It’s not in Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s nature to settle for moral victories, but he clearly has been going out of his way to find positives lately.
After a 5-0 loss Friday to the Avalanche, he pointed out the five-on-five play at the start of the game was pretty good. After Victor Ejdsell was on the ice for three goals against in his NHL debut, Quenneville had nothing but praise for him. After a dreadful 5-2 loss March 22 to the lowly Canucks, Quenneville noted how much he liked the new-look forward lines.
But Quenneville’s mellower countenance shouldn’t be mistaken for resignation. With the Hawks playing out the string in the first losing season of Quenneville’s 21-year coaching career, the fire still burns. It’s just more smoldering than raging these days.
‘‘He’s been pretty similar [all season],’’ winger Patrick Kane said. ‘‘His preparation is still the same. He’s still into every game, still trying to win every game. And that’s where the team’s at, too. I don’t think I’ve really seen too much of a change with him.’’
Defenseman Connor Murphy wasn’t around when Quenneville was grabbing his crotch and cursing out officials in the playoff series against the Blues in 2014 or when he nearly leaped over the bench to protest an overturned call in Arizona in 2016. But Murphy was around for the first few months of this season, when the games still mattered.
‘‘I don’t see much of a difference, and that’s what’s impressive,’’ Murphy said. ‘‘He’s kept his presence and his cool and his coaching and teaching ability through all this. He knows we can still build as a team, and he still challenges us to be better every game and gives us the reasons for certain disappointing losses.’’
Quenneville has two years and about $12 million left on his contract, but his future is unclear. While general manager Stan Bowman has hiring and firing power, a decision of this magnitude really can come only from team president John McDonough. McDonough’s not the type to make rash decisions, and goalie Corey Crawford’s injury would seem to give cover to both Quenneville and McDonough. After all, what team could lose its star goalie for 47 games and still contend?
But McDonough has been conspicuous in his absence lately. He has declined repeated requests from the Sun-Times and other outlets for interviews, with the team saying this week that he won’t speak publicly until after the season. If Quenneville definitely were returning next season, McDonough could have ended the speculation easily at any point in the last two months. Every day that passes without a vote of confidence only fuels that speculation.
‘‘There’s plenty of blame to go around,’’ winger Patrick Sharp said when asked about Quenneville’s status. ‘‘It’s been a tough season. I haven’t even really thought about that side of it yet. We’ll have plenty of time to reflect on what happened, what went wrong. I don’t think that’s fair right now.’’
Quenneville has brushed aside the uncertainty publicly, and the players say he hasn’t changed much privately. That’s not to say he hasn’t adapted to the Hawks’ circumstances, though. He has been putting young players in higher-profile situations for the last month and has — by necessity — been more of a teacher than a coach lately.
Assistants Kevin Dineen and Don Granato have spent extra time with the young forwards on the ice and in the video room, and
Quenneville and assistant Ulf Samuelsson — both longtime NHL blue-liners — have done the same with the young defensemen.
‘‘There are so many young guys that there has to be a lot of teaching,’’ winger Vinnie Hinostroza said.
Quenneville still wants to win more than anything. And the subtle shifts in his style are designed to lay the groundwork for more victories next season, whether he’s here or not.
‘‘He’s just focusing on us getting better as a team,’’ Murphy said. ‘‘No one’s going to let these last games go to waste.’’