Stan Bowman: Architect of Excellence

Stan Bowman comes from one of the most notable hockey pedigrees in the recent history of the NHL. In fact, he was born just one month before his father’s first Stanley Cup win and is named after the NHL’s most coveted award. His father, Scotty Bowman, is legendary for his coaching career as well as his career in the front offices of some incredible championship teams.

Over the course of his career, Scotty Bowman has earned nine Stanley Cups with three teams. The Pittsburgh Penguins (1), Montreal Canadiens (5), and the Detroit Red Wings (3). He has also earned another five as a member of the front office with three teams including the Penguins (1991), Red Wings (2008), and as the Senior Advisor to Hockey Operations for his son, Stan with the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015). Scotty Bowman was also inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1991.

His father has undoubtedly given him some rather large shoes to fill, but there is no doubt that Stan Bowman’s legacy should pave his way to the Hockey Hall of Fame all by itself. Stan’s path has been different and filled with a new challenge that his father never had to face. The salary cap.

A tough hurdle to navigate over for any team, but for a winning team, it was meant to be a high jump, not a hurdle. However, Stan Bowman has managed to make it look like a mere crack in the sidewalk.

Stan Bowman Is His Own Man

For Bowman, it had to be tough to stand on his own with everyone ready to compare him to his father. He had the pedigree, so the expectations were high from the moment he stepped into the NHL fold, but Bowman was determined to build his own legacy. After several years within the Blackhawks organization, Bowman got his shot at the helm. On July 14th, 2009 he became the ninth general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks replacing Dale Tallon.

Many will argue that Bowman had all the pieces in place when he came in, after all, they won the Stanley Cup the following summer.  However, as nice as it was to have Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp at his disposal, the real hard work would come after the last piece of confetti fell.

After the Blackhawks had hoisted the Cup for the first time, the joy was evident not only within the team and the organization, but also the city.

However, the days after the parade were some of the darkest for everyone involved.

What no one had considered is that there is always a price for winning, and the Blackhawks were about to pay dearly.  A pound of flesh for every win it took to earn the Stanley Cup. The fans were not prepared for the losses, and the team would be left feeling gutted.

All The Right Moves

Stan Bowman knew. He understood that his role would be even more important, and every move that he made would be scrutinized. However, Bowman was ready.

He made his cuts and picked up players with surgical precision. Most of them were not popular, especially the losses of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Antti Niemi, and Kris Versteeg. What many were not aware of at the time was that one of the picks received in those trades would result in the drafting of Brandon Saad. A player who became an integral part of two more cup runs. Bowman also had the unenviable task of choosing between a young Swedish defenseman (Niklas Hjalmarsson), and a Stanley Cup winning goalie (Niemi).

Hammer was Bowman’s pick, and many questioned how he could let go of the goalie that helped them earn a Stanley Cup for a defenseman that was still a work in progress. After all, goalies can be harder to find and develop, and can often take more time to live up to their potential. Some never get there.

Fortunately, Bowman was right on target. While Niemi found success in San Jose, Hjalmarsson evolved into one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league. Corey Crawford took a little longer to come up, but he has far exceeded expectations and earned two Cups of his own as he eventually replaced Niemi.

Another trade pick that was part of the return for Troy Brouwer in 2011 was used to select Phillip Danault, who is already becoming an important piece of the puzzle this season as he has been given the difficult task of filling Marcus Kruger’s role while he is out.

A Man With A Plan

For Bowman, part of what makes him so successful is that he has not been afraid to make moves with players that other teams might have tried to hang onto, and he has surrounded himself with the best people he can find. His scouting team has been integral in the team’s ability to recover after each Cup mandated purge.

A key example came this summer when Bowman was forced to make a trade as Saad had outpriced what the Blackhawks could afford.

Another GM might have panicked and pulled the trigger on whatever deal the young star wanted, but Bowman knew a contract that size was going to be too much of a burden on the Blackhawks tenuous cap structure and could have sent the house of cards tumbling to the ground. The stalemate with Saad didn’t leave a lot of time to make something happen, but fortunately, Bowman is always a few steps ahead having already scouted Artem Anisimov as a potential trade target when he was with the New York Rangers.

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Bowman had his man, and he would find a way to get the most for the young winger in a package that would bring the big center to Chicago and finally fill the coveted second-line center role while snagging a top prospect in Marko Dano as well. They lost their top line power forward but gained what would turn out to be the perfect complement to Kane and another tremendous scouting find in the undrafted Russian winger, Artemi Panarin.

The loss of Saad was arguably one of the toughest for Blackhawks fans and players to swallow of all the moves that Bowman has had to make, but the addition of Anisimov has softened the blow considerably. He is having a career year with the Blackhawks. Bowman was so sure that Anisimov was the man for the job that he locked him up with a long-term extension before Saad or Anisimov had a chance to pack a bag. A gamble for sure, but it is already looking well worth the risk.

There are few teams that have a core group (Kane, Keith, Toews, Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Corey Crawford), earning massive contracts surrounded by smaller contracts (twelve of which fall under $1,000,000). This cap structure is actually quite similar to another very successful Chicago team that was most certainly a Dynasty. The Jordan-era Chicago Bulls.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but it is a model that worked quite well for them and seems to translate pretty well to the NHL. This cap structure that Bowman has designed isn’t easy to navigate, and it certainly isn’t for the faint of heart as it forces the GM to deal top players like Saad, Byfuglien, and Patrick Sharp.  The reality is that if you took all the players that Stan Bowman has had to trade away in his time with the Blackhawks, he would have something close to the equivalent of an All-Star team.

Of course, a good plan still needs someone to keep it on the rails, and Bowman recently locked up coach Joel Quenneville for another three years.  The core players have been exceptional throughout, but Quenneville is as much a part of the core as any player.

Drafting Depth

One of the downsides to winning is that you miss out on high draft picks, so Bowman has had to adapt and get the best players available wherever their picks fall. Of course, a few of those picks have turned into players many teams would covet such as Brandon Saad (43rd overall in 2011), Andrew Shaw (139th overall in 2011), and Teuvo Teravainen (18th overall in 2012). All players who may have gone earlier, if anyone could have guessed what kind of players they would eventually become.

Of course, being able to keep all of the players within the system becomes costly, another price of winning championships. This summer saw Brandon Saad depart, but the return was a windfall for the Blackhawks and also provided some cap savings in the short-term.

Teravainen had been one of Bowman’s most coveted forwards, as he saw something in the young Finn early on.  His rise through the Blackhawks system was not always easy, but Turbo, as he is called in the locker room has become an integral part of the Blackhawks.

He was a significant contributor to the latest Cup run and figures to be even more important to this new incarnation of the Chicago Blackhawks. A team that is looking to make another deep playoff run in search of the first back-to-back Cup win in the salary cap era.

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Shaw was another story. Few people saw the value in the undersized pit bull that Blackhawks fans have come to love, but Bowman and his scouts saw the shine through all of the grit. His determination even after being passed over twice in the draft was one of the selling points for Shaw. That never give up attitude is infectious, and his intensity on the ice can often spark the team. In fact, his grit and energy have helped him land on the top line and stick with Toews and Hossa.

A Future So Bright

With all of the big name moves at the NHL level, the Blackhawks prospect pool is often overlooked. However, it has been on display all season as many of the players the Blackhawks have been grooming at the AHL level have started to find their way into the lineup at the United Center and on the Road.

The most notable have been Erik Gustafsson and Phillip Danault.

Gustafsson, a defensive prospect that was deemed not good enough for the defensively light Edmonton Oilers has quickly found his way into the second pairing with the Blackhawks. He was drafted by the Oilers, but they opted not to offer him a contract as they felt he simply needed more work on his defensive game. Bowman and his team of scouts had other ideas. They signed him as a free agent in April of 2015.

Gustafsson earned the respect of the Blackhawks GM, who had praised the defenseman as the next great talent behind Finnish phenom Teuvo Teravainen, another favorite of Bowman’s. The defenseman started the season in Rockford with the IceHogs, but he quickly made his way up to the Blackhawks. His poise has been a major selling point for Joel Quenneville, as has his ability to handle the puck.

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Gustafsson is a smooth skater who does not expend excessive amounts of energy, much like Duncan Keith, so he is capable of logging extensive minutes. He has shown himself to be an excellent puck handler, even when under heavy pressure, and quickly earned the respect of the veterans in the Blackhawks locker room.

Phillip Danault has taken a little longer to crack the Blackhawks lineup as he had hip surgery in the offseason, but he got his chance with Kruger’s long-term injury leaving a big hole to fill. Danault has stepped right into the center position on the third line, but he has also picked up some of Kruger’s shifts on the penalty kill which is the spot that caused the most concern when Kruger went down.

Danault is an effective two-way center and is well suited as the third line pivot. He has good hands and an outstanding work ethic, and he is adaptable enough to play throughout the lineup.

In Bowman We Trust

Danault’s play in recent weeks could make for some tough decisions in the offseason. As Kruger, Shaw, and Danault will all be restricted free agents this summer. At the end of the day, it just might come down to saving some cap space, and Danault could potentially win the role from another fan favorite Kruger.

While Shaw’s name has come up as a possible trade target earlier in the season, it would seem his play on the top line just might make him a lock to stick around. One thing is certain, Bowman is going to have yet another tough choice to make in the offseason.

Of course, no general manager in any sport is immune to the occasional stinker. Both Bryan Bickell and David Rundblad are two contracts Bowman would likely do differently given the opportunity. However, re-writing history is never going to be an effective endeavor.

What Bowman can do is focus on putting the best team on the ice season after season. There are very few people (if any), who would argue that Bowman is not the best man for the job in Chicago.