CHICAGO -- The Philadelphia Flyers and Chicago Blackhawks will line up proudly on their respective blue lines Saturday night in the United Center as conference champions, Stanley Cup finalists and, based upon the only barometer that matters – the ability to win playoff games – the two best teams in the National Hockey League.
They were positioned side-by-side at the head of a very different line a mere three years ago.
On June 22, 2007, the Hawks were at table No. 1 and the Flyers at table No. 2 on the floor of Columbus' Nationwide Arena for the first day of the NHL Entry Draft. Such pole positions, while bearing the promise of better days ahead (and providing unobstructed views of the nifty draft board), are not coveted rewards for jobs well done. They're dreaded consolation prizes for teams that have had truly terrible seasons -- and the Flyers and Hawks of 2006-07 certainly qualified.
In truth, the two proud franchises arrived at that dark moment in very different ways.
Chicago had been down for years. The Blackhawks' 71-point, last-in-the-Central and 26th-in-the-League performance marked the eighth time in nine years that they would miss the playoffs. In fact, it represented an improvement over their previous two dreadful seasons, in which they finished 29th and 28th in the 30-team League standings, respectively.
Philadelphia's 2006-07 season, in contrast, was more of a stumble along an otherwise high-stepping path. But even if it followed three straight 100-point seasons, the Flyers' 56-point mess in '06-07 was so calamitous it ranked as the worst in franchise history, cost icons their jobs and catalyzed some organizational soul searching.
Out of those ashes, however, rose two franchises that, just three seasons later, stand four victories away from a championship.
How each got from there to here in so short a time are less stories of dramatic shifts in organizational philosophies than examples of how quickly in today's NHL a team with a plan can go from worst to first.
The Blackhawks, though seemingly in worse shape, already had begun rebuilding toward big things when then-GM Dale Tallon came to the 2007 draft armed with the No. 1 pick -- thanks to winning the lottery to leap from fifth to first pick, sliding Philadelphia back to second.
Duncan Keith (2002), Adam Burish (2002), Brent Seabrook (2003), Dustin Byfuglien (2003) and Dave Bolland (2004) had been drafted before Tallon took over. He took Jonathan Toews with the No. 3 pick in 2006. Tallon also changed his own course by the end of the 2006-07 season, admitting that the organization underestimated how much the game would change coming out of the work stoppage and turning away from free-agent purchased time-buying in order to turn the team over to the young players who actually could play in the new NHL.
"We agreed to really purge and get to the bottom and start from scratch and have a clean sheet of ice," Tallon, just named GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, told NHL.com this week. "We were able to develop and get a tremendous number of draft picks and strength by numbers. They're not all going to play, but we were able to get a tremendous number of those picks to get to play in our farm system first and then able to develop them, take our time developing them.
"And, all of a sudden, we won the lottery and that gave us a big boost, turned things around in our favor."
Had the game not changed to favor skill and speed, Tallon said he probably would have shied away from taking a small player with that No. 1 overall pick. But it had -- so the ‘Hawks selected a skilled, swift winger out of Buffalo named Patrick Kane.
"It was a big boost to the organization -- to get a player that complemented Jonathan was important," Tallon said. "He was a game breaker, Pat. He wasn't the biggest guy, but I never saw him back away from anyone. He was really good in traffic. Took some abuse but never shied away, always played well in traffic, was determined. There was something special about him as well."
Not that the Hawks didn't seriously consider the other young American who was at the top of the Central Scouting Bureau rankings. That would have been New Jersey's own James van Riemsdyk, whom the Flyers chose with the No. 2 pick.
"No, it wasn't unanimous," Tallon said. "It was a tough decision to make. We had some guys that liked van Riemsdyk and some guys that liked Kyle Turris (who went third to Phoenix)."
After that, though not without its bumps along the way, Chicago's fortunes on the ice took a relentless turn for the better.
The 2007-08 season would be just the Hawks' second winning one since 1995-96, and it saw Kane win the Calder Trophy while the team narrowly missed the playoffs. The hiring of Joel Quenneville early the next season matched the perfect coach to the young team and resulted in 104 points and a trip to the Western Conference Final. Then came this season: 112 points, a Central Division title and a playoff run that has included knocking off three 100-point opponents.
"We were able to develop and get a tremendous number of draft picks and strength by numbers. They're not all going to play, but we were able to get a tremendous number of those picks to get to play in our farm system first and then able to develop them, take our time developing them."
-- Former Chicago GM Dale Tallon
None was bigger than taking the GM's reins from franchise legend Bob Clarke and handing them to Paul Holmgren. The latter would spend the 2006-07 season making astute moves such as dealing oft-injured center Peter Forsberg to Nashville for picks and younger players; acquiring young stud defenseman Braydon Coburn from Atlanta for nearing-the-end blueliner Alexei Zhitnik; and, just before the 2007 draft, trading the first-round pick they had obtained in the Forsberg deal back to Nashville for Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell.
Holmgren would make another Draft Day splash two years later, acquiring Chris Pronger from Anaheim in a deal aimed at bringing a Cup-winner's presence into the Flyers' dressing room.
All of the building blocks Holmgren thought he had in place threatened to crumble at several points this season because of the shaky underpinning of a ridiculous number of injuries to goaltenders. But Philly persevered, making as stunning a run to a Final as any in history -- from making the playoffs in a regular season-finale shootout, then overcoming a 3-0 series deficit in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Of course, that only makes the Flyers one of two teams in this Stanley Cup Final who got here in remarkable fashion -- and just three years after bottoming out.
"We thought it would take a little longer than it's taken," Tallon admitted. "But it doesn't surprise me because of the quality of the persons, all of them."