Greetings Chicago Blackhawks fans! The long and crazy NHL offseason continues. But even with no hockey there’s still plenty to talk about. We here at The Hockey Writers are preparing for another episode of Blackhawks Banter at The Hockey Writers Live, airing Monday nights at 7:00 p.m. CT and 8:00 p.m. ET.
Here’s a sneak peek at a few of the topics that will be on the show. Today our team of Brooke LoFurno, Greg Boysen, Shaun Filippelli, and Gail Kauchak discuss coaching, Duncan Keith’s impact, and top line combinations. Let’s get to it!
I know we’ve talked about head coach Jeremy Colliton before, and we all have mixed emotions about his ability to lead the team. We’ve also touched on the entire coaching staff and their cohesiveness as a group. But let’s take this a step further and pull the players into it. It’s tough to know what goes on behind closed doors, and what kind of relationship the players and coaches have with each other.
So my question to you is, do you think the players, and most specifically the veterans, are buying in to what Colliton and company are preaching?
Buying in To Colliton
No, I don’t think the players have bought into the system. Because what is the system, exactly?! Colliton has created a scheme that is very inconsistent on his part. Maybe if the structure of things was more set in stone, it would be easier to buy in. Considering the team’s “work ethic” issues that Colliton mentioned recently, that says a lot on how the players feel about things.
Maybe there is no motivation from the team to carry out his vision.
At this moment, and judging from recent disconnect that fans have witnessed between players and team personnel, it doesn’t feel like there’s a solid connection amongst Colliton and the veteran core. That said, it has also appeared that players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith have been coaching themselves for years now anyway; in knowing what to do, where to be, and the results required out of them.
However, that doesn’t rationalize a lack of relationship between them and their coach. Although there isn’t much evidence to speak to this yet, something that maintains my optimism about Colliton is that he might be an effective leader of this team’s youth. We’ll only know once it’s mostly the unproven players under his wing. With greater opportunity to develop players who may rely more on that type of guidance and mentorship, we can then get a realistic sense of his capabilities. In the meantime, clearly more needs to be done to strengthen that bond between he and the veterans, and time will tell which direction they all decide to take.
Let’s first remember that Toews, Kane, Keith and Brent Seabrook all played for most of their careers under former Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville. They built a rapport together, and Quenneville knew how to get the best out of them. He knew them inside and out.
And the players, in turn, identified with Quenneville’s system and exactly what was expected of them. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to replace that bond. Quite frankly, you can’t.
I know Toews spoke out negatively after goaltender Corey Crawford wasn’t re-signed, but that was more a knock on general manager Stan Bowman and management than it was on coaching. But then there was the time Toews said during an interview, “you’ll have to ask the coaches about that”. I think that was when Colliton dressed seven defensemen and therefore caused the forward lines to be all jumbled. But Quenneville used to do that kind of stuff too. I’m sure the players didn’t like it then either.
It’s probably been the hardest on Keith and Seabrook, who basically had to unlearn years of what had become second nature for their bodies, and relearn a completely different defensive scheme. But to Colliton’s credit when that system wasn’t working out, he was willing to listen to the players and other coaches and adapt.
It’s my understanding Colliton is willing to listen and take input, and if he was smart he would do that with his veteran players. I think he has done that; which is why there hasn’t been even more dissention. It’s not always going to be smooth sailing. But this team rarely gave up last season even when they were by far the less talented squad. They always came to compete, and that comes from coaching and the veterans together. So Colliton must be doing something right.
It’s hard to say whether the players have bought in. There were a lot of rumblings early on that Keith was very upset and was not a fan of the new coach. Colliton recently talked about his team’s lack of work ethic and competitiveness. That tells me the vets weren’t buying in because those sorts of things start with that group. I can’t imagine Toews letting younger players getting away with dogging it on the ice, so who exactly was Colliton calling out there?
It is easy to see how the “core four” would need more time to warm up to Colliton after being with Quenneville for so long and all the success they had under him.
Last week on our show Shaun brought up a few rapid-fire questions. One of them was which defenseman would log the most average ice time this upcoming season. We all unanimously chose Connor Murphy. Which just goes to show you how Murphy has established himself as arguably the best all-around defenseman for the Blackhawks.
A year or two ago we probably would have all said Keith in response to this question. Which leads me to our next subject. What do you think Keith will bring to the table this coming season? Where will he fit in and what will he offer?
Counting on Keith
I think Keith’s role next season will be a mentor-like role. We saw him in that role last season with being paired with Adam Boqvist, and I think it will be that way even more so next season to help the young defensemen take that next step. He is still useful. He is Keith, after all. But with the core shifting in a new direction with a bunch of new faces, I think he fits in more as a mentor.
We all expect that Keith will show up and put in the work, as he always has and seemingly always will. He’s proven time and time again that he isn’t afraid to lead the way in the gym and on the ice. He broke into the league in 2005-06 and has led the Blackhawks in average ice time every year since.
Let that sink in. He’s done his time as the workhorse of this franchise and deserves to be relied upon less as they put more pressure on their prospects to come in and do the job. As impressive and impactful as Keith can still be at 37 years old, it’s only natural that he’s slowing down and isn’t as effective as he once was. Besides, he’s now playing in a league full of 20-somethings and he’s no longer one of them. He should be praised, respected and celebrated for what he’s done for this franchise.
Giving Keith the opportunity to maintain his athletic integrity by decreasing his minutes so he can be fresher with every shift, while leaning on him as the mentor and teacher he needs to be for their youth, creates a win-win for the entire team.
Keith still will be tasked with top-pairing defensive responsibilities, and he will still have to take on heavy minutes. But maybe slowly decrease both. I believe too much was asked of Keith last season. Perhaps he can have more protected minutes. Give him a defensive partner he doesn’t have to babysit all the time. He can obviously be more effective with a more reliable partner than the youthful Boqvist. If you noticed, Keith and Murphy played together a lot more in the recent playoffs when things really counted.
Perhaps this is one of the big reasons the more veteran Nikita Zadorov was brought in, to take some of the stress off Keith. Obviously Keith still has tons of value, especially if he’s utilized correctly. I can’t wait to see how the defensive pairings play out as the season evolves.
Oh, and for goodness sakes, take Keith off the power play already! Or at least put him on the second unit.
Keith is still a valuable piece for this Blackhawks’ team. He is still the leader of the defense and one of the biggest voices in the room. In a perfect scenario, Boqvist will take that next step offensively and take the spot on the first power play unit to save Keith a couple of minutes a night.
Colliton needs to work on not relying on the elder defenseman quite as much and finding ways to cut some ice time when he can. That, of course, will all depend on the performance and health of all Keith’s fellow blueliners.
I, for one, love to talk about line combinations. It’s fascinating for me to predict who will work best together, and why. So let’s start at the top. I think we can all agree Toews is still the best center on the team and anchors the first line for the Blackhawks. Or perhaps you don’t agree.
And we all know things change and nothing is set in stone. With all that said, who do you predict as your three players to start the season on the top line, and why?
First Line Combinations
Brooke Says: (Kubalik-Toews-Entwistle)
I’m usually bad at making lineup decisions. But for the first line, I would say: Dominik Kubalik, Toews and Mackenzie Entwistle. I would keep Kubalik and Toews together because that seems like the combination that works best for the roster. And Colliton seems to like that duo, so I see him sticking with that.
As far as Entwistle, I could see him making a run for the opening night roster. The Blackhawks’ right-wing pool makes it hard to choose from. But if it’s not Entwistle, I could see a rookie being in the RW spot.
Shaun Says: (DeBrincat-Dach-Suter)
I feel as though the Blackhawks are not yet willing to move away from Toews as the leader of their top line and I can understand why they would try to rationalize against that idea. He’s still one of the best in the league at managing his role. However, if the goal of the coming seasons is to let this lineup reform, why not start right at the top?
This is less of a prediction and more of a wish, as I’m not sure how far the Blackhawks are willing to extend their commitment to development. I’d say give Kirby Dach the reigns. He’s shown great progress, confidence and poise and this team might as well develop around those that will surely lead the way sooner than later. Yes, he’s only 19 and it’s early in his career, but that path seemed to work out just fine for everyone involved when it was in place for Toews.
Sticking with the same thinking, I’d like to see 22-year-old Alex DeBrincat maintain a sense of security on the top unit’s left side, while 24-year-old prospect Pius Suter makes the roster and joins him on the right. We’d then see a conscious effort from the organization to focus on their youth, while those who are already turning into stars can begin the true takeover of this franchise.
Gail Says: (Kubalik-Toews-Shaw)
I believe Colliton will stick with what worked last season and put Kubalik and Toews together to start off. So the question remains, who gets the coveted spot on their right wing? In my recent full lineup projections, I discussed newly signed Suter as an option. After all, he led the Swiss league in scoring last season. He is a skilled player that would be best utilized among the top-six forwards. He’s projected to be NHL ready and to make the starting roster out of training camp. Another option could be DeBrincat. Although that would separate DeBrincat and Dylan Strome, who seem to play best together.
The problem here is that both DeBrincat and Suter are listed as left-wingers. And while this may not be much of an issue for DeBrincat, asking a new player to line up on his off side isn’t ideal.
What about Andrew Shaw? While I see him as more of a bottom-six player, he certainly has the versatility to play anywhere throughout the lineup. I’ve mentioned before his game is similar to that of Drake Caggiula, and Colliton utilized Caggiula in this same position a lot last season. As long as Shaw is healthy, I could see him starting out on the top line with Kubalik and Toews.
Greg Says: (Kubalik-Toews-Suter)
I will preface this by saying I don’t really believe the number attached to a line means it’s the team’s “best” or “most important” line. That changes from game to game and even period to period. With that being said, Toews is still your man in the middle for the “first line”. He still plays very good defense and is your best center at the dot.
I would put Kubalik on the left because the duo worked so well together last season. Filling in the spot held by Brandon Saad last season will be hard. The Blackhawks really don’t have another player like him on the roster. This is a slot possibly for Shaw, but I am not sure they can count on him to be healthy. Right now, I’d start the year with Suter on Toews’ right side and see what he can do.
Join us Monday night as we pick each other’s brains and dig even further into the above topics. In addition, we’ll also discuss points leaders, goaltending and much more. In case you missed it, take a look at last week’s episode below. Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel so you don’t miss anything, and you can catch us on Facebook at well. See you Monday night!