Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman can be frustrating.
He can be too patient when you want to see some urgency, biding his time rather than making a big splash.
He can be too mellow when you want to hear some emotion, his monotone holding firm in good times and bad.
He can be too proud when you want to see him admit a mistake, clinging to failed acquisitions (David Rundblad? Tomas Jurco?) for a season too long.
It has worked for him, of course. He has three Stanley Cup rings and the respect of 30 other NHL general managers. He has earned the benefit of the doubt, time and again.
But it makes him something of a cipher when he speaks. So it’s hard to know what to make of Tuesday’s 20-minute session with reporters, his first comments since the Hawks’ very underwhelming foray into free agency, when they added a fourth-line winger, a third-pairing defenseman and a backup goaltender while many of their rivals loaded up with splashy signings and trades. The Hawks haven’t added anything since, instead dealing away Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle to get out from under Marian Hossa’s contract.
Bowman is “really optimistic” about the coming season, but he didn’t exactly insist he has a playoff-caliber roster. He’s content with the moves he has made, but he sounded as though he has come up empty in making bigger ones. He left the door open to a late-summer or early-fall trade — once teams learn in the preseason what they have and don’t have — but acknowledged he might not be able to make immediate use of the cap space opened up by the Hossa trade.
So here the Hawks sit: still counting on goalie Corey Crawford to be healthy and his old self, still counting on Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad having monster bounce-back seasons, still counting on Duncan Keith to find the fountain of youth, still counting on a shaky defense to find its footing.
“We’re looking forward,” Bowman said. “We’re really optimistic about the group. We know that we have some really motivated players who have accomplished quite a bit already in their careers, but [who] haven’t had the recent success that they would like. When you’ve been there and you’ve been able to reach the ultimate, you know how great that feeling is. And you know when you’re not there, it’s not a fun time.”
• On The Beat: What exactly is the Blackhawks’ plan moving forward?
• Internal competition could fuel Blackhawks’ blue line for years to come
Oh, motivation certainly shouldn’t be hard to come by. But what about goals? What about saves? What about broken-up zone entries and power-play scoring chances and faceoff wins and depth scoring and all the other things that used to come so easily to the Hawks? The things that separate playoff teams from non-playoff teams — championship teams from also-rans.
This roster probably doesn’t have enough of those things. There’s plenty of promise but too many question marks. Deep down, Bowman certainly knows this. The question seems to be whether he can do something about it. Of course, he’d love to swing a deal for a left wing for Patrick Kane, or a partner for Keith. But he’s not going to give up Nick Schmaltz or Alex DeBrincat to do it, nor should he. Marcus Kruger’s return makes Artem Anisimov expendable, but what can you get for him other than cap space, which the Hawks already have?
Bowman sounded like a guy who has been trying to do something but who has come up empty so far. He’s not the type to spend money for the sake of spending money.
“It’s an option if we can find the right player or the right situation,” he said. “We certainly have more options than we did before. I wouldn’t say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along, maybe in the summer, maybe in the beginning part of the year.”
Maybe. Maybe the Hurricanes will realize during camp that defenseman Justin Faulk is expendable after they added Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan over the summer. Maybe a short-term fix such as winger Jeff Skinner, playing out the last year of his contract with the Hurricanes, will become cheaper midseason. Maybe the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty’s price drops, too. Maybe a completely unexpected player will come on the market by November.
Maybe Bowman will get to use his cap space. Maybe Hawks fans foaming at the mouth for a daring move will actually get one. Or maybe nothing happens and the Hawks bob along for a couple of years until their next wave of young stars steps up. Or maybe they stumble badly out of the gate, coach Joel Quenneville gets fired and Bowman tears it all down and starts over.
Anything seems possible at this point. Because if Bowman has a bold, detailed plan for the coming months and the coming years, he’s keeping it close to the vest. He always does.