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Bowman a steadying influence

Hawks' record start shows GM made right moves by hardly making any

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

5:21 PM CST, March 2, 2013

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No matter how hard Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman tried insulating himself from the raised expectations around town during the best start in NHL history, escaping them around the house proved even harder.

"One night last week, my 10-year-old son, Will, looks at a graphic on NHL Network and says, 'That's great, Dad, but you guys aren't even close to the Flyers' record. They're at 35 (straight NHL games with a point, set in 1979-80),' '' Bowman recalled Friday in a United Center suite before the Blackhawks beat the Blue Jackets 4-3 in overtime. "He's always giving me a hard time.''

Not too long ago in Chicago, Will Bowman would have had to get in line to do that — somewhere behind me.

Many of us criticized Bowman for responding to his team's second straight first-round playoff exit last spring by embracing the status quo. Rebukes here and elsewhere reflected an easy and perhaps lazy way of thinking: The son of Scotty Bowman was more reputation than results as GM. It turned out Bowman's best moves during a quiet offseason were the ones he never made and, ultimately, the Blackhawks benefited from his faith in continuity thanks to the NHL lockout.

He played the right hunch. While other teams integrated new players early in a shortened season, the familiar Hawks arrived with instant chemistry. While some executives might have served crow for a cynical guest to eat Friday, Bowman delivered humble pie. Asked if the Hawks' early success provided a sense of vindication, the man with one of hockey's best poker faces smiled and shook his head.

"I don't look at it that way,'' Bowman said. "You can't be governed by what popular opinion is. They don't have all the information. Sometimes things don't work out the way you want. It doesn't mean you have the wrong formula. It just means that it didn't work. We realized we had a lot of good things here. You have to have confidence in your staff.''

That starts with coach Joel Quenneville, whom Bowman has only praised publicly and privately. But returning the same roster and expecting different results essentially was Bowman telling Quenneville he needed to do a better job — or else. Bowman's inaction suggested without words that he believed coaching had to improve more than talent for the Blackhawks to return to elite status.

Injecting Scotty Bowman ally Barry Smith into the equation last season to help with the power play sent the same message. Not that Bowman ever would acknowledge anything but Coach Q exercising more authority forming his staff after a season marked with what Quenneville called "dysfunction.'' Assistant Mike Haviland was out; Quenneville ally Jamie Kompon was in.

"This is the first year Joel said, 'I'd like to make a change,''' Bowman said. "I said, 'This is your staff, Joel, so you have to put the group together that gives us the best chance to win.' I believe in Joel and always have believed in his ability to lead our team.''

Has it led to better coaching this year?

"That's a good question and I don't know if I have the answer,'' Bowman said. "They are doing an excellent job. If you say yes, that means they weren't doing an excellent job last year. That's not the case. But for whatever reason, the combination of what they're preaching and what they're internalizing is working really well.''

Stars consistently have played like stars again. Draft picks such as Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger took quantum leaps in their development. Goalie Corey Crawford reminded everybody why the organization insists it can win a Cup with him. The contributions of veteran defenseman Johnny Oduya and backup goalie Ray Emery, under-the-radar free agents Bowman re-signed before they hit the market, have been inestimable.

"I see guys who really have bought into their role and embraced it, whereas in the past, sometimes, I don't know,'' Bowman said. "Everybody wants to score goals, so if you can get that player to block a shot and kill a penalty and that becomes like scoring a goal, you want that. It's a testament to the coaching staff in general that they've been able to do that.''

Nothing makes Bowman beam more than the emotional trajectory of Patrick Kane, whom he never considered trading after his misbehavior in Madison, Wis., last May. That's when the patience that represents Bowman's greatest strength came in handy. Tracing the origin of Kane's transformation into a Hart Trophy candidate goes back to a heart-to-heart conversation with Bowman and other Blackhawks officials everybody needed.

"I've always found the best way to motivate people is to connect with them as opposed to try to read them the riot act,'' Bowman said. "We explained to him, 'Your circumstance in Chicago is different than even a lot of your teammates. You have to accept that.'

"It has taken some time because since he was 12 he has been someone when he walks by, people turn and whisper. A prodigy. Sometimes it's the naivete of youth. He has said to me, I just want to be a regular guy.' I say, 'But you're not.' I think now he's like, 'I know, I understand.' In some ways, he has learned the hard way.''

Kane makes it look easy on a team that has yet to show a weakness. When they do, Bowman plans to be ready. In preparation for the April 3 trade deadline, he conducted scouting meetings last week.

"We have a list of players who we think would add an element to give us an advantage and we'll pursue that,'' Bowman said. "Whether those teams want to give up those players remains to be seen. But we're going to make a run at it and see if any deals make sense.''

We know better than to blame Bowman if the Hawks don't.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh