After earning only six wins in the team’s first 15 games of 2018-19, missing the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and having been swept in the First Round of 2017’s postseason, things seemed bleak for the Chicago Blackhawks.
At the time, former head coach Joel Quenneville was synonymous with the organization he led to three Stanley Cups in the 2010s with stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. As the franchise began to slip away from their long-running pattern of success, it was only a matter of time before changes would be made.
Colliton Takes Over Coach’s Chair
On Nov. 6, after the Blackhawks began the 2018-19 season with a 6-6-3 record, Quenneville was fired and Jeremy Colliton was immediately named his successor.
The then 33-year-old Colliton was bench boss of the Rockford Icehogs for under 100 games before his promotion giving him less experience coaching in the AHL than most players do playing there.
The Ice Hogs enjoyed a deep playoff run in 2018, ending two wins shy of making it to the Calder Cup Final. Rockford then began their 2018-19 season with a modestly successful record of 6-3-3 when Colliton was brought up to the big league.
Fighting to Earn Fans
Trying to replicate the success he’d achieved in his short tenure with the Ice Hogs would be a challenge in itself, let alone finding effective ways to earn the respect Quenneville’s results had demanded. Joining a team that was spinning downward didn’t help.
Colliton’s Blackhawks failed to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after accumulating 84 points and a 36-34-12 record. They were the second-worst team in the Central Division, where they had recently dominated.
However, they improved on their 33-39-10 record from the season before, earning only 76 points in 2018. It’s hard to put too much blame on a first-year coach, especially when they join an organization that is already clawing from the bottom. It takes time to develop the necessary relationships and build the required cohesion to carry a team forward.
Working With What’s Available
Even though coaches have to work with the lineup they’re given, Colliton wasn’t joining a squad full of unknowns; he had talent to spare with proven players like Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Corey Crawford. Plus, he got a front-row seat for a sophomore season to remember from Alex DeBrincat who earned 41 goals through 2018-19.
The organization was continually making roster moves, though, with the goal of regaining their team’s competitive edge. Colliton had to re-strategize amidst these changes while trying to revive a championship culture.
Fresh Start to Finding Success
The 2019-20 season provided Colliton with an open landscape to build on and navigate from the first puck drop. He had to put the previous season’s failure behind him and winning as the immediate focus.
However, his Blackhawks started the season with three straight losses, followed by two wins, then four more misses; a microcosm of what followed throughout the campaign. They were a streaky team with a pattern of losing.
Although it was another season when management made headlines with their roster moves, including trading a solid split starter in Robin Lehner, the unique nature of how the season ended presented the Blackhawks with an unlikely opportunity.
Playing Into the Playoffs
Finishing twelfth will not typically earn a team a playoff spot. However, the Blackhawks made it into the Stanley Cup Qualifiers where they faced the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-five series. The winner went on to the 16-team Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This gave the franchise an opportunity to re-write the ending to their 2019-20 campaign. Facing off against the two top producers in the league, and with uncertainty in net, Colliton prepared his team for battle.
Chicago outperformed the Oilers in a number of key areas, some of which were directly linked to coaching decisions, like fixing the penalty kill after its early failure, making sure Toews was taking the important faceoffs, and choosing the right goalie to shut things down. Colliton displayed the necessary confidence and, in turn, his team responded; welcome progress all around.
The Blackhawks won the series 3-1, making their way back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Successful Sample of Things to Come?
What comes next for the Blackhawks has yet to be determined. They’re down 3-1 in their best-of-seven series against the top seed Vegas Golden Knights, who present a much greater challenge. However, reaching the First Round should not be overlooked.
Results come from a collective effort, but Colliton deserves his share of the spotlight in lifting the Blackhawks to heights they should not have reached this season. Even this small sample size should be enough to prove the progress under his coaching. He has made rookie mistakes at the NHL level, but that’s because he is one. As the youngest coach in the league, he has years ahead of him to prove how effectively he can adapt.
Colliton has earned the opportunity to show the franchise and their fans what more he can do. He’s already brought the Blackhawks beyond where they’ve been in recent years. Why not see how much further he can take them, back to their winning ways?
Freelance thinker, paying too much attention to digital aesthetic. Oxford comma enthusiast. Spider-Man supporter. Sports fan, with two favourite hockey teams. If the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs ever meet in the Stanley Cup Final, you can find me wherever they’re playing that night.
Check out more of my work at mralwayswrite.com.