MONTREAL — Jeremy Colliton replacing Joel Quenneville as the Blackhawks’ coach should have come with a disclaimer: “Results may vary and take some time.”
It’s not unusual for a coaching change to produce an immediate uptick in a struggling team’s fortunes. In fact, the seven other full-time NHL coaches who have been midseason replacements in the past five seasons had a combined 59-36-10 record (.610) in their first 15 games. Colliton was a dreadful 3-10-2 (.267) in his first 15 games.
From outside the Hawks’ organization — and maybe even from the inside — it was difficult to tell just how much of a transition it would be. But clearly Colliton’s style is far different from Quenneville’s. The switch to man-to-man defense was problematic from the start. Colliton is not as much of a stickler for being responsible defensively — a big reason why Erik Gustafsson is having a breakout season instead of being in and out of Quenneville’s doghouse. When a 19-year-old defenseman such as Henri Jokiharju is adored by Quenneville yet can’t play for Colliton, you know the coaching transition has been bigger than most imagined.
The Hawks have not yet “arrived” under Colliton, but it sure looks like they are moving forward after taking a step or two — or three — backward. They were 4-13-3 (.275) in Colliton’s first 20 games; 6-5-3 (.536) in his next 14; and now 15-6-0 (.714) in his last 21 after a 5-4 road victory over the Maple Leafs on Wednesday night. It was the fourth consecutive victory for the Hawks (31-30-9).
And now, even their beleaguered defense seems to be coming out of the coaching-transition funk. After allowing a league-high 3.8 goals and 35.5 shots-on-goal per game in Colliton’s first 52 games — including 4.6 goals per game over an 11-game stretch through last Thursday — the Hawks have had three consecutive solid defensive performances in front of Corey Crawford.
They allowed one goal on 27 shots against the Stars, one goal on 25 shots against the Coyotes and one goal on 18 shots through two periods against the Maple Leafs before Crawford left with an illness and the Leafs strafed backup Collin Delia with 29 third-period shots in desperation after falling behind 5-1.
“The past couple of months from when [Colliton] came we’ve learned a lot,” forward Brandon Saad said. “I think the more we’ve gotten to know his system and the more we bought into it, the better we’re playing.
“As of late, we’ve been playing some of our best hockey and I think that’s a big reason — just the commitment to systems. It took a little bit of a learning curve — a lot of guys played under the same coach for [the last] 10 years. It’s been pretty good.”
With six skaters who were part of two or more of the three Stanley Cups under Quenneville, the transition might have been more arduous than anticipated. But this is becoming Colliton’s team more and more every day.
“I think everyone’s kind of bought into the team game the past couple of games,” forward Patrick Kane said, “especially when you know how much is on the line. They’re must-win games — you kind of see that come to life a little bit. We’re playing a really good team game.”
The Hawks only now are seeing the benefits of buying into Colliton’s system. But it appears that the big step backward when Colliton arrived will eventually turn into an even bigger step forward.
“It’s been a long process,” Colliton said. “It was ugly for while, especially in November and early December [when the Hawks allowed 65 goals in 14 games, going 2-11-1]. We’ve been getting better and guys are more comfortable and more predictable to each other and then we’re showing we can be a good team.”