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Hawks, building through draft, seem model for Islanders

Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith (2) celebrates with teammates

Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith (2) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the first period. (March 7, 2010) Credit: AP

For Islanders fans, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman's words are not exactly comforting for right now.

"There are no shortcuts anymore," Bowman told Newsday, discussing the slow and steady transformation of his team from an NHL punch line to one of the top teams in the league.

But Bowman, son of legendary coach Scotty Bowman and a member of the Hawks front office for the past decade before being named GM last year, has some more words that could encourage Islander fans who have been encouraged time and again by their own team to be patient.

"The elite teams now are able to maintain it," Bowman said. "It takes some time getting there, but I think we've shown it's worth the wait."

The wait, for the loyal Hawks fans, has been interminable. They are working on the longest Stanley Cup drought in the league, 50 seasons, approaching the Rangers' record 54-season drought.

Late owner Bill Wirtz drove away fans with his frugal ways, including a television blackout of all Hawks home games through the 1980s, 1990s and the early part of the 2000s, claiming it was an insult to season-ticket holders.

Wirtz died in 2007 and his son, Rocky, changed much of the team's corporate culture.

Around the same time, GM Dale Tallon, with Bowman as his assistant, was putting the finishing touches on yet another dismal NHL season. But it was also another chance to add another blue-chip draft pick to a growing stable of young talent.

From the 1997-98 season to that 2006-07 season, the Hawks missed the playoffs eight of nine times, losing their only playoff series in 2001-02. The team, faced with the post-lockout salary cap as well as the history of futility, made a commitment to building the franchise through the draft.

The Hawks' top players today came through the system, starting with defenseman and captain Duncan Keith, drafted in the second round in 2002. From there, nearly all of the Hawks' subsequent top picks have panned out: defensemen Brent Seabrook (14th overall pick, 2003) and Cam Barker (No. 3, 2004) and forwards Jonathan Toews (No. 3, 2006) and Patrick Kane (No. 1, 2007).

"It's too simplistic to say you have to just lose and get high draft picks every year," Bowman said. "You have to draft well and you have to develop your players. Development is something that gets overlooked a lot; you can't just stick a guy in the minors and say, 'Go down there and play, and in two years you'll be ready.'

"You may be fortunate to get one player who's ready right away; we got very fortunate and had two, with Toews and Kane. But Keith and Seabrook, among several others, needed time in the minors to work on their games, and you can't do that without a strong system in place."

Trent Yawney and Mike Haviland were the Hawks' AHL coaches during the 2000s; both went on to NHL jobs. The Islanders, who have Jack Capuano coaching their Bridgeport affiliate, have begun the process of developing their own talent well, most notably defenseman Andrew MacDonald.

With Toews and Kane as rookies two seasons ago, the Hawks were vastly improved, with 88 points to the 71 they had the year before, but they still missed the playoffs. Even so, Bowman noticed that plenty of agents were contacting the Hawks to get their veteran clients to Chicago after seeing what Toews, Kane, Seabrook and Keith were doing on the ice.

"It all starts to roll in the right direction," Bowman said.

"That's been true even before the cap," said Jay Feaster, who was GM of the Lightning for eight years, including their 2003-04 Cup season.

"When you have some success, especially with young, talented guys, the free-agency process becomes so much easier."

The Hawks added mainstay defenseman Brian Campbell before last season, when they went to the Western Conference final before losing to the Red Wings.

Before this season, Marian Hossa jumped from the Wings to the Hawks.

Of course, locking up all this young talent costs money, and the Hawks went a little overboard last summer, just before Tallon was replaced by Bowman. Bowman made the only trade he could just before this season's deadline, sending Barker to the Wild for veteran defensemen Kim Johnsson and Nick Leddy, the Wild's top prospect.

The time for building through the draft is past for the Hawks, but by acquiring Leddy, just 19, Bowman has essentially added a top-five pick in a year when Chicago will draft in the bottom three first-round spots.

"The time will come when we need to give up some of our future assets for pieces to help us win now," Bowman said, "but we couldn't justify giving up Barker unless we got another young piece back."

And the fans have returned to stay: The Hawks have sold out every home game last season and this one, and hockey has returned to a status in Chicago it hasn't had since the days of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

"It felt like a very long road there for a while, and our fans have helped us," Bowman said. "I think everyone knows this was the right way to do it."

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