Leadership has been the buzzword around the Blackhawks this summer.
The additions of former Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno and former ultra-hammer Ducks Corey Perry were both made by Hawks general manager Kyle Davidson with one goal: to bring in leadership.
But that statement leads to one question that makes sense, one that many fans have been asking. If the Hawks want leadership, why don’t they bring back Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, two of the most successful, experienced, and beloved leaders in franchise history?
The answers are complex, but in Davidson’s thought process at least, they mostly boil down to one conclusion: Toews and Kane provide, though through no fault of their own, too much leadership.
“No offense to Corey Perry or Nick Foligno, [but] they are not Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane,” Davidson said after the draft. “Corey was a very, very good player at his peak, but having a club legend is a little bit different.
“Opportunity with Nick and Corey, where they are here on a short term deal, [gives other players] runway for becoming those leaders and working with them. Rather than just having Jonathan and Patrick there – because they’re going to be leaders, no doubt, no doubt, and there’s going to be a little bit of a bottleneck there in terms of leadership development.
“In my opinion, having good veterans in the short term [contracts] allowing some who may be here longer to jump into the space and therefore use Nick and Corey as a resource. [They’ll] helps strengthen the culture in the dressing room in the short term.”
In other words, in his view, the larger-than-life presence of Kane and Toews creates a sort of leadership void where no one else (besides Connor Murphy among the defensive cast to some extent) can grow to become a leader himself. Instead, everyone respectfully respects Kane and Toews in all circumstances.
It’s hard to know if that’s true or just a hint, but it’s true that every player who has joined the Hawks in recent years has spoken at length about how surreal it is to play alongside Kane and Toews.
Many of the rookies entering the NHL today literally grew up worshiping them on TV. Lukas Reichel, for example, has repeatedly called Kane his “favourite player” since childhood. Considering that respect, Reichel probably wouldn’t want to argue with or sideline Kane if they ever disagreed about, say, the right pass to pull off a power play.
Davidson provided a similar explanation on April 13 when he first announced he would not be re-signing Toews either. This plan had been popping into his head for a while.
“I don’t know if [this decision is about] certainly put the past behind us,” he said later. “This goes beyond clearing the decks, to some extent, to allow organic growth for young players into leadership roles and offer this new era of Blackhawks players the same opportunity as Toews, Kane, [Duncan] Keith and [Brent] Seabrook has everything to offer when they come to the league.
“We believe that…it’s beneficial for this next group to allow for leaders to emerge, to form that relationship with Luke [Richardson and] that relationship with myself, and [to]in the locker room, be the voice, rather than bow down to someone who has been here a long time.
It should be noted that Kane and Toews’ health status is also uncertain. The two have yet to sign a new contract with any team for next season. That’s likely another factor in Davidson’s vigilance.
Toews, 35, is still assessing whether he can continue his career at all. It will be determined by how his body handles a full summer training. Kane, 34, is undergoing rehabilitation from hip surgery, reportedly waiting to see how he does. Now that his dream of being an “Eagle for Life” has died, playing for a serious challenger seems to be his priority.
However, when Foligno, 35, and Perry, 38, step into the Fifth Third Arena for boot camp, they will do so as grizzled, well-traveled veterans, but certainly not as Chicago legends. Their presence would be helpful but not awe-inspiring, and that was basically the idea.
“A lot of times with leadership, that is [about] build relationships,” Foligno said earlier this month. “That’s where I think I can excel and help out. [That’s what I] have tried to do in my career. When you have a team who really care about each other, who are excited to be coming into the arena, who understand the work that needs to be done to get better but are enjoying themselves while they are there, the room usually starts to set. standards and culture.
“If you can find a way to get everyone together and bond and form that brotherhood, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.”
The Blackhawks are seeking leadership from Corey Perry.
Reichel, Connor Bedard, Alex Vlasic, Wyatt Kaiser, Arvid Soderblom, potentially Kevin Korchinski and any other Hawks prospects graduating to the NHL full-time in 2023-24 will be assisted by Foligno and Perry but not overshadowed by them.
Bedard can learn about handling the pressure of being the No. 1 pick. 1 from Taylor Hall. The whole group can learn about handling NHL captain duties from Foligno. The whole group can learn about the path to the Stanley Cup Finals from Perry (just as much as they can from Kane or Toews, to be fair).
They will also receive some institutional knowledge on the Hawks and Chicago special from the likes of Murphy, Seth Jones, and Tyler Johnson, who have been around for quite a while now.
At the same time, the group will have plenty of room to talk, develop their own sound, find their own niche, and also give advice to their teammates. With Foligno and Perry both on one-year contracts (while Hall has two years remaining), they will have to do it fast, as they are expected to take over in top leadership roles soon.
They will have to learn together how to navigate the inevitable ups and downs of the NHL, and there will be plenty of downs to come in 2023-24. For example, after the Hawks’ worst ever loss – an example when, historically, Toews has always spoken on behalf of the team – those same hard questions will now fall to someone else.
Jones or Murphy—or Foligno or Perry—may have taken on the role at first, but at some point, Bedard—or whoever emerged as the strongest leader of the new generation—had to shoulder the burden. The process of preparing a new generation for it should start now.