Likely to miss their fourth postseason in the last five seasons, Chicago Blackhawks fans don’t have much to be excited about right now. As the March 21 NHL Trade Deadline approaches, many questions surround the organization’s future and what moves the team might make while continuing their general manager (GM) search.
As Chicago revamps its front office while potentially hiring a new head coach for the 2022-23 season, replacing current interim head coach Derek King, I thought it would be fun to evaluate the team’s current roster and look at five different players who could make good head coaches after retirement. Of course, being a great leader on the ice doesn’t always translate to success as a bench boss — just look at Wayne Gretzky’s tenure with the-then Phoenix Coyotes from 2005-09. Oftentimes, though, the qualities needed to succeed on the ice correspond to those needed for the bench, which is what I’m considering with my choices.
Here are five current Blackhawks who I think would succeed as head coaches.
Although this is an obvious choice, Jonathan Toews’ career and accolades speak for themselves, as well as his leadership. In his first season back from chronic immune response syndrome, he hasn’t been the same player he was in the early 2010s, but he remains a vocal part of the on-ice group.
While Toews has regressed significantly since Chicago’s last Stanley Cup in 2015, even before missing all of 2020-21, his work ethic remains at a high level. So does his ability to mentor younger players and be a “father figure” of the team, if you will. From three Stanley Cups to five NHL All-Star game selections, much of Toews’ success has revolved around his leadership.
Now, some may criticize this choice due to Toews’ presence in the Blackhawks’ 2010 sexual abuse scandal and its fallout, and I don’t want to downplay that situation at all. He was team captain then and is now, so it’s true, he should be held to a higher standard than his teammates. However, Toews was just 22 years old. There’s also no absolute evidence for how he responded at the time, unlike the Blackhawks’ highest-ranking front-office members back then. We don’t know what Toews would do differently today either.
There’s no doubt Toews has always faced high expectations and will continue to throughout the rest of his career, especially with the Blackhawks’ current state. However, even when faced with adversity, Toews has delivered as a leader and would bring an effective team-first mentality to the bench.
Again, this is an obvious call, but that’s sort of what this exercise is about. Like Toews, Patrick Kane has been a face of the franchise since Chicago regained relevance in the late 2000s, and his career has significantly evolved since winning his first Stanley Cup in 2010. With three Stanley Cups, one Hart Trophy and many other accolades on his resumé, he’s arguably the greatest American hockey player of all-time.
To be honest, despite his success, I might’ve not included Kane on this list six or seven years ago. Since facing off-ice issues back in 2015, though, Kane’s significantly matured while continuing to elevate his game and be a role model for his teammates. He hasn’t been afraid to speak out on the team’s poor play this year and recently even voiced his thoughts on Chicago’s GM search, according to Mark Lazerus of The Athletic (from ‘Lazerus: Patrick Kane wants to have a voice in the Blackhawks’ direction, and the next GM would be wise to listen,’ The Athletic, 02/13/22).
Like Toews, Kane’s future in Chicago is uncertain. Both players are set to become unrestricted free agents after the 2022-23 season. There’s no guarantee Kane will finish his career in a Blackhawks sweater, but when it’s all said and done, he’ll go down as a franchise great. Similarly, while playing some of his best hockey since the Blackhawks won their third and final Stanley Cup of the 2010s in 2015, he’s found his place as a mentor. His calm yet confident demeanor could pay great dividends behind the bench one day.
Though defense has been a weakness for the Blackhawks since they were last contenders, Connor Murphy has remained one of Chicago’s most under-the-radar leaders since the team acquired him from the Arizona Coyotes in June 2017. He’s provided a veteran presence on the back end and is also one of the Blackhawks’ three alternate captains, along with Kane and Alex DeBrincat. Murphy might not have the same accolades as Kane and Toews, but he’s slowly been able to find his voice in the locker room over the last few seasons.
Despite the acquisition of Seth Jones last summer, Murphy, 28, is arguably the backbone of Chicago’s defense and could be a building block moving forward. He’s reliable, and he’s seemed to take a team-first mentality at crucial points throughout the season. Even if he has room to elevate his game, his mentorship has been evident. He’s been honest with reporters after some of Chicago’s worst losses this season and has shown no issues with taking accountability.
Murphy is the son of Gord Murphy, a 14-year NHL veteran and current head coach of the Hartford Wolf Pack, the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the New York Rangers. He previously served as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Flyers from 2014-18 and also had stints with the Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s certainly helpful for Murphy that his father has NHL coaching experience, given he has a resource right in his family.
In a season full of lows, Marc-André Fleury, who might be on his way outcome this year’s Trade Deadline, has instantly become a fan favorite. The 2003 first-overall pick, 2020-21 Vezina Trophy winner, and three-time Stanley Cup champion has given the Blackhawks a reliable presence in net, even on their worst nights.
As one of the oldest active NHL players, I’m curious to see what direction Fleury goes in after his playing career. However, whether it’s behind the bench or in a management position, he certainly possesses the leadership qualities to end up in a front-office role.
Fleury has seen the league evolve since his early days with the Pittsburgh Penguins. As a head coach, he’d certainly bring a new perspective to a roster looking for a shakeup, as none of the NHL’s current 32 head coaches played goalie professionally. Fleury’s lone experience in net might hold him back from getting a head coaching position immediately if that’s a path he decides to pursue. But, as a well-respected veteran, he definitely understands the game’s nuances and would bring a new angle with some gradual experience.
I had to go with at least one outside-of-the-box choice here. Although there were other options I considered, most notably DeBrincat, I think Ryan Carpenter could make an intriguing case for a head coaching job despite his traditional lack of offensive production.
It’s been a mediocre season at best for the 29-year-old Carpenter, as he has recorded just five assists in 45 games with a minus-10 rating. However, while Carpenter isn’t the Blackhawks’ loudest voice, he does many of the small things right and brings decent grit, too. He’s also versatile, as he’s able to play both center and right wing, providing depth in multiple situations.
Now, why do I think Carpenter could make a good head coach? He has been a staple in the Blackhawks’ bottom-six for the past few seasons now and is able to bring a sense of physicality many of his teammates don’t have. Because of these traits and his overall versatility, I think Carpenter would be able to work well with a multitude of playing styles and effectively explain the game from a depth, role-player standpoint. He’s not the flashiest player and never has been, but he’s dependable and reliable, qualities any team would want.
From Ice to Bench
All five of these players would certainly bring a unique perspective as a bench boss. While every player’s post-playing career is different, players like Toews, Kane, and Murphy seem destined for a management or coaching role because of their leadership. Others, like Carpenter, might not have as prominent of a voice but have displayed levels of consistency over their careers.
As a head coach, setting the tone is always a priority, no matter the team’s state. Balancing a player-first mentality while remaining a voice of authority can be tough, but I think these players have shown leadership qualities during their Blackhawks’ tenures and have the potential to move to the bench after retirement.
Connor Smith covers the Chicago Blackhawks for The Hockey Writers. He is from Naperville, Illinois, and recently graduated from Ball State University in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, earning summa cum laude honors. This fall, he plans to attend the Medill School of Journalism in Chicago to further his studies and earn his master’s. Along with The Hockey Writers, he’s written and edited for The Ball State Daily News, Ball State’s on-campus student newspaper, and has interned for Best Version Media (BVM) Sports and Jersey Column, a Georgia-based sports blog. You can find more info about Smith and his work through his online portfolio, connornsmith0719.wordpress.com.