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Blackhawks’ moment is here, and their rebuild hinges on GM Stan Bowman

Stan Bowman can expedite the Blackhawks rebuild with a big summer. Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

Stan Bowman is about to say some unpopular things about the state of the Blackhawks. Because everything Bowman says is unpopular.

He’s among the most derided figures on the Chicago sports landscape, the scapegoat for the collapse of a dynasty that brought home three Stanley Cups. The great calamity for which he’s responsible? Two consecutive years missing the playoffs under his watch as general manager, which not long ago was the norm for this franchise.

Bowman will say the drop-off, precipitous and shocking as it might have been, was inevitable and maybe not as apocalyptic as many seem to think. That’ll just further infuriate the fan base, but the truth is all but one Cup winner in the salary cap era has already endured something like this.

He’ll hit on some other sore spots and many of his explanations will be dismissed as excuse making or self-serving, and he knows that. But he has real conviction that this isn’t as bad as it looks and the Hawks are trending the right way.

And it’s not that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. He talks often about giving the city the thrill it craves and chasing the borderline irrational expectations the championship run created. If he catches some shrapnel along the way, he can take it.

It doesn’t do me any good to get wrapped up in that, because I know that if we win, people are gonna be happy,” he told the Sun-Times. “You’ve gotta do what you think is the right thing to do, even if it’s unpopular. If you do something short-term that you know will be popular but it turns out to be a disaster… the people that applaud it that day will come back and criticize you later.

“You have to do what, in your heart, you believe is the best for the team in the long term. Sometimes it’s unpopular.”

He says it with minimal emotion, simply stating the facts as he sees them. That’s always been his disposition, and it’s no surprise he meshes with coach Jeremy Colliton.

If there was ever temptation to do something impulsive for the sake of public approval, it would’ve been during this two-year dip. The Hawks had the best record in the Western Conference in 2016-17, got swept by the Predators in the first round and plummeted to the bottom of the NHL.

They salvaged this season with a second-half push that got them to 36-34-12, which was 20th in the league and six points out of a playoff spot.

That failure doesn’t make Bowman desperate. He isn’t fretful about job security, nor does he think a splashy summer in free agency is totally necessary. He promised to be aggressive and has the cap space to do so, but any move will be carefully calculated.

“I have highs and lows like anybody does, but in my job, when you get too emotional is when you make poor decisions,” he said. “You’re going to make fewer mistakes when you stay steady and exhale and assess it.

“If you want to fix something, you have to understand really what the problem is. If you take a quick reaction that’s a little bit off and you act on it and go the wrong path, it’s hard to undo that.”

Game 4 of the first-round series against the Predators is when the Blackhawks began sliding. | Mark Humphrey/AP
Game 4 of the first-round series against the Predators is when the Blackhawks began sliding. | Mark Humphrey/AP

Long fall from the top

Bowman sounds like a politician at times as he tries to steer conversations toward budding progress rather than sulking in the mess of the last two seasons.

It’s genuine, though, and he doesn’t bother rehashing everything that transpired during the Hawks’ fall because he knew it was coming one way or another. His aim was to hold it off as long as he could and shift out of it as quickly as possible.

“As much as everyone wants to be an elite team for the next 20 years, with the system we have that’s really an impossibility,” he said, sitting at the head of a long, glass conference table in the Hawks’ fourth-floor offices at the United Center. “There’s always going to be some type of a correction. Your job is to try to smooth that out and minimize a dramatic drop-off for a prolonged period of time.

“In order to chase those Cups, you have to spend assets to build your team. So there’s always a day of reckoning coming. Obviously we dropped from the Nashville series to where we are now, but hopefully we’re already back on the upswing. This year we were better than last year, and next year I expect us to be better than we were this year. And then we’re back.”

In order to keep the Hawks’ core intact and fight for championships, Bowman faced difficult choices. He extended Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on massive deals, which were arguably market value at the time but are questionable now. He shipped out young talent like Artemi Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen in part because the Hawks wouldn’t be able to afford the contracts those players were tracking toward.

Playing the results, the Hawks could’ve used Panarin and Teravainen this season. But based on the circumstances at the time, Bowman doesn’t second-guess himself.

“The makeup of our team and the makeup of our competitors — you wouldn’t redo those deals,” he said. “I think we were one of the first teams — I guess you could say Los Angeles as well — where this became a big issue for managing your assets. There are some other teams that are bumping right up against it now.

“It’s hard to navigate that without something giving. The whole hope is that you can manage it well enough that you don’t flounder for a long time.”

When the NHL implemented a salary cap in 2005, it became harder for good teams to stay good and bad ones to stay bad. Three of the top four teams in the Western Conference this season weren’t even close to contending when the Hawks won the title in 2015.

One aspect that makes it difficult to grasp the Hawks’ slide is the optical illusion of them looking almost identical to the title teams at first glance. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Corey Crawford, Keith and Seabrook are still out there every night.

But that isn’t enough. Even if they all played at their best for another decade, it wouldn’t be enough. The best players only play about one-third of the game, and that’s where selling off future depth to go all-in on the present caught up with the Hawks.

Was it worth it? Bowman would nod to the championship banners and say yes, but it’s not a question he asks himself. He’s preoccupied by every tedious step involved in hunting the next one.

Bowman in 2016. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Bowman in 2016. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Disastrous defense

Any discussion about restoring the Hawks must begin at their end of the rink. They were the No. 2 defense in their last championship season, then dropped dramatically.

They were still 11th in 2016-17, then plunged to 23rd last season and 30th of 31 in this one. Colliton isn’t easily exasperated, but reached his limit two weeks ago when they allowed 50 shots on goal in a season-ending loss to the Predators. He sent a warning.

“Having the opportunity to start the season with a training camp and to have the time to establish a standard, that allows you to be a little more direct and aggressive about enforcing how we need to play to win,” he said.

With Colliton trying to install on the fly, the Hawks finished second-worst in goals and shots allowed and gave up by far the most five-on-five high-danger scoring chances. From mid-December to mid-March, when they went 23-12-4, they scored and allowed the second-most goals in the NHL. That’s not sustainable.

Here comes another highly flammable Bowman opinion: He thinks the Hawks can turn it around with essentially the same crew of defensemen.

They have Keith under contract through 2022-23 and Seabrook through the season after that on contracts largely protected by no-movement clauses. Connor Murphy is signed for $3.9 million annually through 2021-22, and Erik Gustafsson hits free agency in a year.

There’s little maneuverability. And Bowman somehow doesn’t think that’s a problem.

“That’s something people have a hard time grasping,” he said. “What was is not always a perfect indicator of what will be.”

He’s acutely aware of every team’s trajectory at all times, and just in case everybody hasn’t been studying the New York Islanders’ defense the last two years, he’s happy to offer a quick sketch: same defensemen, new goaltender, new coach — substantial improvement.

The Islanders were way out of the playoffs a year ago, but leapt to 48-27-7 and swept the Penguins in the first round last week. They went from dead last in goals allowed, shots against, penalty kill and five-on-five high-danger chances against to average or better in every category. They allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season.

Their situation wasn’t that different than the Hawks’ other than they were slightly younger.

Their top seven defensemen this season were already in the organization, and the only newcomer was a rookie. The Hawks have Adam Boqvist, the No. 8 overall pick last year, in the pipeline.

Robin Lehner was second in the NHL in save percentage this season and was a major upgrade at goalie, but the improvement in shots against and high-danger chances didn’t have anything to do with him. The Hawks might get a similar boost if Corey Crawford stays healthy next season.

Bowman believes coach Barry Trotz was instrumental after taking over for Doug Weight, and the Hawks are heading into Colliton’s first full season running the team.

It’s not a step-by-step guide for the Hawks, but it’s plausible to Bowman that his team could pull off that type of transformation.

“People would say that sounds good but that doesn’t ever happen,” he said. “And my point would be that it can happen — it just did happen.”

Seabrook is the elephant in the room, and Bowman probably takes more heat for the eight-year, $55 million contract that runs through age 39 than any other move. The advanced stats on him the last two seasons are ugly.

At the season wrap-up, Bowman swerved from a question on Seabrook’s play by pointing to Toews’ resurgence. The message between the lines was that the Hawks need Seabrook to have that type of offseason and come back somewhere near peak form.

Seabrook has become the fans’ most popular target other than Bowman. The Hawks want more from him, too, but he’s hardly the only reason the defense fell off a cliff.

“It wasn’t that the rest of our team was airtight defensively except Brent Seabrook and he was the one that caused all these goals to go in,” Bowman said. “It was more of a systemic thing. It’s understandable why you’d point to him or question how he could be better… but we’re looking for other players to be better as well.

“It wasn’t like 90 percent of them were caused by ‘this.’ Even if [Seabrook] was dramatically better individually, the team results might not be swayed that much. The reason we gave up a lot of goals this year wasn’t because of one player that had the preponderance of the blame.”

The Blackhawks need more from Brent Seabrook in 2019-20, but he is not entirely to blame for the defensive drop-off. | Mary Altaffer/AP
The Blackhawks need more from Brent Seabrook in 2019-20, but he is not entirely to blame for the defensive drop-off. | Mary Altaffer/AP

Bowman’s moment is here

The lottery bounce that jumped the Hawks from 12th to third in the upcoming draft was so fortuitous and unlikely that some fans were convinced there must have been a conspiracy behind it.

Seriously, though, it was an incredible break. The Hawks refused to tank, and their late-season run cost them in the lottery. They had nearly a 92 percent chance of staying at No. 12, but hit on a 1-in-13 shot at the top three.

It launched them into a new tier of prospects, picking from the position where they landed Toews in ’06. It’s hugely helpful for a team that’s rebuilding.

“You get a player that could make an impact pretty quickly,” Bowman said. “It could impact next year’s team, but the bigger thing is over the next 10 years, you’re going to have an elite talent in your organization, and it’s not easy to do that.”

This caliber of prospect needs to become a Toews-like contributor for the pick to be a success. Fortunately for the Hawks, they’re well ahead on scouting top-tier players because they were in last place for so long early in the season. They’re ramping up evaluations now with more clarity, but they had an idea of who they’d want at this spot in December.

While the pick is a big trade asset, too, there’s almost no chance of that happening. Bowman will take anyone’s phone call, but it’s a near-certainty the Hawks will use their selection rather than try to parlay it into something else.

“There’s not enough good players in the league,” Bowman said. “There’s a shortage of stars. You have to draft them in order to get them. Why would a team that has a superstar trade that player to get someone who isn’t at that player’s level yet? It’s an unlikely scenario, so I’m not really focused on it.”

The Hawks will make this pick without taking into account anyone on their current roster or any plans they have for free agency and trades. It’ll be driven entirely by talent, regardless of position and need.

The draft is an often-overlooked strength of Bowman’s. He got Alex DeBrincat at No. 39. Teravainen, Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz all went 18th or later. Brandon Saad was a second-rounder. That’s a lot of hits with mediocre selections. Now he gets his first crack at a top-three choice.

Bowman hopes that’s just one element of what comes together in this pivotal summer. The possibilities are there: an elite rookie, enough cap space to pursue meaningful free agents and a rising coach who gets a full shot at laying out his vision rather than the haphazard situation he walked into in November.

This is the most momentum the Hawks have had in the last two years.

Bowman’s planning has always been well-reasoned, but hasn’t always worked out. This time it must. He can’t stomach the thought of this rough patch turning into the team being “irrelevant for seven years” and wasting what looks like a promising second act for Kane and Toews. His opportunity is here, and everything is riding on it for the Hawks.