One of Jeremy Colliton’s best qualities as a coach is how he handles young players, and two who came to the Blackhawks this season might have turned their careers around under his watch.
Former No. 3 overall pick Dylan Strome and one-time coveted collegiate prospect Drake Caggiula were written off as busts by their former teams, but the Hawks saw two players in their early 20s who simply needed the right situation. Strome and Caggiula landed in perfect scenarios with elite linemates and a patient coach.
“My first game, we lost 8-3 to Vegas and . . . I’m not sure how well I really played,” Strome said. “Then the next game we go into Winnipeg and lose and I was minus-4 in the first period . . . We just kinda kept playing and rolling and tried to build from that.
“When he has that confidence in you, you just try to show it back to him. You know you’re going to get back out there and do the best you can, so it’s nice to have that behind the bench when Coach believes in you and believes in your abilities.”
In his three-plus years with the Coyotes, Strome scored seven goals in 48 games.
Colliton quickly made him a regular starter, often on a line with longtime friend and junior-league teammate Alex DeBrincat, and Strome has set career highs of 20 goals and 36 assists.
The Hawks scooped up Strome in a trade that also brought in 22-year-old Brendan Perlini, who has been hit-and-miss. Strome, however, looks like a significant pickup who will be part of the core going forward. He’s under contract next season and will be a restricted free agent in Summer 2020.
Caggiula doesn’t have nearly as impressive numbers, but that’s the beauty of playing for the Hawks: He doesn’t have to.
He always felt pressure to be a playmaker with the Oilers, who seemed to be trying to mold him into something he wasn’t. Caggiula sees himself as a scrappy player who fits well with highly skilled forwards like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and that’s just what Colliton wanted.
“The biggest thing for me is being able to find a home,” Caggiula said. “I’ve been able to play on a consistent line day in and day out here and I know exactly what my role is.
“They made that very clear, and they allow me to play the hockey the way I play — hard, fast, aggressive. I’m not sitting here worried about points or anything like that, whereas I felt like in Edmonton if I wasn’t scoring I was gonna be taken out of the lineup.”
When they arrived — Strome in November and Caggiula in January — Colliton told each of them “it’s a blank slate” as far as any issues that held them back with their prior teams. Having coached in Rockford, Colliton knows all the reasons why young, talented players don’t make it in a particular organization.
It has become clear over the last few months why he’s the right fit for where the team is headed. Joel Quenneville was never known for his patience with young players, but it’s an essential component of Colliton’s approach.
“You can’t be afraid of making a mistake and feel like the rug’s going to be pulled out from under you,” Colliton said. “There’s got to be a standard that’s expected . . . and when you get feedback, you’ve got to respond.
“If you respond and it looks like your heart’s in the right place and you have the right intention, then you get a lot of rope from me. If you get feedback and you don’t respond, then you have a problem. That’s the line for me.”