Stanley Cup Final: Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wisely kept core, rebuilt the rest after 2010 title

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BOSTON — He saw it for the first time in September 2010, when the Chicago Blackhawks held their ring ceremony at a steakhouse. There it was, engraved in silver, “STAN BOWMAN” on the Stanley Cup.

Think about what that meant. His first name came from the Cup. His last name came from his father, Scotty Bowman, whose name was on the Cup a dozen times – a record nine as a coach, three more as an executive.

When Scotty won his first Cup in 1973, his Montreal Canadiens beat the Blackhawks. He and his expectant wife, Suella, decided if they had a son, his name would be Stanley. Now here were father and son, senior advisor and general manager, for the Blackhawks of all teams, on the trophy together.

“It was pretty cool to see his name and my name right there,” Stan said then. “It certainly makes you want to do it again.”

They will if the Blackhawks beat the Boston Bruins in Game 6 or 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, and think about what that would mean. Though Stan Bowman has already made his own name for himself and his own mark on this team, this engraving would be deeper. This Cup would have more of his fingerprints.

Bowman earned his spot on the 2010 Cup. He helped build the roster as he rose in the front office. After sending a letter to Blackhawks executive Bob Pulford, trying to go from a Chicago consulting job to the NHL without his father’s help, he worked as special assistant to the GM, director of hockey operations, assistant GM and GM. But because Bowman took over as GM in July 2009, it is fair to say the 2009-10 Blackhawks were mostly Dale Tallon’s team.

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These Blackhawks are Bowman’s. He committed to the core – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, David Bolland, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson. He rebuilt the supporting cast after chopping half the Cup team in a salary-cap crunch in the summer of 2010. He stuck with coach Joel Quenneville despite two first-round playoff losses, not to mention a nine-game losing streak last season that had the headhunters banging their drums. Instead of panicking and bowing to pressure to make more major moves, Bowman stayed patient, made subtle changes and let the team gel.

This is the result: The Blackhawks started 21-0-3, setting an NHL record with points in each of their first 24 games, and won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top regular-season team. The team that was torn apart because of the salary cap is one win away from becoming the first club to win two Cups in the salary-cap era.

“Credit to the stars for having great individual seasons, but we’re here because of our depth,” Sharp said. “We’ve got a great goaltender. We’ve got seven ‘D’ than can play, and then we get scoring from all four lines.”

Credit Bowman for that.

“There was a lot of tough decisions to be made right after the end of the Cup series there,” Sharp said. “It’s easy to second-guess what Stan has done. But it looks like he made some right decisions.”

Bowman signed Toews, Kane and Keith to extensions in 2009-10, knowing the cap would force major changes that offseason whether the Blackhawks won the Cup or not. His goal was to contend over the long term, and he decided his best chance was to keep his special, irreplaceable players and try to find new complementary parts.

In one summer, out went eight men who dressed for the Cup clincher: goaltenders Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet; defenseman Brent Sopel; and forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd, John Madden and Kris Versteeg. (Out went reserve forwards Adam Burish and Colin Fraser, too.) Over the next year, out went defensemen Nick Boynton and Brian Campbell and forwards Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky.

Only eight men who dressed for the Blackhawks in Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final are expected to dress for them in Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.

“Yeah, I thought it was going to be tough to maybe get as far as we did that year,” Hjalmarsson said. “But I think Stan has been doing a great job to find new players, and this year everything has been going pretty good.”

Bowman believed in goaltender Corey Crawford. A big reason he kept Hjalmarsson and let go of Niemi in the summer of 2010 – matching an offer sheet Hjalmarsson had signed with the San Jose Sharks, walking away from an arbitration award to Niemi – was because he thought Crawford would develop. He supported Crawford despite a poor playoff performance last year. Now look: The ’Hawks still have Hjalmarsson on their second defensive pair, and Crawford has 15 wins this year with a 1.83 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

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Some of Bowman’s moves were under-the-radar or underwhelming at the time but turned out well – the signing of Ray Emery in 2011, the deadline deal for Johnny Oduya last year, the signing of Michal Rozsival last September, the deadline deal for Michal Handzus this year. Emery went 17-1-0 as Crawford’s backup this season. Oduya and Rozsival move the puck from the back end, and the Blackhawks need that to play their speedy, skilled style and make the most of their star power. Handzus was slow in San Jose, but the veteran once played for Quenneville in St. Louis, wins faceoffs and has patched a hole at second-line center.

Bowman traded for Michael Frolik, Nick Leddy and Viktor Stalberg. They have developed and found roles along with draft picks Bryan Bickell, Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. Frolik, a 21-goal scorer his first two NHL seasons with the Florida Panthers, could complain about not playing in the top six but has accepted being part of an outstanding penalty-killing tandem with Kruger. Bickell has eight goals. Shaw has five.

The new supporting cast is not an exact copy of the old one. It was never going to be the same. That was the challenge, to find a new mix, a new chemistry. But it has made about the exact same impact – from Crawford’s goaltending, to Frolik and Kruger’s penalty killing, to offensive production. If you include Bickell, who had no goals in four playoff appearances in 2010 and did not get his name on the Cup, the newcomers have accounted for 42.6 percent of the Blackhawks’ goals in these playoffs. The non-core players accounted for 41 percent of the Blackhawks’ goals when they won the Cup last time.

“I think the balance of our team gives us that depth that you look for, because you don’t look for one group or one guy to get the production done for you, the job done,” said Quenneville, who has gotten only two goals from Toews, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player in 2010. “It looks like everybody is contributing, and that’s what teams are all about.”

“Back in 2010, you had some guys who were probably unknown names that made names for themselves throughout that year and in the playoffs, and you’re seeing that happen again this year,” Kane said. “But I think it’s a credit to the management and the coaching staff, obviously drafting well and developing those players to come along. For us to be in this situation again three years down the road, especially after the breakup we had from that 2010 team, I think it’s a great success.”

The best part? Bowman will not have to break up the team the way he did in 2010. He will have to make changes, especially with the salary cap coming down next season. But he has learned from experience and planned for this, and the Blackhawks will not need an overhaul. If anything, they will be trying to find opportunities for more up-and-coming players.

Bowman – low-key and calm, unlike his high-profile, volatile father – deflects attention. He has the personality of a GM, not a coach. He points out the cap forces you to keep a core and shuffle around it, that he has a strong foundation of players and a solid staff, that he couldn’t have patience without them.

“We haven’t had the playoff success the last two years, but we still had very good teams,” Bowman said. “This year it’s nice to see some of that come together, whether it’s acquisitions we make or players we draft and develop. It’s a little bit of everything, not just my decision-making.”

But it is a reflection on Bowman, the namesake of the greatest trophy and the son of the greatest coach in hockey. One more win, and Bowman will be able to see his reflection in that shiny silver Cup again, his name next to his father’s again, his name, his own name, dug in good.


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