Today’s list breakdown looks at the Hawthorn Hawks, a team who have been at the top more often than not for a long time, and look well-placed to stay there.
Why? The short version is that players love to move to the Hawks, and between Dylan Shiel likely already on the way and presumably more talent to follow in the future, it’s hard not to see them staying relevant.
Although the footy world expected relatively little from Hawthorn at the start of the year, the numbers on their list suggest it should have been otherwise.
They entered the season as the second oldest list in the league, younger only than Adelaide, and the most experienced in the AFL.
Despite this, they did put a reasonable number of games into their younger players – 29 per cent, a little below the AFL average, but not by a significant amount.
Their total of 66 AFLCA voted from those players was in line with that, although it’s worth noting that 39 of those votes – almost two-thirds – came from a single player, James Sicily, who is about to age out of their 23-and-under group.
Along with Sicily the other notable players in this group for Hawthorn include Ryan Burton, James Worpel, Jarman Impey, Blake Hardwick, Conor Glass, Daniel Howe and Kieran Lovell.
All things considered for a side that has only taken two first-round draft picks since the turn of the decade, it’s a reasonably impressive group of young players.
The Hawks put 47 per cent of their games into players aged 24-29, which is on par with the league-wide average but a little light on in comparison to most finals sides.
They picked up an impressive 269 AFLCA votes from this group, above and beyond the leaguewide average of 179.
Tom Mitchell was obviously their leading vote-getter here by a long way, but Luke Breust, Jaeger O’Meara, Jack Gunston, Liam Shiels, Ben Stratton and Ben McEvoy all played big roles.
Ryan Schoenmakers, Taylor Duryea and Will Langford are also in this group and seen somewhat regularly at senior level.
However the area of their list where the Hawks most strongly deviated from the norm is their veteran players 30-and-over, who played nearly a quarter of Hawthorn’s games this year.
They also pulled in 58 AFLCA votes, which is a little above average, but not proportionally to the degree the Hawks overinvested in veterans.
Isaac Smith and Shaun Burgoyne where the best-performed players in the group, while the likes of Jarryd Roughead, Paul Puopolo, Ricky Henderson and James Frawley all played regularly but were rarely match-winners.
Grant Birchall is in this group also but didn’t play a single game for the year.
For a side that has been very unconventional in their list management, Hawthorn have a reasonably strong balance of talent across the list.
Having late picks due to success at the same time that expansion concessions were winding out the draft order meant they were always going to struggle to maintain sustained success by going down that route.
Instead they’ve consistently looked to trade in mature talent and in doing so have brought in players like Mitchell, O’Meara and Impey to strengthen prime-age and youth groups which would otherwise be sorely lacking in talent.
The loss of Cyril Rioli out of their prime-age group is a genuine blow to the strength of their list however, and they’re still undoubtedly overbalanced in favour of veteran players.
They will face a large number of retirements over the next 2-3 years and should make an effort to carefully manage some of those exits in order to make sure they don’t feel the impact all at once.
In terms of list needs, they could do with young or prime-age talent in just about any area of the ground.
In particular I’d say there’s a strong need to bring in young key position players of good quality as they currently don’t have any obvious successors to Roughead up forward or Frawley down back.
In fact their forward line is where a lot of their oldest talent is concentrated so forwards of all kinds should be a priority, and of course there’s always a need to add to midfield depth.
Hawthorn fielded the oldest team in the league on average in 2018, in fact they were the only team in the league to field a side older than 26 on average each week.
Their average side also boasted 2462 games of experience, which is more than 400 games above the AFL average, and the second-most experienced side of any below only Port Adelaide.
They finished fourth on the ladder after the home-and-away season, but were eliminated from finals in straight sets.
Verdict: Underperformed. To justify such a strong investment in their veteran players, Hawthorn really should have expected to have more of an impact in finals than they ultimately did.
The Hawks are potentially set for a major list shake-up this year as they currently have a significant number of players out of contract, and none of them are necesarilly top priorities to sign.
The likes of Taylor Duryea, Kieran Lovell, Jonathan O’Rourke and Ryan Schoenmakers in particular will be interesting to see the Hawks make a decision on.
They all seem to be falling short of making the grade as AFL players so far, but will Hawthorn keep them around as depth, our cut their losses?
They also have a need I think to start staggering the retirements of some of their veteran talents, and that may well start with Paul Puopolo this year.
His form has declined a little over the last two seasons and while I have no doubt he’d be a handy player in 2019, there’s an arguement to be made that it’s better to cut him now rather than lose a huge amount of veteran talent all at once later on.
No doubt if he wishes to play on there will be other clubs who’d love to have his influence.
Of course there has also been talk at Hawthorn about moving other veterans on despite them not yet being out of contract – in particular, Jarryd Roughead.
Despite what has been reported by some, Roughead is contracted for 2019, and did not feature on the AFL’s most recent release of the free agency list.
However one would suspect that the Hawks don’t plan for him to be on the list in 2020 so if he wants to play on longer it might be a good time now to seek out another club.
Some have suggested he could go to Collingwood, I’m sure he’d also be a much-appreciated presence at a side like Carlton, Gold Coast or Brisbane.
The other I would consider moving on from the 2019 contract group is Grant Birchall.
While it would no doubt feel like a cruel decision to cut Birchall after he missed the entire year with injury, one has to question where the value lies in him playing on next year.
In terms of re-signing priorities, James Worpel, Jack Gunston and Blake Hardwick are at the top of the list out of the 2019 contract group.
Out of contract
The Hawks have four free agents currently on their list – Taylor Duryea, Paul Puopolo, Ryan Schoenmakers and Brendan Whitecross.
All of them are unrestricted free agents, so will have the right to move wherever they want to if they get an offer without Hawthorn being able to match.
There hasn’t been much talk about clubs pursuing any one of them so far, and they’re all in the mix to be delisted if they don’t get interest from elsewhere.
The Hawks aren’t likely to get anything in the way of significant compensation for any one of them, so should feel they have license to pursue free agents on the market, which they’ve been doing.
The big name for them all season has been Tom J Lynch, but it appears they’ve missed out on him, with all the talk being that he’ll sign with Richmond.
Lynch said publicly just yesterday that it isn’t a done deal where he’ll be playing next year, and must have felt like a bit of goose doing so.
It’s a shame for the Hawks as Lynch would have been a perfect mature replacement to come in and be the centrepiece of Hawthorn’s forward line when Roughead moves on.
Instead the Hawks will turn their attention elsewhere and the likes of Andrew Gaff, Scott Lycett and Luke Dahlhaus would all probably have some appeal from this year’s free agency group.
However opposition clubs have the inside track on all three and instead it seems Hawthorn have already turned their attention to the 2019 free agency class.
One thing to note right away is that, like Geelong, Hawthorn’s strategy of consistently trading away their early picks mean they’re in the mix to cop penalties soon.
They took two first-round picks in the 2015 draft, so any potential penalties won’t come in until the 2020 trade period at least – meaning that this year and next, they can trade present and future first-round picks as they see fit.
Looking at this year’s trade period, it’s believed their big target is 2019 free agent Dylan Shiel.
Shiel is also being pursued by St Kilda, Essendon and Carlton, but it’s believed that Hawthorn are his leading suitor.
Personally, I suspect the Hawks and Shiel have probably had an agreement that he would come to Hawthorn as a free agent lined up for at least a little while now – just one man’s opinion, of course.
However the GWS salary cap drama seems like it has pushed up the timetable a little bit, and Hawthorn may face a decision between having to pay for Shiel with draft picks now rather than getting him free next year, or lose him to an opposition club that’s willing to do so.
One of the essentials of being a destination club is that when you commit to bringing a player in, you get the deal done – players aren’t going to want to come to you if they feel like they might get left in the lurch.
That being the case, if it comes down to a hard call I reckon Hawthorn will pay the price for Shiel, though he would certainly cost them at a minimum a first-round draft pick either this year or next.
Shiel isn’t the only member of the 2019 free agency class that the Hawks have been linked to however – there has also been talk of them pursuing all of Steven May, Chad Wingard and Stephen Coniglio.
May has been more heavily linked to the Magpies, Wingard to the Bulldogs, and Coniglio as a Western Australian will no doubt be targetted by the Eagles and the Dockers.
What’s clear though is that the Hawks are in the market to keep adding mature talent to their list year after year through free agency and trade, and if their track record is any indication, we should expect them to be successful in doing so.
If I were them there’s a few other players I’d be looking at this year.
Mitch McGovern looks set to be a bit of a difficult deal for Carlton to get done and if they Hawks are willing to cough up a first-round pick for him, it could be an opportunity to swoop.
It sounds like he’s going for a pretty big pay packet at the Blues which the Hawks will probably be reluctant to match, so I wouldn’t imagine it’s altogether likely, but he’d be a valuable recruit.
Will Brodie and Jack Scrimshaw at the Gold Coast have both been talked about as potentially wanting out of the club this year and it could be worth Hawthorn’s while to get in touch with them.
After two years spent with the struggling Suns, I’m sure both would be chomping at the bit for the chance to play at a club like Hawthorn.
Finally, a potential bargain – Port Adelaide have told Jack Hombsch that they’ll trade him if he can find a new home, and while his recent form has been disappointing, I reckon he could potentially be a good get for the Hawks.
There’s a good chance that Hawthorn’s draft hand will be reshaped through a big deal for Dylan Shiel, or other trades – though it’s also a strong possibility it won’t.
As things stand, they have picks 14, 32 and 50 inside the first three rounds.
They could use fresh talent just about anywhere on the ground at this point, so have the license to pick whoever they feel is the best available without worrying too much about potential.
In particular Riley Collier-Dawkins as a big-bodied midfielder or Ian Hill as a zippy half-forward would both do really well at the Hawks.
“If they get a bit of a resurgence from the golden oldies and most of a full season out of Jaeger O’Meara then the Hawks could easily bounce back into finals as soon as next year.
“However, you’d expect that to taper off as the veterans gradually make way, and what Hawthorn should really be targeting right now is more success after the turn of the decade.
“The general list strategy should be to retain draft picks as much as possible to bolster their youth stocks, and then start targeting a few top-notch free agents perhaps as early as next year, but more likely in 2019 or 2020.”
When I first heard talk of Hawthorn’s return to the top four this year as being the ‘fastest rebuild ever’ I thought it was a bit rich – and I still feel that way.
The Hawks haven’t rebuilt, they’ve simply had surgery. Rather than organically growing their own seed talent, they’ve nicked cuttings from their neighbours’ gardens.
This is the sort of list management behaviour I’ve criticised Port Adelaide for and warned Essendon about, but when it comes to Hawthorn it’s different. Why? Because they’re so good at it.
The Hawks, along with Geelong, have been Victoria’s big glamour club for near on a decade now and if someone wants a trade to Victoria the Hawks have generally had first right of refusal.
Maybe that’s about to change – as I wrote earlier in the year, Richmond may be about to replace them ar the top of the totem pole.
Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe Hawthorn will still continue to be the preferred destination of ex-pat Victorians coming home, and the Tom Lynch decision will prove to be nothing more than a blip on the radar.
There’s two key factors that make this strategy work for Hawthorn.
The first is that when they trade, they trade with purpose. The players they bring in are carefully selected to be of good quality and to fill specific roles in the team.
This is different from a team like Port Adelaide last year, who simply brought in anyone left on the market who would say yes.
Port Adelaide’s list surgery has been the equivalent of a little liposuction or some collagen in the lips. The easily-impressed may think it looks sexy, but there’s no real substance to the change.
Hawthorn’s list surgery has been more like getting a laser cannon grafted onto your chest, to crush those who disobey you.
The second is that the Hawks have a great coach, arguably (or perhaps inarguably) the best in the league, so even when they trade out high picks, they tend to do better than most at turning lower ones into worthy players.
Alastair Clarkson also is a massive drawcard when it comes to negotiation with wantaway players, as the lure of being coached by him is undoubtedly strong.
That being the case I’d say the biggest question over Hawthorn’s future list has nothing to do with any of the players on it but instead the coach managing it.
Clarkson is currently out of contract at the end of next year, and has often mused about eventually giving the job away.
However the latest indications are that he’s a strong chance to sign a deal which would extend him through until the end of 2022, potentially with Sam Mitchell signed on to take over the position when that season ends.
Regardless of how it pans out at some point down the line the Hawks will have to transition to a new coach and how well they manage to do that is going to be a deciding factor in their list management.
When Mick Malthouse gave way to Nathan Buckley for example, they brought very different philosophies to table and Buckley underwent a significant reshaping of Collingwood’s playing list.
Would Sam Mitchell as a successor to Clarkson do the same? One feels they’re more likely to have a smooth transition, but it’s hard to predict with any certainty.
If so though, I suspect the Hawks can continue their strategy of bringing in high-quality mature talent from other clubs and supplementing it with lower draft picks more or less indefinitely.
This will prove to be particularly successful if the Hawks can mostly bring in talent through free agency, as they appear to be aiming to do next year, allowing them to keep their first-round draft picks.
If not then the AFL’s restriction on the trading of first-round picks could prove a bump in the road – although the rule does allow for clubs to ask for exceptions, and you’d expect the Hawks are likely to get anything they ask for.
Is it right that AFL player movement should work this way? Gillon McLachlan has said in the past that he thinks there should more and more player movement as it helps clubs to rebuild, even though all the evidence points to it instead helping clubs like Hawthorn be better for longer.
But, this isn’t the time or place to have that conversation. With regards to Hawthorn all that can be said is they’re in a prime position to stay healthy by feeding on free agency for a long time to come.