Taking over any team in the middle of a season is an incredible challenge, and there are few scenarios more difficult than the one Jeremy Colliton encountered in November.
The Blackhawks had fired three-time champion Joel Quenneville, a monumental figure in the organization and the city, and were on a five-game losing streak. Their dynasty was in disarray, and they asked a 33-year-old with no NHL coaching experience to get the team back on track.
The five-game skid reached eight before Colliton got his first win, then the Hawks slipped into another eight-game slide. He started 3-12-2 before he caught his breath and somewhat settled into the job.
He persisted, though, and the Hawks were much better his second month than his first. It helped that the biggest stars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, had his back throughout.
“They’ve been great,” Colliton said. “We’re not in the best situation, so it’s easy to get negative. And we can’t do that.
“We want to get out of this. We want to be a top team long term. . . . If they come to the rink with that mindset, like, ‘OK, we’re not where we want to be, but we’re going to get better,’ then other guys will follow.”
Colliton shares that mentality. He’s undaunted by the big-picture task of lifting the franchise back to where it stood a few years ago.
The Hawks are struggling for the second straight season, and it won’t be a quick turnaround. They resume Friday at Buffalo and sit seven points out of a playoff spot.
As they try to build themselves back into a contender, they need a strong-minded coach who won’t be knocked off-balance.
“You start to wonder how you’re going to handle all that stress,” general manager Stan Bowman said. “But he had a great attitude about it. He was very positive, he never got frustrated [and] he never doubted himself.”
Veteran buy-in provided an important boost for Colliton, whose previous head-coaching jobs were with the Rockford IceHogs and Swedish team Mora IK — nowhere near this level.
He assessed every player clinically, regardless of whether it was Kane, a minor-league call-up such as Carl Dahlstrom or players in between such as Brandon Saad and Erik Gustafsson. Some needed a fresh start; others required a push.
There were philosophical changes, too. Colliton is laying the groundwork for how he intends the Hawks to play beyond this season. Among other principles, he shifted them into a faster pace on the attack.
“Ever since he’s come aboard, he’s instilled a game plan in this locker room — the way we want to play, the way we can be successful,” Kane said. “When we do that, we are successful, so keep playing to that game plan and see what happens.”
That game plan has been more inclusive. With more than 20 years of coaching in the NHL, Quenne-ville was more of an autocrat, and his word was law, but Colliton wants everyone to have input.
Players didn’t seem to take issue with Quenneville’s authority, which was earned, but the younger ones are drawn to Colliton’s more flexible style.
“It’s more about working through things together and having an open mind on new developments to the game and introducing new things,” defenseman Connor Murphy said. “There’s definitely different ways of approaching things.”
The results under Colliton are better, but not amazing. There’s still a ton of work to do.
That said, the Hawks are no longer in free fall. Colliton likes where they’re at now compared to November, and that should only get better once he has a full offseason and training camp. It hasn’t fully clicked yet.
“I would like to be better,” he said. “I can do better, and I will do better. We’re not where we want to be. . . . As a staff, we’re going to be relentless in trying to improve because we want to be at the top of the league, not where we are.”