Penguins' Bowman feels he's intruding, guiding All-Stars for deceased Johnson


PITTSBURGH -- Scott Bowman had just completed a television interview, and he was smiling.

He was laughing, too, as he posed for photos with children.

This is the new Scott Bowman. A kinder, gentler Scott Bowman.

Not the stone-faced, domineering, brooding Bowman who chiseled out five Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens, then tried to run an entire organization with the Buffalo Sabres.

The old Bowman seldom concerned himself with players' feelings.

The new Bowman worries whether his role players are as happy as his superstars.

And he worries about how he became the Pittsburgh Penguins' coach.

And how it looks now that he was coaching the Wales Conference at the 43rd NHL All-Star Game yesterday at the Philadelphia Spectrum.

Through a tragic twist of fate, Bowman inherited Bob Johnson's job on an interim basis this season when the Penguins coach died of a brain tumor.

"I'm there because his [Johnson's] team won the Stanley Cup, and Bob, unfortunately, died. I feel like an intrusion," Bowman said.

Bowman, the winningest all-time coach in hockey (763-343-215) and a member of the National Hockey League Hall of Fame, considers himself an intruder in the sport he loves.

Bowman, 58, had tried to remain away from the ice in Pittsburgh. He was hired in June 1990 by general manager Craig Patrick to be the Penguins director of player development. He remained behind the scenes as Johnson won the Stanley Cup last season in a genteel manner.

But when Johnson was stricken with the tumor, Bowman was moved behind the bench. Since then, he has been careful not to alter the ice that Johnson had laid. He even follows Johnson's system of spending an extra day on West Coast trips to give the players more rest.

"He softened with this club," said Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso, who played for Buffalo when Bowman was there. "He realized the hard-line approach would turn these players off rather than help. Scott proved you're never too old to learn, and he learned from Bob."

"Since I've been here, I've learned how to compromise," Bowman said.

Unlike Johnson, however, Bowman keeps a stick-length distance between himself and his players. He admits having self-doubts, too.

He blames himself for failing to make all the Penguins players feel as though they have something to contribute this season. He frets about having six millionaires and 14 other players.

"The hardest part is to keep the cohesiveness between your role players and your star players," Bowman said. "At Montreal, I had [Guy] Lafleur making a couple hundred thousand and my lowest guy made near $100,000. There wasn't much jealousy there.

"Now, it's tough to keep a guy who makes $200,000 feel that he is as important to the team as the guys on this club making $8 and $9 million bucks."

Some Penguins say Bowman has done a masterful job, given the chaos that began after the Penguins won the Cup last May.

Johnson's long illness and death coincided with the sale of the club and the often acrimonious contract negotiations with Mark Recchi, Kevin Stevens and Ron Francis.

Since the sale to Howard Baldwin, a number of players have been rumored to be available in a trade, notably defenseman Paul Coffey.

It's little wonder then that the Pens went 5-5-2 in October. They surged in November and December (17-8-2). Now, at the All-Star break, they are in third place in the Patrick Division with 53 points, eight behind the front-running New York Rangers.

"He came into all this turmoil, but he's known when to pull the noose and when to loosen," said assistant coach Barry Smith, who was a scout under Bowman in Buffalo.

Bowman has given up trying to make the Penguins a defensive-minded team. When he guided the Canadiens to the five Stanley Cups in the 1970s, he had defensive stalwarts Larry Robinson and Serge Savard guarding the blue line. He has no such players on this season's team.

Bowman breaks into a broad grin and says those Canadiens would win a showdown with today's Penguins.

"My Montreal teams wouldn't give up goals," he said.

The Penguins have given up the seventh-highest number of goals (169) in the NHL this season. Of course, they are second in the league in goals scored with 203.

"Defensively, we're not very good," Bowman said. "If we want to defend the Cup, we have to be in the top 10. We'll never be in the top five."

Last year's Pens had a 3.78 goals-against average during the regular season, but were strong defensively in the playoffs.

In 20 playoff games, Barrasso's goals-against mark was 2.60, and the team's was 2.78.

"Scotty doesn't understand this team can't sustain that kind of defensive intensity for 80 games," Barrasso said.

Also maddening for Bowman is line matchups. Whereas in Montreal he could throw a checking unit with Bob Gainey (who was to coach the Campbell Conference yesterday) and Doug Jarvis on the ice to shut down the other club's best forwards, Bowman says he now fights offense with offense.

"[Defensively], I can't match lines," he said. "This is an offensive team that can score goals, so we can't have me trying to play checkers on the ice."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad