'We're building to be an elite team': Bowman knows Blackhawks still have long road ahead
The last time I met with Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks were limping along at 13-20-6 and had just lost Corey Crawford to a concussion 11 days earlier.
After discussing a few individual players, I basically hit the Hawks GM with: The season's over, right? Time to start planning for the 2019-20 campaign?
No surprise here, but Bowman disagreed and instead painted a picture of optimism and hope.
"We've shown some signs of starting to play more as a team and in unison," Bowman said. "Yeah, we do need to go on a big run. There's no question. We've got a lot of ground to make up.
"But we're not throwing in the towel with half a season to go, right?"
As I sat down with Bowman before the Hawks hosted Ottawa at the United Center on Monday, I reminded him of that conversation and wondered if he'd been in a time machine.
After a good laugh, he said: "The difference for me compared to you or other people is I don't try to make characterizations of, 'Oh, it's over.' Or 'Oh, we're doing great.'
"It's more 'Let's just see what happens.' Maybe it's more of a patient approach as opposed to a snap judgment. Our record wasn't good at the time, but I did think we were playing better.
"We obviously started getting results, we continued to play well and we won eight of 10 so we're back in the mix. We still have a long way to go."
That they do, but all of the pieces seem to be falling in place for Bowman's team lately -- and that included Monday when they defeated Ottawa 8-7 at the United Center to get within 1 point of Minnesota for the final wild-card spot in the jam-packed Western Conference.
The Hawks (25-26-9, 59 points) are also neck and neck with Colorado (59 points in 59 games), Vancouver (59 points in 60 games), and Arizona (57 points in 59 games). By the end of the week, the Hawks could easily supplant the Wild and be the team everyone is chasing.
"Hopefully we can … put ourselves in a different position and maybe view ourself as a team that can get in the playoffs and win in the playoffs," Patrick Kane said.
If the Hawks do qualify, the roster will likely look very much like it does today because Bowman is not trying to land any of the top rental players on the market before the Feb. 25 trade deadline.
"I'm interested in doing hockey trades, but I'm not trying to look for a guy that's only got a couple months left (on his contract)," Bowman said.
And that's OK, because the odds of the Hawks ousting Winnipeg, Nashville, San Jose, Calgary or perhaps St. Louis in a seven-game series seem awfully remote. Giving away valuable assets during a season in which the Hawks are clearly a level or two below the top teams makes little sense.
Instead, Bowman's eye remains on the not-too-distant future.
"We want to be an elite team and we're not in that group right now," he said. "We're going to build to that. So we want to try to make progress for the rest of this year, over the summer and the same thing with next year.
"We're building to be an elite team. We've shown signs that things are trending in the right way. We still have more to go on that journey."
If, along the way, that includes a postseason berth, then so be it. There's absolutely no substitute for playoff experience and just getting in could pay huge dividends down the line for Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Dominik Kahun, Drake Caggiula, Erik Gustafsson, Carl Dahlstrom and others.
"Anytime you can make the playoffs, it's a learning experience -- whether you win a round, win one game or don't win a game," Bowman said. "You take the regular season and you kind of set it over here, and then the playoffs are just totally different. The environment's different. The intensity's different. ...
"We've got a lot of young guys on this team that haven't been through that. … It's a valuable experience that you can't really simulate other than to go through it."