Those who’ve read my blogs—starting in 2009 over at hockeybuzz.com and continuing on through the last 2+ years since Jeff Osborn and I founded The Rink—may recall my love-hate relationship with Stan Bowman.
I was (and still am) a Dale Tallon fan. And anyone who goes around saying that Stan Bowman won 3 Stanley Cups not only does Tallon (and to a degree Mike Smith and Rick Dudley) a huge disservice, but they sound pretty stupid when they say it.
I have also tried, especially the last 2-3 years, to give Bowman the benefit of the doubt, and credit when it’s due. But the fact is, in terms of his hockey career, Stan Bowman was born on third base. Twice.
First, as the son of a legendary coach and not so legendary GM, the second in inheriting arguably the best collection of young talent in the NHL of the previous 25 years when he took over the Blackhawks GM responsibilities in 2009.
All that said, I was also a Kenny Williams fan when he was GM of the White Sox. But, as a friend of mine who knows a thing or two about baseball told me after the Sox won the World Series in 2005, Kenny Williams became a good GM through on the job training in the position. Which is a fair point.
And I felt like Bowman could do the same.
Again, you really need to go back and look at the rosters of all three Cup teams before you lay foundational, primary credit for any of them at Bowman’s feet. It was Smith and Dudley (and especially Marshall Johnston) who unearthed a fat biracial kid from Northern Minnesota who became the one-man wrecking crew known as Dustin Byfuglien.
Tallon was the guy who, along with Rocky Wirtz’ brother Peter, bit the bullet and did the total teardown and rebuild from 2004-2007 that ultimately resulted in Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, Patrick Sharp, Troy Brouwer, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jonathan Toews, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Campbell and Patrick Kane joining the franchise.
But you can argue that Bowman did a good enough job maintaining the core and filling in around the edges over the next 5+ years after 2009. And you could hope that he was learning as he went. As I did.
The high point of the Bowman era was probably 2015, when not only did the Hawks win their 3rd Cup in 6 years, but the team threw out some big contracts, most notably to Artem Anisimov and Brent Seabrook. Kane and Toews were eventually both paid a million more dollars a year than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. And everybody got lengthy no-movement clauses.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Hawks’ 4th Cup in the decade.
Since then, the Hawks have made the playoffs twice, only to be eliminated in round 1, and in the last three years (including likely this season), not at all. All this while paying Kane, Toews, Seabrook, Keith, Crawford and Saad combined nearly $45 million a year.
Suddenly, all of Bowman’s fill in around the edges moves stopped working. Then, they failed year after year. Every year has promised a new youth movement, with most failing miserably.
Sure, Bowman has had his wins, like grabbing Alex DeBrincat in the 2nd round in 2016. Yet the lustre is fading even from that move as DeBrincat is struggling through an off year (at best). And I’m probably in the minority of those who think Bowman made a wise move in trading Artemi Panarin for Saad. Because after all, despite all the meatballs and interwebz experts out there who said otherwise, Panarin was never re-signing in Chicago in 2019.
In the end, it’s fair to say, this front office generally handled success very well but has not handled adversity well at all. Bowman is a maintainer, a numbers guy, not a scout or a builder. McDonough and his flunkies can’t seem to get out of the way.
After a bad start last season, Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville was relieved of his duties—only to be “replaced” by a career minor league coach who is younger than some of his veteran players. Has it worked? No.
Yet Bowman and McDonough, the two men largely responsible for giving Seabrook a nearly $7 million per year extension to the next millennium, with a hard no-movement clause for all but the last two years, for trading Niklas Hjalmarsson for Connor Murphy, for re-acquiring every washed up ex-Hawk under the sun year after year with predictably miserable results, for proclaiming Dylan Sikura the team’s “big trade deadline acquisition” in 2018, still have jobs.
When Quenneville was fired, a stern-faced McDonough declared to the media: “we’re all accountable. I’m accountable.”
Really? Then Rockwell Wirtz, it is time you hold Mr. McDonough accountable.
Where am I going with all this? Like I said, Bowman started his tenure as GM not only on third base, but halfway to home. That he scored three times is not so remarkable.
Setting aside the marvelous collection of talent he inherited and rode to success over a 5-6 year span, his misses have outnumbered his hits.
And since McDonough hired Bowman—after firing a very popular and successful GM in order to do so—he is just as, if not more so responsible for this mess. Let’s be clear on this: you can’t tease Bowman out from McDonough, as McDonough fired Tallon and hired Bowman in order to give himself and others in the front office more visibility into hockey decisions. He as much as said so at the time.
Yet even there, we can find a possible fly in the ointment. Boqvist appears to be emerging into a really nice player, but the Hawks may have passed on an even better all around, big, mobile defenseman in the Seth Jones mold, when they let Noah Dobson slide to the Islanders in 2018.
Perhaps recognizing his error, Bowman even publicly acknowledged that his team had become too small and too soft for the playoffs after taking Dach in 2019.
But that begs a very important question that no one has really asked yet.
After years of drafting tiny, soft players in the draft’s higher rounds, why did it take Bowman, of ALL people, so long to finally see that hockey was still a contact sport, that the Erik Gustafssons of the world never do anything but hurt their teams in big, physical matchups?
The truth is, and the evidence proves, this is an organization navigating without a roadmap.
They’re not contending and they’re not really rebuilding. They’re not big or physical up and down the ice. And they’re not overly skilled past Kane and Toews. They’ve overcommitted on big money long term contracts to aging players. Their pipeline is nearly bereft of meaningful prospects.
Wednesday, it was rumored that the goalie they signed to possibly replace Crawford (Robin Lehner, who has shown himself to be more than up to the task) will be traded in the next couple of weeks because the team “can’t afford him.” And the 35 year-old oft-concussed Crawford will be extended. Remember, this team has $11 million invested in the goalie position this year—and they can’t afford to sign Lehner for next season and beyond—after he has made clear he would like to be in Chicago? What?
It’s time to face facts: Bowman and McDonough have been caught with their pants down, even though most of us would rather look the other way.
We can sit here and debate til the cows come home if the team should really go all in on a rebuild and trade away the remaining cornerstones of the Cup years for the high picks and elite prospects it takes to rebuild on, or if Chicago should continue to try to “soft rebuild” around Kane and Toews.
But, can there really be any debate that this front office has failed fairly spectacularly over the last few seasons—and there seems to be no end in sight?
So whatever direction the franchise ultimately chooses, there should be some new hockey minds (who aren’t defending five years of mediocrity and have no sacred cows) executing an actual plan.
But try this—if you want to know how caught up (and poorly served) Hawk fans are with all this nonsense about their great corporate front office being “on it.” Ask yourself if today you would switch places with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Most Hawk fans, I suspect, would say “no way.” Without realizing that even after losing the “great Breadman” and Sergei Bobrovsky (and replacing him with some dude named Merzlikins), even after a raft of injuries to their remaining good players, the Blue Jackets are at present, 30-17-10 and the top wildcard in the (much better) Eastern Conference.
Because they have an excellent, experienced coach.
They have a rock solid GM from a scouting background.
And the team works together, flawlessly, from the end of the bench all the way up through the executive suite. They’re big, they play hard every night, and they win maybe more games than their talent justifies. And they’ll make the playoffs again this year.
All things you can’t say about Stan Bowman and John McDonough’s Blackhawks.
Your move, Rocky.