LeBrun: Has Connor Bedard sped up the Blackhawks’ rebuild? Catching up with GM Kyle Davidson

TORONTO — Opening night in Sidney Crosby’s barn on ESPN. Followed by three games in Original Six markets in Boston, Montreal and Toronto.

It’s been a bit of a road gauntlet for the Chicago Blackhawks to open the Connor Bedard era.

So what’s it like being the general manager of what feels like a traveling circus?

“Definitely brings a new wrinkle to the job, right?” Chicago general manager Kyle Davidson said in a sitdown with The Athletic on Monday. “You’re maybe talking to the PR staff and the business staff a little more than you would otherwise, and making sure everyone is still getting what they need and the preparation is there for the games and the on-ice performance.

“But you also want to make sure for some of our younger players, and we have quite a few of them, is that nothing is getting too distracting. Whether it be for Connor or anyone else, the focus is on the ice while still fulfilling the (off-ice) obligations. Just making sure everyone is comfortable in doing their job.”

As far as the season-opening five-game road trip, which ends Thursday in Colorado, the NHL schedule-maker maybe didn’t do Chicago any favors. But on the other hand …

“I see some benefits to it, as well,” Davidson said. “It’s probably not going to be worse than this. So we’re ripping the Band-Aid off early, in terms of the intense markets and intense media and exposure. I don’t mind it. And I don’t mind getting on the road early, either.”

With all the new faces on the roster in the early stages of a massive rebuild, being on the road together should help with player bonding, as well.

On the ESPN telecast opening night, Ray Ferraro compared the Hawks’ situation to building a house from the foundation up — that the team had so far just purchased the lot and cleared the land but still had work ahead in terms of actually building the foundation, with many of their prospects not expected to be NHL-ready for years. It was perfectly put by Ferraro, a comment which I relayed to Davidson.

“Yeah, I think for the most part, we are fairly early days,” he said. “People want to try to figure out where we’re at — if anything sped up because we won the lottery and those sorts of things, but I think it’s important just to stay nimble and agile.

“Because you know what, if some of these younger players that we’ve selected develop really quickly, then maybe we’re ahead of where we are. Or maybe they don’t.

“It’s about getting it right rather than getting to the finish line as soon as we can.”

Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson and coach Luke Richardson watch this year’s prospect camp. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

It goes without saying that Davidson wants the Blackhawks to be as good as they can as soon as possible, but his point is that he’s not going to make the mistake of rushing player development.

“We’ve put a lot of effort in acquiring draft capital and using that and think we have some really, really nice pieces that are going to be a major part of this moving forward,” he said. “But a lot of those players are not in pro hockey yet. That takes time. It’s the best league in the world.”

The Blackhawks also have four first-round picks in the next two drafts, their own two picks plus the Tampa Bay Lightning’s in 2024 and Toronto’s in 2025.

They also have a potential weapon in having the most salary-cap space in the NHL.

“There’s not a lot of teams that can take on money, and we’re definitely one of those that can,” Davidson said. “If the right opportunity comes up, we’re more than willing to utilize that. It’s got to be right for us. We’re not necessarily going to take a player just to take a player. It’s got to be the right fit and the right situation from an asset perspective. But like you said, we do have the space to accommodate that.”

That could also give the Blackhawks some opportunities in 2024 free agency, Davidson noted.

“It gives us options, it gives us flexibility,” he said.

Davidson used that flexibility this summer to lure veterans Nick Foligno and Corey Perry, each pending UFA signing a one-year, $4 million deal after his rights were traded to Chicago.

Let’s be real: No other team would have been willing to spend $4 million on either player at this stage of his career, but part of the sales job was also explaining to them that they would have bigger roles on this team than they probably could anywhere else.

“We were very honest about where we were at, what we were doing, just giving them the lay of the land so there were no surprises when they hopefully signed with us,” Davidson said. “But also, outlining the incredible impact that they could have, both now and in the future — helping develop a culture here and helping develop young players while also playing a part on the team.

“We wouldn’t have brought these guys in if we didn’t think they could play. We didn’t just bring them in to be good guys in the locker room. We brought them in to be contributors on the ice, too.”

Taylor Hall, acquired from the Boston Bruins, was part of this equation, as well. They were smart pickups, savvy veterans who will help Bedard and the young roster on and off the ice.

“So far the returns have been great, I really like the way that they’ve kind of taken control of things in the locker room,” Davidson said. “They’ve driven some accountability and habits within the room.”

That begs the question, looking ahead to the March 8 trade deadline, of whether Perry and Foligno will have greater internal value than the value of the middling draft pick they would likely fetch in a trade. But either way, it sounds like the pair was not brought in to be flipped.

“My thought on that is that we signed them to be Blackhawks,” Davidson said. “We didn’t sign them to move them along. We targeted them and brought them in because we saw the value in them for us. That’s the sole focus.”

In the meantime, Davidson is keeping a close eye on the future roster, too, which is why he took in the Erie-Mississauga OHL game on Sunday to see 2023 second-round pick Martin Misiak play.

Except for one problem. “Kyle from Chicago” at first couldn’t get into the rink.

“I forgot my (NHL) ID to get in,” he laughed.

Blackhawks assistant GM Norm Maciver tried to persuade the gentlemen handling security at the arena entrance for scouts that Davidson was his boss. Eventually, Davidson showed his driver’s license and his Blackhawks team credit card, which got him in.

The scene echoed the hilarious draft-week interview “Kyle from Chicago” gave to an unknowing Nashville news crew.

“So yeah, I could probably pull the wool over more people’s eyes if I wanted to,” he laughed.

He takes no offense to still largely being an unknown quantity in the NHL GM world.

“Honestly, I’ve heard more about that interview than anything I’ve done on the job,” he smiled. “That’s sort of what I’m known for.”

Obviously, he hopes that changes here over time as he continues to put his imprints on this roster. Named interim GM in October 2021 and full-time GM in March 2022, the 35-year-old from Sudbury, Ontario, has grown more comfortable in his own skin.

He’s learned a lot already and is clear and consistent in the vision he has for this rebuild.

“I’ve got a pretty strong belief system in how I believe decisions should be made or can be made, and the involvement of different staff in those decisions,” Davidson said. “And then a philosophy on how we’re building this and how we’re going to build it both from an asset perspective and an on-ice perspective … setting that intention, driving toward that and making sure everyone else understands that within the hockey operations department.”

He recognizes that his youth might make some people skeptical of his ability in the GM job. But it can also be an asset when it comes to fostering a modern approach.

“It’s just never stop learning, never stop being curious in trying to pick up little bits of information wherever I can to make us better and make myself better,” Davidson said. “Both on and off the ice.”

If he sticks to it, maybe “Kyle from Chicago” will get recognized next June at the draft.

At the very least, he should be able to get into the building.

(Top photo of Connor Bedard: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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