Chicago Blackhawks fans have debated for over a decade about which general manager deserves more credit for winning three Stanley Cups in six seasons. Dale Tallon laid the foundation by drafting many of the key players, but it was Stan Bowman who navigated the hard salary cap and added pieces to each championship team.
One person who doesn’t get enough credit for the golden era of Blackhawks hockey is Mike Smith, who served as general manager between 2000 and 2003. His final two draft classes at the helm planted the roots of the championship glory that came in the following decade. At the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Smith brought in a future Hall of Famer and two role players that started to turn the franchise around.
1st Round (21st overall), Anton Babchuk, Defenseman
Smith did not have a ton of results when it came to his first-round picks. In 2000, he selected a pair of Russian forwards in Mikhail Yakubov (10th overall) and Pavel Vorobiev, who combined for just 12 NHL goals in 110 games. He had another two first-round picks in 2001 and selected Tuomo Ruutu (9th overall) and goaltender Adam Munro (29th overall). Ruutu played 228 games for the Blackhawks before he was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Andrew Ladd. Munro appeared in only 17 games for the Blackhawks.
With his lone first-round pick in 2002, Smith drafted Babchuk. The Ukrainian defenseman was the seventh-ranked European skater heading into the draft. Two future Blackhawks were selected shortly after him, with Ben Eager going 23rd to the Edmonton Oilers and the Hurricanes taking goaltender Cam Ward at 25.
Babchuk played the 2002-03 season in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with St. Petersburg SKA. The next year, he made his way to North America and debuted for the Norfolk Admirals in the American Hockey League (AHL), where he scored eight goals and 22 points in 73 games. He also played the first in his first NHL games with the Blackhawks. He struggled to stay in Chicago over the next two seasons, playing in just 22 NHL games.
On Jan. 20, 2006, Babchuk was traded to the Hurricanes for defenseman Danny Richmond with the teams swapping fourth-round picks too. Richmond had two assists in 29 career games for the Blackhawks. The pick acquired was eventually traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who used it to select goaltender James Reimer. Babchuk played 289 NHL games for the Blackhawks, Hurricanes, and Calgary Flames, finishing with 36 goals, 107 points, and a plus-14 rating. He returned to the KHL in 2013 and played three more seasons before retiring in 2015.
2nd Round (54th overall), Duncan Keith, Defenseman
Smith went right back to the blue line for his second pick and hit it out of the park by selecting Keith from Michigan State University. Without a doubt, this was Smith’s greatest draft pick during his tenure with the Blackhawks. Only Jay Bouwmeester has played more games than Keith out of all the players taken in 2002, but if he stays healthy, he will take over the top spot midway through the 2021-22 season.
The Blackhawks took their time bringing Keith along. He moved to the Western Hockey League (WHL) for the 2002-03 season. He scored 11 goals and 46 points in 37 games for the Kelowna Rockets. After that, he played the next two full seasons in the AHL with the Admirals. There, he scored 16 goals and 51 points in 154 games.
He made his NHL debut for the Blackhawks to start the 2005-06 season and became a staple in the lineup. Keith only missed six games over the next six seasons. He was the heart and soul for three Stanley Cup wins in 2010, 2013, and 2015. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy for being the most valuable player of the 2015 postseason. He took home the James Norris Trophy for being the best defenseman in the league in 2010 and 2014. He joined Hall of Famers Pierre Pilote, Doug Wilson, and Chris Chelios as the only Blackhawks to win the Norris Trophy.
Keith’s time with the Blackhawks ended on July 13, 2021, when he was traded to the Oilers for defenseman Caleb Jones and a conditional draft pick. His 1,192 games in a Blackhawks sweater are second all-time only to the late Stan Mikita. He is sixth in franchise history with 520 assists and 10th with 625 points.
3rd Round (93rd overall), Alexander Kozhevnikov, Forward
The Blackhawks originally owned the 83rd pick but traded it to the San Jose Sharks for this pick and their fourth-round pick. The Sharks drafted Jonas Fiedler, who never played in the NHL. The Blackhawks didn’t have much better luck with their selection.
Kozhevnikov came to North America for the 2003-04 season, where he played 35 games in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). The next season was his only professional one in the United States. He scored 11 goals and 18 points in 56 games for the ECHL’s Greenville Grrrowl. He returned to Russia in 2005 and never played in the NHL. He had three goals and six points in just 26 career KHL games before retiring in 2011.
4th Round (128th overall), Matt Ellison, Center
Entering the draft, the Blackhawks did not have a pick in the fourth round until acquiring this one from the Sharks. Ellison later became a key part of building a championship team, but not because of his own performance. He was coming off a huge season for the Cowichan Valley Capitals in British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), where he scored 42 goals and 117 points in 60 games. He moved to the WHL for the 2002-03 season, scoring 40 goals and 96 points for the Red Deer Rebels.
Ellison turned pro in 2003-04 and played 10 games for the Blackhawks. Overall, he scored three goals and 13 points in 36 games in Chicago. On Dec. 5, 2005, he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers with a third-round pick for Eric Meloche and Patrick Sharp.
Meloche never played for the Blackhawks, but Sharp became a star and a major contributor to three Stanley Cup victories. In two stints with the Blackhawks, Sharp had 249 goals and 532 points in 749 games, including four seasons with at least 33 goals. Ellison had one assist in seven career games for the Flyers.
5th round (156th overall), James Wisniewski, Defenseman
Smith drafted another defenseman with his fifth pick and took Wisniewski from the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He stayed in Plymouth for the next two seasons before wrapping up his junior career with 52 goals and 187 points in 217 OHL games.
After nearly two full AHL seasons, Wisniewski played 19 games for the Blackhawks during the 2005-06 season. He played 168 games over four seasons in Chicago. His best season was 2007-08, when he scored seven goals and 26 points. He was traded to the Anaheim Ducks at the 2009 trade deadline, along with Petri Kontiola, for Samuel Pahlsson and Logan Stevenson.
Wisniewski had a successful and long NHL career after his time with the Blackhawks. He played 552 games over 11 seasons with the Blackhawks, Ducks, New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Hurricanes. He split the 2016-17 season between the KHL and the Chicago Wolves in the AHL. He played one final professional season in Germany before retiring in 2018.
6th round (188th overall), Kevin Kantee, Defenseman
For the fourth time in six picks, Smith drafted a blueliner. Kantee, despite being born in Idaho Falls, ID, spent his entire career in Europe. In debuted for Jokerit Helsinki in Finland’s SM-liiga in 2003-04. He played seven seasons in Finland’s top league before rounding out his professional career with one season in Austria and Italy. He never played in North America.
7th round (219th overall), Tyson Kellerman, Goaltender
Kellerman was selected by the Blackhawks after appearing in 41 OHL games for the North Bay Centennials. He spent three seasons in the OHL, playing for the Centennials, Saginaw Spirit, Kitchener Rangers, and Brampton Beast. In 109 games, he went 25-64-5 with a 3.52 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. He appeared in 10 games over two seasons for St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia following juniors. He did not further his career after the 2005-06 season.
8th round (251st overall), Jason Kostadine, Right Wing
Kostadine was never much of a scorer during his junior career. Heading into the draft, the physical winger had nine goals and 23 points in 123 QMJHL games for the Hull Olympiques. He had a boost in production with nine goals and 31 points in 72 games for the Quebec Remparts in 2003-04. He turned pro in 2004 but never made it higher than the International Hockey League (IHL). He played six seasons in the ECHL and three for the Quad City Mallards of the Central Hockey League (CHL) before calling it a career in 2013.
9th round (282nd overall), Adam Burish, Right Wing
The Blackhawks got some value out of their ninth and final pick of the 2002 draft. During his draft season, Burish had 24 goals and 57 points in 61 United States Hockey League (USHL) games for the Green Bay Gamblers. He then embarked on a four-year college career at the University of Wisconsin. He had 28 goals and 78 points in 145 games for the Badgers.
Burish turned pro in 2006 and played nine games for the Blackhawks after 64 AHL contests. He etched out a role on the fourth line over the next three seasons. He appeared in 15 playoff games during the Blackhawks’ 2010 run to the Stanley Cup. He signed with the Dallas Stars shortly after the magical 2010 postseason. He played 378 NHL games for the Blackhawks, Stars, and Sharks, scoring 27 goals and 33 points. He retired in 2016 after a brief stint in Sweden. He is only of only four players drafted in the ninth round of the 2002 draft. Only former Detroit Red Wings defenseman, the final player selected, played in more games with 680.
Smith put his stamp on the Blackhawks’ fantastic run in the 2010s by selecting Keith. As we will see in our next installment of this series, he continued to lay the championship foundation the following year with his final draft as Blackhawks general manager.
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.