Why Colliton was put in no-win situation from the start originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
On Nov. 6, 2018, the Blackhawks announced that three-time Stanley Cup-winning head coach Joel Quenneville had been relieved of his duties after 10-plus seasons with the organization. He took the fall for a roster that was clearly not good enough to make the playoffs, even though the former management group felt otherwise (at least they claimed publicly).
Jeremy Colliton was tabbed as the next bench boss, becoming the youngest coach in the NHL at 33 years old. His tenure with the Blackhawks came to an end on Saturday, exactly three years since being hired. He went 87-92-26 for a points percentage of .488.
At the time, I thought it was a good hire. In fact, I still believe in Colliton as a coach. He’s a bright hockey mind who has proven to turn losing cultures into winning teams quickly, as he did in Sweden and in Rockford. But in hindsight, he was put in a near-impossible position to win over Chicago and succeed with the Blackhawks, and it became more evident over time.
Colliton stepped into a locker room that adored Quenneville, who helped the Blackhawks win three Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015. He was also walking in with zero NHL coaching experience and had to gain the respect of the veterans who had become franchise icons. That wasn’t the case for Quenneville, who immediately had the room’s attention when he took over a young hockey team trying to figure out how to win in 2008.
In his first season, Colliton implemented changes on the fly by transitioning from a zone defensive system to a man-on-man style. It took a while for the group to break out of their olds habits after playing the same way for a decade, and it showed.
The Blackhawks finished the 2018-19 season dead last in expected Goals Against per 60 minutes (2.68) and high-danger chances per 60 (13.6) at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick, just one year after finishing 26th and 28th in those respective departments under Quenneville. It was clear which area needed addressing.
So going into training camp the next season, Colliton instituted further changes. Because of their glaring issues at defending the inner slot, they tried to overload the house to limit the high-quality scoring chances. Who could blame him?
The move, however, backfired because it didn’t allow the Blackhawks to counterattack on offense, which struggled mightily with only 21 goals at 5-on-5 through the first 14 games. They couldn’t enter the zone cleanly, were forced to dump it in more than they would’ve liked to, and spent more time in their own end, which eventually led to the same defensive results.
After a month of experimenting, Colliton aborted the plan and made a systematic change on Nov. 7 against Vancouver by pushing the weak side forward up higher in the defensive zone. The result? The Blackhawks erupted for five goals in a lopsided win. They played looser, freer and ended up winning five of the next six games.
In the middle of all this, the Blackhawks’ front office continued to defend that the roster was good enough to be playoff-caliber when, in reality, it wasn’t. And that was a significant part of the problem.
The Blackhawks simply didn’t have the right personnel, so Colliton found himself in this awkward position of trying to develop some of the younger players while also trying to win now. Which was it supposed to be?
Perhaps more important than any technical tweaks, the difficult roster decisions Colliton made along the way proved he wasn’t afraid to do whatever it took to win, no matter how uncomfortable the situation. He healthy scratched one of the greatest players in franchise history Brent Seabrook — Brent Seabrook! — multiple times throughout the season even though he probably knew it wouldn’t sit well inside the room. He rode the hot hand in Robin Lehner for a stretch over a beloved teammate and two-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford.
Did those decisions help earn Colliton some respect in the locker room or did it rub veterans the wrong way that the guys they had won Cups with were stapled to the bench? Who knows. But that’s the hand he was dealt.
Colliton deserves his fair share of the blame during his three years in Chicago, no doubt. The Blackhawks have been one of the worst defensive teams in the league for several seasons now, and a lot of that falls on the head coach.
But all I know is, the Colliton era is over not because he isn’t a good coach. It’s because he was put in a no-win situation from the very beginning.
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