Blackhawks assistant Kevin Dineen knows how quickly the ax can fall on a coach.
Sixteen games into Dineen’s third season behind the Panthers’ bench and 18 months removed from leading them to the first division title in franchise history, general manager Dale Tallon fired him and his two assistants.
So Dineen knows what it feels like to read the stories, to hear the whispers, to feel the pressure of a season gone awry. In other words, he knows what Hawks coach Joel Quenneville undoubtedly will be feeling come October. After all, the last Hawks coach to be fired was team legend Denis Savard. And it came four games into the season.
‘‘There’s always noise,’’ Dineen said. ‘‘There’s noise every day about what we do. You’re in one of the most high-profile markets in the country. There’s an expectation with this franchise, and [Quenneville] gets that. He understands that’s part of the package. You get yourself in that situation, and you can sit there and worry about that stuff or you can try to find the solutions.’’
Quenneville’s not naive. He has been fired twice before, and he knows those three Stanley Cup banners hanging high above the United Center ice can’t protect him forever. Last season spiraled out of control in so many ways, many of which weren’t his fault. But the power play (under Dineen’s watch) was 28th in the NHL. The penalty kill (under Ulf Samuelsson’s watch) was 20th in the league. And the Hawks (under Quenneville’s watch) were last in the Central Division.
And while owner Rocky Wirtz preached patience and president John McDonough and GM Stan Bowman have professed their faith in Quenneville, it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. And if the Hawks stumble out of the gate, Quenneville might be the first domino to fall.
‘‘As a coach, it can happen at any moment,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘That’s all part of our business, and that’s the way it goes. We’re in the winning business. As a coach, it’s the only way we think: Win the next game, and that other stuff we can’t control. We’re fighting to get two points and [to] get the guys ready to play and play right. That’s our job. I can’t think of the other things.’’
But it’s sure to hang over the team if the Hawks don’t get off to a decent start and cool down Quenneville’s seat a bit. And while Quenneville doesn’t want to think like he’s coaching for his job, the core players to whom he means so much might feel like they’re playing for his job. It’s
‘‘We felt that throughout the season,’’ captain Jonathan Toews said. ‘‘For the guys like myself, who played for Joel for a long time now, you feel that connection. You feel — I wouldn’t say responsibility — but you do feel in some way that you take ownership for it. Joel’s a guy [who] gives everything he’s got, and he cares about his players and he cares about winning and he has the right priorities and there’s a reason we’ve had a lot of success under him for a lot of years. In situations like [last] season, you feel in a way you’re letting him down and you’re letting your coaches down.’’
Quenneville isn’t going to reinvent himself overnight, but he does have to adapt to an ever-changing game. What worked in the past might not work now. Or perhaps he doesn’t have the right players to make it work again. So at the end of last season, he sat down with Dineen, Samuelsson, assistant Don Granato and goalie coach Jimmy Waite and talked about tweaking the system that has served him so well and adapting to a faster, more skilled league.
He also met with the leadership core to discuss ways to improve communication between the staff and players and to come up with joint solutions rather than stubbornly stick to what has worked in the past.
‘‘[But] saying that, there’s a reason that this team and Joel have had such great success and that he’s one of the best coaches there’s ever been,’’ Dineen said. ‘‘It’s how he does his business. Yeah, you want to keep the wheels always turning, you want to keep evolving, but you also want to stay with your principles.’’
Quenneville insisted Friday that the Hawks’ championship window remains open. He said that’s what drives him and his players and what keeps him passionate after 21 seasons as a coach. He undoubtedly will get however many seasons he wants beyond that. But fair or not, whether they all come in Chicago might depend on how well the Hawks start.
‘‘It’s no different than when you’re having great success,’’ Dineen said. ‘‘You go [21-0-3] like they did a few years ago, and what’s the difference? You’re trying to keep your team focused. Now you say, ‘You’re fighting for your job.’ I can’t speak on behalf of Joel, but I don’t think that’s his mindset, that he’s like, ‘I’m worried about my job.’ I think he’s worried about making this franchise and this team as good as it can be.’’