trade or free agency.
The Leafs have mastered the art of the deal during their recent renovation, hitting home runs in trades for Lupul, van Riemsdyk, Franson, Gardiner, Phaneuf and even Kessel with whom there was previously much discontent.
Still, the draft and development record of the club could certainly stand to improve. Chicago has used the tool as a driver to its success. "They've always seemed to be able to add a player from the minors or youth," Carlyle observed of the Blackhawks, coached by Joel Quenneville since 2008.
In 2013, it was Andrew Shaw, a fifth round pick in 2011, ending Game 1 against the Bruins with the triple-overtime winner. It was Brandon Saad, a second round pick that same year, running shotgun with Toews throughout the regular season. It was Marcus Kruger, a little-known fifth round pick in 2009, killing penalties and grinding on the fourth line during the playoffs.
It was unexpected homegrown contributions of that kind that helped lift the aforementioned cast of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Seabrook, Keith, Hjalmarsson, Bickell and Crawford, all but Sharp and Hossa drafted and developed by the organization.
"They didn't have to trade for any of those guys," said Franson, the 26-year-old drafted by the Predators in 2005 and traded to the Leafs in 2011. "That's all through their draft. If you can get guys of that quality through your draft it only helps."
Ted Dent, the head coach of the Blackhawks AHL affiliate in Rockford, worked alongside Carlyle with the Washington Capitals. "They ask him to provide a player a year or two players a year to the Blackhawks," Carlyle said. "That's what the development is supposed to do; it's supposed to provide players."
Though they obviously benefited from first round selections in Toews (third overall in 2006), Kane (first overall in 2007) and Seabrook (14th overall in 2003), the Blackhawks also cashed in on some later round picks; Keith, Crawford and Bolland were second round selections, Hjalmarsson a fourth round pick, Shaw, Saad and Kruger additionally found deep into their respective drafts.
Barren of quality prospects for years – notably because top draft picks were traded – the Leafs management team has worked to address the deficiency. Though still not at the level they would like, they appear to be moving in a more positive direction.
Besieged by injuries and the 10-game suspension to Clarkson (who will make his debut next week in Columbus), the Leafs have reached into their minor league pool early this season with 20-year-olds David Broll and Josh Leivo. Though they've made contributions, their readiness as NHL regulars likely remains in the future.
Generally speaking, the Leafs aren't yet at a point where they can round out their roster with internal talent, but they're slowly moving in that direction, notably with future assets on defence.
Rielly has already made the jump from junior this season, perhaps to be joined down the line by Andrew MacWilliam, Stuart Percy, Matt Finn and Tom Nilsson. Up front, the cupboard has potential NHL talent with Broll and Leivo atop the list, but lacks the high-end caliber of prospects Chicago has grown.
Save for the 34-year-old Hossa, the Blackhawks core is also almost brimming with relative youth, meaning the group has and will continue to grow together.
Nonis has pledged to adopt a similar formula with the Leafs since taking over for Burke nine months ago.
Of his major additions to the lineup this past offseason – Clarkson, Bolland, Bernier – none are considered to be aging or in decline. Kessel, recently signed to an eight-year extension, just turned 26. By investing in talent that is still emerging, Leaf management hopes to develop a group that will eventually flourish together as the Blackhawks did in 2010.
"We were building up to that kind of team," said Bolland, who made his return to Chicago on Saturday.
Not so dissimilar to the Leafs, the Blackhawks had missed the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons before reaching the Western Conference Final in 2009. They were promptly dismissed by the veteran Red Wings in five games, but made gains in experience.
"They took it to us," Bolland recalled. "We've never been to the Western Conference Finals in how many years; it was a lot of guys' first time. It was a learning curve."
The following year the Blackhawks not only reached the postseason, but powered their way to the club's first Cup since 1961, topping the Flyers in six games. "It was a learning curve and we learnt from our mistakes," Bolland said of the experience.
Bolland believes the sting of the Leafs Game 7 collapse last May will pay similar dividends down the line, a chance to learn from the pain of defeat and ultimately take a step forward from it. "It's a learning curve," he repeated.
No path to a championship is the same, but in Chicago there is, at the very least, a formula or model for replication, not so much in the style of play but in the way the team was constructed. With a sturdy core and impressive draft and development record, the Blackhawks molded their club into perennial Cup contenders.
It's a direction the Leafs can certainly aspire to follow.
"It's a long road to get there when you look at it," Bolland said of the path to a Cup. "It's not easy. But I think as of right now for us, our path here is try to get there."
1. Humbled in defeat
Outshot 40-20, the Leafs were thumped 3-1 by the defending champs, dropping back-to-back games for the first time this season. "They play a pretty high-tempo game," said Carlyle afterward, "and we didn't seem to be able to keep the pace up until the third period. We got desperate and we started to play a lot more of a skating game and did a few things that we should be doing for 60 minutes versus 20 minutes."
The Leafs mustered up only three shots in the opening frame – for the second time this week – and were then outshot 20-6 in the middle period. The Blackhawks scored three goals in those 20 minutes, including the winner from former Leaf Michael Kostka.
"Definitely the first 20 or 25 minutes were difficult," said Nazem Kadri, scoring the Leafs lone goal in the second frame. "We were under siege a little bit and left Bernier out to dry. We've got lots better than that."
Lacking any sustained fore-check, the Leafs allowed a very mobile Chicago defence to burst out of its own zone with ease, thus springing a highly potent transition game. "We weren't able to shut that down in the second period," Carlyle noted.
Propped up by terrific special teams and sturdy goaltending during a wobbly 6-1-0 start, the Leafs have seen those areas predictably cool in recent days. As a result, many lingering faults have been exposed, notably their ineffectiveness at even-strength defensively.
"At the end of the day we are 6-3 so you can stay a little bit positive with that, knowing that we haven't played our best hockey," said James van Riemsdyk, who returned to the lineup after a two-game absence. "But as the year goes on things tighten up and if you continue to make the same mistakes you're going to find yourself on the wrong end of the score a lot of times."
2. More and more shots for Bernier
Jonathan Bernier faced more than 30 shots only four times in the previous two seasons with Los Angeles (25 starts). On Saturday evening, he faced more than 30 for the fifth time already this season, his team yielding 40 shots in defeat. "Definitely, it's an adjustment," he said of the increase in rubber. "When you get 20 shots or 40 shots it's a big difference."
Bernier had faced 40 shots only once prior in his NHL career. He stopped 40 of 42 in a 3-2 win over Phoenix while still with the Kings in Mar. 2013.
An elite squad defensively in recent years, the Kings held opponents to 25 shots per game last season, third-fewest in the NHL. So far this season the Leafs are allowing a bloated 36 shots nightly, only the Senators ranking worse in that category.
3. Cooling off
Bernier has cooled after a scorching start to the season. The 25-year-old has posted a .898 save percentage in his last three games played, this after a sizzling .974 mark in his first four games as a Leaf.
Of the three he allowed against the Blackhawks, two were circled as goals he'd like to have back. Unable to catch to Bryan Bickell's first attempt on goal early in the second frame, Bernier was outlasted on the rebound by the Chicago winger. The second goal and eventual winner from Kostka was a point shot through traffic, one that "was picked up late" by the Leafs goaltender.
"I think we've all got to look at ourselves in the mirror and play better," he said.
4. More shots
While they've yielded quite a few against, Kadri would like to see his team generate more shots at opposing net minders. "Not every shot has to be a grade-A scoring chance," he said. "It seems like when you're throwing it at the goalie's pads, through the goal-line, or just bad angles testing him, all of a sudden you get rebounds and scoring chances generate that way.
"That's a page we ought to take out of their book a little bit and understand that not every single chance we have has to be a grade-A opportunity."
The Leafs have been held under 30 shots in all but two games this season, averaging about 27 per game, fifth fewest in the league.
5. Bolland's Chicago Return
Bolland played 332 regular season games for Chicago, adding 67 more in the postseason with a pair of Cups. He made his return to familiar grounds on Saturday, receiving an in-arena tribute from the club during the first television timeout. "The emotions are running high with everything that went on here for the past seven or eight years," he said before the game.
40-20 – Shot differential between the Blackhawks and Leafs.
35.6 – Average shots against the Leafs this season.
10 – Points for Joffrey Lupul this season, leading the team.
9-25 or 36 per cent – Tyler Bozak in the faceoff circle against Chicago.
16:31 – Minutes for Carl Gunnarsson against Chicago, a season-low.
3-1-0 – Leafs road record this season.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
"It's the type of team you measure yourself against. We should be excited about that."
-Joffrey Lupul on facing the Blackhawks, prior to a 3-1 defeat.
The Leafs host the Ducks at the ACC on Tuesday, the first time Randy Carlyle will face his former team.