On Thursday, the Blackhawks’ general manager was right back in the same spot -- but this time under much different circumstances. The Blackhawks, after a turbulent season in which they needed help to get into the playoffs, were ousted in the Western Conference Quarterfinals by the Vancouver Canucks, a team they’d beaten in the second round in each of the past two seasons.
The bright side is that it took the Canucks seven games to beat the Blackhawks after getting up 3-0 in the series -- with an overtime goal by Alexandre Burrows in overtime finally advancing Vancouver into the conference semifinals.
Bowman took heart in that on Thursday and talked for nearly 30 minutes about the future of his team -- both in the short and long term. Here are some of the highlights of his remarks:
Q: Stan, now that it's all said and done, can you just give us your thoughts on some of these younger guys in terms of it going seven games as opposed to ending in four?
A: To push it to overtime in Game 7, when you're down 3-0, that's all your asking for is a chance. You end up one shot away from still playing hockey right now. It showed, really, the character of our group. We've got a lot of champions in that room and within our organization. It was certainly a rewarding feeling to see them battle as hard as they did. It was certainly a difficult spot to be in against a very good team, to be down like that, but I think we took it one game at a time, which is what you tell the guys to do. You start to build that momentum and start to have that confidence.
The hard part about it, right now, is that you still feel there's more hockey left in the group. You might not feel the same way if you felt you got everything out of the group, but in some ways we were just hitting our stride there. We got our whole complement of players back and ... you know, Dave Bolland, everybody now can appreciate the value he has to our team. We talk about it internally, talking to the coaches, the importance of his role on our team. I think everybody can see that now. We're just a different team when he came back. We missed him a lot, the last six weeks of the year. We made a great push to get into the playoffs, but he's a pivotal player and I think our team took a new identity when he came back."
"You saw a lot of the younger players ... they stepped up. Now that you can reflect back on it, that's the exciting part of what we have here, because so many of these players who are maybe new to the fans and new to everybody in hockey because they weren't here all year, they really showed what's going to be next year's team. Our core group is going to be back, but I think there's more comfort knowing some of those roles are going to be filled by the players that stepped up."
Q: Given the tactics of Vancouver, the physical tactics, is getting bigger and more physical a commodity that you'll be looking at in the off-season?
A: What I think we have to do is assess our season, and we're in the process of doing that. We're going to have meetings with players today and kind of get their take on things. Then we're going to meet with the coaches as a group and find out what areas do we need to improve on, in order to move further next season
At this point, it's probably premature to say exactly what we're going to do. We're going to make an assessment on what areas we can be better at and there's a number of things you could throw out now as possibilities, but until we sit down and do that analysis, it's probably a little premature to say. Vancouver did come out, they did play very physical. It was a very close series. The games were very close. We outscored them in the series, and I think the style of play can work for some teams and you may want to emulate that in some regards, but I think we certainly played pretty good with the group we had, as well. There needs to be some changes for sure, but at this point I wouldn't say we've determined exactly what we have to do yet."
Q: With regard to restricted free agents, in particular Corey Crawford, can you talk about your approach to bringing him back and whether you can beat the clock here and make sure no team can make a bid on him like they did with Niklas Hjalmarsson last year?
A: That's the other exciting thing. We talked about some of the players that stepped up, and Corey would have to be at the top of the list. Looking at the way he performed, not just in the playoffs but going back in time, where he seized the No. 1 job -- and I think you've got to first acknowledge that's impressive to be able to do that. It's one thing to be given a chance to be a No. 1 goalie, but to then take it and run with it like he did, it's really rewarding to see.
"He's a guy we've been hoping would do that for a long time .. we drafted him, we developed him and he's an impressive kid in a lot of ways. That performance in particular, in probably the biggest game of the year, Game 7, he was dynamite. He's a top priority for us and he's earned the right to be a No. 1 goalie for us and our team loves playing in front of him. He's got the right demeanor, right approach and great attitude. He loves to be in Chicago. He's said that many times and he's clearly a priority for us. It's nice to know going into next year that we're going to have some stability in goal. We still have to get him signed, but I'm very confident he's a guy we're going to focus on right out of the gate here and we're just fortunate to have him -- because goaltending is a very important position. Knowing that he's there makes everybody on the team comfortable."
Q: When you look back on how your returning guys, your core guys, handled the six-month grind, do you get a sense it was more than what they envisioned? Was the margin for error a lot less if you had an injury?
A: Looking back on it, we prepared as best we could. Everybody knew it was going to be a challenge going in, with the number of new players that we had, the short preparation time. Everybody was targeting you from Day One and it was a grind. The way we played down the stretch is a credit to the group, but we were playing catch-up. Our start was not the start we wanted and it put us in a difficult spot, so that we really were emptying the tank that last couple months to make a push to get in.
It's such a competitive League right now. All you need to do is look at how close the first round was and how close the standings were. We're one win away from being a fourth or fifth seed. Over an 82-game schedule, you're a couple points away from having home ice. We would have liked to have started better, because I think it certainly took a lot out of us when we were down the stretch there, but you have to give those guys credit. They played a lot of hockey last year, especially the Olympians. I think they played over 100-something games. That's just taxing. You've got to give them credit, though. They certainly responded when times were tough down the stretch and we had to win a lot of those games just to get in, and then once again, when times were tough, we're down 3-0, the big guys raised their games. I know they're hungry. I've spoken to a number of them. I know this is a difficult time to not be playing anymore considering how much hockey they have played. They're going to come back stronger than ever and really, really motivated to have a better start."
Q: Considering the number of moves you had to make, did season go as you thought it might and were there any moves you didn't make you wish you had or some you'd like to take back?
A: I don't think you look at it that way. I was very pleased with the emergence of a lot of our young players and a lot of our new players. If you take it off the top, Viktor Stalberg came in and he'd never really been a regular NHL player, and I think he showed by the end of the year he's playing on the top line. I think he's a good complementary player with those guys. He's got size and speed. Some of the other new players that we've been able to mix in, whether it was Michael Frolik, we really saw him emerge over the last couple weeks. He's going to be an excellent player for us for a number of years. He played all forward positions, which was one of the reasons we wanted to make that move. He's got that versatility. He played center and was very effective. He hadn't played that position in a long time. He played left wing, right wing, played on the top line, second line, third line. So that was very impressive to see that.
"You mix in these young players, like Nick Leddy, who started the year with us and then went to (AHL) Rockford. We had hoped ... you have these plans in place ... you send (to Rockford) him in October and you think, well, he'll come back in the second half and hopefully he'll help us. You don't know if it's going to work out that way, but he went and earned a bronze medal at the world junior championship, came back right to the Blackhawks and the last half of the season he really emerged as a guy that was playing significant minutes for us as a 19-year old kid on defense. That's a rarity.
"I've talked to a lot of people internally and I said, if you just remember back, (Duncan) Keith and (Brent) Seabrook, they weren't even in the League at that age. I think Dunc was probably 22 before he cracked the lineup. Even then, our team was not that strong of a team. Nick is about three or four years ahead of the pace those guys were at, so I think there's a lot of things to be excited about when you look at it that way.
"Marcus Kruger comes in, never played a game in North America, and on a smaller ice surface, dropped into the middle of a push to make the playoffs and he was very effective for us. Then Ben Smith comes up in whatever it was, Game 80, and suddenly emerges as a reliable player. There's a lot of things that came late in the season which are things to be optimistic about. We haven't even talked about Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Haven't mentioned their names yet ... Marian Hossa. There's a number of players who will be back, and if anything, they're going to be hungrier than ever to recapture what we had up until this point."
Q: How will this summer be different for you?
A: The summer is much different. Fortunately we're not in the crunch that we were in a year ago. We still have decisions to make. There's going to be some changes. You're not going to bring the same group back. We need to bring a few new faces in. Some players will move along and some young players will come up. That's kind of the combination. So, really, right now, the piece of the puzzle is to find out how we want to structure the team, what types of different elements we need versus this year, and that's going to dictate what kind of players you go after. Whether it's through a trade or through free agency, we want to make some improvements to our group, but we don't have the mandatory moves which we did a year ago, dictated by the salary cap.
Q: Patrick Sharp will be going into his last year of his current contract next season. Any plans to negotiate with him after July 1, sooner than later?
A: Yes. No secret here. Patrick's been a huge part of our success for probably the last four or five seasons. He's part of the leadership group. He's a great person on and off the ice. He's a well-liked teammate. He's really got the whole package there. He's a guy we certainly want to keep around and I suspect it's going to be like it was with those other guys, which is ... you start the negotiations and hopefully it doesn't carry on too long. The one thing, we've had a pretty good track record here. We've been able to get our core guys to want to stay here, and I'm sure Sharpie's in that group as well.
Q: Is there a tinge of embarrassment that the defending Stanley Cup champs couldn't get past the first round?
A: No, I don't at it that way. I'm very proud of this group. I think the way they battled all year long and had a lot of obstacles, it was a challenge. In some ways, half of our team was a new team. It takes time to see that group come together. I think to be able to pull off that meshing as quickly as we did was remarkable. The team we had in previous years, those guys had been together two, three years in a row. So, that's why I'm looking forward to next year in terms of having some good continuity. We're going to have some new faces, but we're going to have a number of guys that are very familiar with the group and familiar with their roles and I think there's a lot to look forward to.
Q: Is there any way that any of the guys you've identified as the core group that you want to keep here long term ... whether that changes in the off-season?
A: I don't look at it that way. These guys have been excellent players on the ice, off the ice. They're guys you believe in. You can see their character and their heart, the way they fought back from being in a tough spot here, even late in the year, making a nice late strong push to get in and then making it an incredible series against the Presidents’ Trophy winning team. I think we're really one goal away from beating them. Vancouver ... they were the best team in the regular season. They're an excellent team. You can't take anything away from them. And we're one goal away from defeating them. So, I'm very comfortable with the core guys that we have here. Not only are they great players on the ice, but they've got that desire and that heart and I'm really happy to have them on our side."
Q: Has Florida asked your permission to talk to Mike Haviland and would you stand in his way if they do ask?
A: No, I mean, we just ended our season, so we haven't had any inquiries on any of that stuff yet. Mike did a tremendous job for us in a tough spot when (coach) Joel (Quenneville) was out for a bit and he's been a great Blackhawk for a number of years. He developed a lot of these players as a coach in Norfolk and Rockford and now he's done a great job here. He's a great asset to us and we certainly don't want to lose him, but the flip side of that is you recognize that coaches need to get that opportunity. So, obviously, if that ever came up, we'd certainly have to address it at that time. In the meantime, we're just fortunate to have him in our group, because he's been a huge contributor.