'We certainly need to take a step forward': Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman on the NHL draft, free agency and the pressure to return to the playoffs

The Blackhawks have failed to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons and their closest rivals, the Blues, are on the cusp of winning their first Stanley Cup.

But with the No. 3 pick in the draft and roughly $20 million in salary-cap space, according to, Hawks general manager Stan Bowman is decidedly optimistic about the future.


Bowman sat down with the Tribune for a 30-minute interview to discuss a variety of topics. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Two months after the season is over, what different conclusions have you perhaps realized now?


I’m not sure there’s any big revelations. There was a natural transition period with a new coach coming in, and it took awhile to get going with the way we wanted to play successfully under Jeremy (Colliton). Once we did that I thought we got our footing.

We’re an offensive team so we don’t want to try to change our game and suddenly have trouble scoring. But we need to shore up the areas where we struggled. The penalty kill was one and goals against, those are the two things. That hasn’t changed from our initial assessment. We’ve had some time to figure out how we’re going to do that.

(New assistant coach Marc Crawford) explained how (his former team, the Senators) made some big changes in mid-November and from that point on they were top five in the league in the penalty kill, which was still a 60-game stretch. He’s going to help us. That’s on the tactical side. There’s also personnel.

How is free agency setting up to be different from the last few seasons?

Well, the biggest difference would be we don’t have any financial restraints by the salary cap. Last year and the year before we were in a different position with very little money to spend. Doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to sign the highest-priced free agents. We can have conversations with them and we can see if they fit right.

In talking to Jeremy, we’re going to try to get players he thinks are going to help push our team the right way in terms of being a good two-way team. We were tilted to the offense last year, and ideally we’d like to have more balance to not just try to outscore the other team. We have some really high-powered offensive players. So we’re probably trying to find the right guy to come in to continue the success we had, to be able to play that way but also to have a two-way component to their game. To be able to be utilized in penalty-kill situations, guys we feel confident can add to that. We’re trying to shore up our weaknesses without taking away what we were good at.

As you pointed out, the defense needs to improve. Can that happen without significant personnel changes?

The players that played on our team last year, we need a progression from them, and some of that already was happening last year. If you look at the last two weeks of the season, we were playing more like a team. Guys’ habits were better, there was less hesitation. There was less thinking on the ice. That’s just a function of (being) more familiar with what they were asked to do. So we’ve got to further refine those habits because each coach has fundamentals that are very important to them, and you want to be second nature for your system to work.


There’s no magical system in the NHL. If there were, everybody would play that system. Multiple different systems can work. The execution of the system is the key. In order to execute well, your habits have to be exactly that: habits. They can’t be trying to figure it out on the fly.

The goalie and the (defensemen) get blamed when you give up goals, and sometimes that’s accurate. If the defenseman turns the puck over and gives a breakaway, it’s obvious. But it’s not as obvious when there’s 10 guys in the zone, five-on-five, and then they score a goal. Could be a succession of mistakes initiated by the forwards not doing what they were supposed to do that left the defense in an impossible position. So we’ve got to work together better.

Your original question was can we be better with the same group of players. The answer is yes, we need to be. Then we want to bring in somebody who can make an even bigger impact. If we can enhance our group through new players, we’re going to do that.

The Blues and Bruins, for example, don’t have players making much more than $7 million. And you have two at $10.5 million. I don’t know what Alex DeBrincat is going to get, but you need to think ahead. Can you bring in a defenseman who is going to get upper-level money and have him fit in with your salary structure?

Can we? Yeah.

I guess the question is, should you?


Well, it all depends on what guy brings to the table. Is he going to enhance our team game and is he going to be someone to use on the penalty kill? Is he going to be someone who can play against good players and do a good job of stifling them? If that guy is a high-priced guy, then great. The questions we ask as we’re reviewing this are: What’s he like? What’s he bring to the table? How is he going to impact our team and make us a better team? That’s our criteria. It's not so much his salary.

Now, if you find that guy and he’s the highest-paid guy in the league, then you might have to say, well, he’s the guy and we can get him, but we’ve got to suddenly take some other pieces away, that’s a conversation you have. But we’re not at that point.

The draft is coming up, and you have the No. 3 pick. Have you peeked at the mock drafts to see who you’re taking?

I don’t read them, but I hear about them through a lot of people we work with. There’s a lot of noise out there. We’ve got to stick to our process. We have a staff for a reason and we spend a lot of time from last late July … until a couple weeks ago. They’re watching these guys and that’s their job — to know them inside and out and breaking them down. So I’m relying on those guys. Now, it may coincide with these mock drafts or it may not.

I’m glad there’s a lot of interest in it. That’s what you want. If nobody was caring about who we were going to pick and wasn’t promoting their mock drafts, I wouldn’t want that.

You’ve consistently said you’re taking the best player available. Any straying from that philosophy?


No. And the one correction I would make because I hear this said a lot — the best player — that assumes there is just one and everyone else is not the best player. There might be multiple great players. You’re trying to pick the one you project the one to be the best fit for your team. Because when you say the best that assumes that there’s an answer.

But you and your staff will have an opinion of who is the best player.

Yeah, I guess it’s semantics more than anything. I’m just saying you’re assuming there’s a clear-cut answer. It’s almost like the answer’s at the end of the rainbow. You’ve just got to get the clues right and then — aha! Everyone we’re looking at to pick I’m confident is going to be a really good NHL player. I don’t think there’s a couple guys where, ‘Hmm, he may never make it.’ I don’t get that feeling at all. These guys are very good players. So then you’re just trying to pick which one do you think is going to be the best for your organization.

And at this point would position not be a part of the equation?

No, because your positional situations can change over time. We’ve seen that. You need multiple positions. You don’t need just one player. You’ve got a team of, like, 20 guys. I don’t look at it that way. I look at it like: What’s going to drive your team for the next 10 years and be someone that is a big contributor to your team? It could be a multiple-position guy. It doesn’t have to be just one position.


When do you make your decision?

It’s going to come the week of the draft. We’re going to be very comfortable when we get there. We’re not going to be second-guessing ourselves. It’s going to come to us. We had a target list. We’ve already narrowed that list down. There’s only so much talking you can do about it. We’ve gathered so much information, watched them play, watched so much video, gathered the data about their performance. Gotten to know them. We’ve had multiple interviews with these guys.

The issue of this player being able to help you this season or in the next two seasons. How much does that play, if at all, into the pick?

That's not a primary factor. Last year I think four of the top guys played in the league. That’s a little unusual. I would say it’s usually only one or two. It's not out of the realm of possibility, but it’s not a driving force for us. We’ve got to build our team for next year through trades, free agency. Those are the guys that have been in the league. We know they can play. The player we draft, depending on his status, if he’s someone we sign and makes our training camp and then plays well, we take that as it comes. It’s a bonus, but it’s not a prerequisite.

Corey Crawford has one year left on his deal. Collin Delia had a nice season. And Kevin Lankinen had the really great world championship for Finland. How do you feel about the state of your goaltending?

It was great to see Kevin have that run at the world championships. You see the progression in his game. He came over to North America — this is common — a little bit of a slower start in October, November, December. Second half of the year for Kevin was much better. You could see his game coming, his confidence building. And then to see him break through and take his team all the way to the championship, he was unreal in those games at the end. That bodes well for where he’s going to take his game next year. Same thing with Collin — he’s come a long way too. So we’ve got those two guys, and Corey’s the main guy.


Could we add another goalie? Sure. But if we don’t, we’ve got the established guy and we’ve got these two guys who are pushing to establish themselves in the NHL. Collin’s got a taste for it. Kevin hasn’t gotten to the NHL yet, but he just showed against NHL players … that he’s not far from being that as well.

What aspect of Jeremy Colliton’s season most pleased you, and what do you think he needs to improve upon?

I just think the way he handled the adversity there to start. He was coming into somewhat of an impossible position, walking in the footsteps of Joel (Quenneville), who had so much success here. He’s a legendary coach, and when you replace someone like that, there’s always going to be challenges. And on top of it you don’t really have time to instill a lot of new habits and you’re playing games every other day with limited practice time. He stayed very calm. He stayed convicted with how he wanted to approach things. He stuck with it. And then we started to see some results. For someone that young to have that conviction and to be calm throughout was impressive.

Improve upon is just to improve on last season and try to take what we did well and enhance that. Certainly our power play was (better), and he had a big role in that. We want to build on that. We’ve got to keep the puck out of our net and we’ve got to be better when we’re down a man. Those are two things he’s already addressed. But the preparation for training camp and the way that we get our team prepared for the details of the game, that’s probably the next challenge as a coach.

You brought in Marc Crawford as an assistant. Was there any concern that bringing in a veteran head coach who has won a Cup might put pressure on Jeremy — that Crawford was brought in to be a possible replacement if the team gets off to a slow start?

No. That’s not a consideration for us. If anything, Jeremy was the one that was pushing (to bring) in someone like him. He looks at the other guys — Tomas (Mitell) and Sheldon (Brookbank) — and himself and he knows that they’re three younger guys with a lot of ideas. And he was always wanting to bring in a veteran coach. Marc was the best. We interviewed a lot of people for this position, and he was by far the best fit. And Jeremy felt that. He was like, “This is the guy I want to work with.” Marc’s here to be the assistant head coach, not the head coach. That’s not a concern.


How much pressure do you feel to make the playoffs next season?

I don’t want this sound bad, but that’s all stuff you have to just set aside and focus on my job, which is to prepare our team the best we can and assemble the best group of players ... and then support the coach and work together to make our team better. And then the results will take care of themselves.

We’re evaluated all the time, not just whether you win the Cup or miss the playoffs. That hasn’t changed since my first day here. We’re going to be responsible for the progression of our team from last year and from the year before. We certainly need to take a step forward this year. I think that’s clear.

Hopefully we’re trending back up. Disappointed we didn’t make the playoffs this year. There was progression and we need to take more of a progression next year. That’s the only thing I’m focused on. There’s pressure every year, and I just don’t focus on it because it doesn’t help me do my job any better.

Twitter @jcgreenx

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