Do the Blackhawks rate as an all-time great?
Everyone seems to have a take — with the exception of hockey-phobic ESPN — and Friday night’s streak-stopping loss to the Colorado Avalanche shouldn’t sway any opinion.
Sure, there were plenty of times during the first 24 games of the abbreviated season where it looked like the Hawks were never going to falter. But even while they navigated the first two-dozen games without a defeat, setting an NHL record in the process, you knew it eventually had to end.
Looking at the bigger picture, let’s get back to how good can the 21-1-3 Blackhawks be?
One opinion carries much more weight than any other, and it belongs to Scotty Bowman.
Not only is he the greatest coach in NHL history — by far — Bowman won a staggering nine Stanley Cup championships when he was behind the bench with the Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings.
More than anyone else, Bowman knows a powerhouse team when he sees one, and his 1976-77 Canadiens are widely regarded as the best in NHL history.
Still working at 79 as the Hawks’ senior adviser, Bowman remembers Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden and the rest of that remarkable Montreal crew like it was yesterday.
“I guess there are ways to judge teams,” Bowman told the Daily Herald in a phone interview. “Naturally, the records are magnified. If you’re talking about the great teams of all time, in any sport, you look right at the record.
“With that Montreal team, we only lost eight games out of 80, and there were 11 Hall of Fame players on that team when it was all said and done.
“The Hall of Fame in most sports, there are mistakes for sure, but it’s a pretty good barometer on the strength of a team.”
No team in history can match the star power of the 1976-77 Habs, who also featured Steve Shutt, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lapointe, Pete Mahovlich, Doug Risebrough, Mario Tremblay, Rejean Houle, Serge Savard and Yvon Lambert.
The Blackhawks have some big-time talent in Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but Bowman said depth is the main reason this team is making such a strong a run at all-time greatness.
“So many players have stepped up,” said Bowman, the father of Hawks general manager Stan Bowman. “They have a core of players, a fairly young core that’s been there the last three or four years. But the defensive corps … it used to be Keith and Seabrook would have to log between 26 and 30 minutes a game and they’d always have to play against the other team’s No. 1 line.
“But now, the way coach (Joel) Quenneville has got it set up, if you look at the ice time of Keith and Seabrook and you look at the ice time of (Johnny) Oduya and (Niklas) Hjalmarsson, they’re playing the same. I would say even strength, those four are playing equal minutes.
“Then you have (Nick) Leddy and his partner, (Michal) Rozsival, or sometimes (Sheldon) Brookbank, they’re eating up 16-17 minutes a game. That’s kind of unusual, that three pairs of defensemen are playing real close minutes at a pretty high level like that.”
Toews, Hossa and Kane have carried much of the scoring load, as expected, but Bowman said the Hawks’ depth up front also has helped spark the fast start.
“If you notice, every time they take a penalty, if they’re fresh, out comes (Marcus) Kruger and (Michael) Frolik. So you’re not having to use your stars to kill penalties all the time.
“When your main guys, when all of the responsibility falls on their shoulders every night, it’s quite a strain. This is really a team.”
The Blackhawks’ incredible depth stretches down to the third line, where Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg already have combined for 18 goals and 18 assists.
And don’t forget about the big contributions being made by players such as Patrick Sharp (out with a shoulder injury), Brandon Saad and Dave Bolland.
“There’s been an emergence of players,” Bowman said. “Some of them didn’t even hardly play last year, like Frolik. This year he’s playing. Kruger’s getting more responsibility, so is Bolland.
“Even though a lot of the players haven’t changed, there have been a lot of changes in the way they’ve been used.
“And don’t forget both goalies.”
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery both have been solid in the net all season, although Crawford did allow 5 goals in two periods during Friday’s 6-2 loss at Colorado. But the duo has yielded just 52 goals in 25 games.
When the Hawks take the ice against the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday night at the United Center, it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to their first regulation loss of the season.
Considering the Blackhawks played 10 of their first 12 games away from the UC, Bowman doesn’t think the hurdle should be too high.
“It’s all about getting points in the bank, and they’ve been doing that,” he said. “And when you start a season like this, think about it, 10 of the first 12 on the road, a lot of things looked pretty tough.
“But when you get on a roll like that, you’re not trembling and worrying about things like, ‘How are we going to hold this lead?’
“The good news is when you have the points in the bank, things will even out a little bit. But at the same time, this team played 24 games in 47 nights and didn’t lose a game in regulation. That’s a heck of an achievement, especially in a league that’s very parity oriented, you know?”
Scotty Bowman knows, and that should be good enough for any hockey fan.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.