Jeremy Colliton vividly remembers the night that has become his defining news conference as coach of the Blackhawks.
Oct. 24, 2019. The ‘‘it’s not the combos’’ night.
The Hawks had fallen to 2-4-2 with a pitiful 4-1 home loss to the Flyers minutes earlier. Colliton, usually mellow and composed, was visibly frustrated. He gave the closest thing to a rant he has given, insisting the line combinations — a much-discussed subject around that time — didn’t matter, considering how lazy the Hawks’ effort had been.
That quote has been repeated hundreds of times since, sometimes painting Colliton in a positive light, sometimes in a negative one.
Even now, with the Hawks’ tumultuous 2019-20 season in the rearview mirror, Colliton’s emotion changes markedly when he reflects on it.
‘‘The point that I was trying to make is work ethic and competitiveness and team-first decisions, that’s what helps you win,’’ Colliton said this week. ‘‘If you don’t have that as a base, nothing else matters.
‘‘Are [lines] important? Are they something we still talk about all the time? Yes. If they didn’t matter, we wouldn’t change things around, trying to look for a spark. But there is no spark if there is no work ethic.’’
As Colliton has become more established and comfortable as an NHL coach, his willingness to criticize his team has grown.
Outside of Oct. 24, he repeatedly insisted through the first few months of last season that the Hawks were doing almost all the right things and were close to a breakthrough.
Now, looking back, he admitted his players were neglecting some fundamental aspects of hockey. In that context, the ‘‘combos’’ rant makes much more sense.
‘‘We weren’t competitive enough,’’ he said bluntly. ‘‘We didn’t have the commitment. We didn’t have the work ethic away from the puck. We didn’t have discipline with shift length and puck management and all those things. That’s what adds up to winning.
‘‘We took a step around Christmas. We improved. We got better as the second half went on, and then we took another step come summertime. We need the group we have [now] to continue that.’’
One major factor in the Hawks’ improvement as last season went along was Colliton’s decision last November to abandon the ‘‘overload’’ defensive scheme he had tried to operate.
In that system, the Hawks’ strong-side wing would collapse down low in the defensive zone, giving the Hawks a four-on-three advantage in that area — essentially ‘‘overloading’’ it. That conservative tactic provided insurance if a defenseman lost his mark, but it left only the weak-side wing ready to counterattack.
‘‘Because we did that, we had a tough time getting out of ‘D’ zone with numbers,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘In order to not turn the puck over, it was forcing us to have to throw it away [via dump-ins] because we didn’t have enough numbers or speed to get through [the neutral zone].’’
Colliton switched to a more standard system of defending three-on-three down low, with both wingers available to counterattack. But doing so put a lot of pressure on the defensemen and low center because they had no backup if they lost their marks. In the end, the Hawks rejuvenated their offense, but they also gave up the most shots and scoring chances in the league.
In the coming season, however, Colliton said he plans to stick with the higher-risk, higher-reward system the Hawks finished last season employing. He thinks the additions the Hawks made this offseason, bringing in reliable defensive centers Mattias Janmark and Lucas Wallmark and hulking defensive defenseman Nikita Zadorov, will make them better-suited to handle three-on-three coverage.
‘‘The teams that have success, they’re able to control the pace and tempo of the game by playing in the offensive zone,’’ he said. ‘‘In order to do that, you need guys that are competitive, hard-working, responsible, play on the right side of the puck. Those guys can add that to our group. The more of them that you have, it pushes everyone in the right direction. It’s some peer pressure.’’
Colliton’s ability to balance his hockey philosophies with the Hawks’ strengths and weaknesses — and ultimately make the latter a priority — serves as another example of his growth as a coach.
Still the NHL’s youngest coach as he nears his 36th birthday, Colliton has led the Hawks for 137 regular-season games and nine playoff games. Those postseason appearances, in particular, gave him valuable wisdom about adapting against an opponent and properly preparing his team.
‘‘I’ve come up with ideas, by going through that process, of things we might want to try in the future,’’ he said. ‘‘That experience is only going to help me going forward.’’
So for better or worse, Colliton is no longer the newbie the Hawks brought in around this time in 2018. He has gained immense experience and knowledge, but he also has blown through his honeymoon period and picked up some haters in the fan base — a group he often must dodge on Twitter, a platform he otherwise lauds as informative and worthwhile.
While awaiting 2021 — which will be his third season and his third unconventionally scheduled season as the Hawks’ coach, although he adamantly avoids griping about that — Colliton has occupied himself by coaching his 8- and 6-year-old kids’ youth teams. He said even that has been personally valuable.
‘‘Anytime you get out of your comfort zone and do things that are different, they help you develop,’’ he said, before adding with a smile: ‘‘It’s been fun to try to convince 6-year-olds you’ve got to bend your knees.’’
And Colliton expects plenty more lessons to trickle out of the months — and years — to come.
‘‘I feel like I’m a better coach now than I was last year, but I’m never going to be a finished product,’’ he said. ‘‘If that learning stops, then I think you’re done.’’