Jeremy Colliton’s general feedback to the Blackhawks hasn’t changed much so far this season.
And the fact that it hasn’t changed — the fact that the Hawks haven’t been able to make any steady progress based on that feedback — has resulted in a rarely seen level of frustration in a normally mellow coach.
After the Hawks’ season-opening loss to the Avalanche on Oct. 13, Colliton remained optimistic despite the early red flags.
“We didn’t have enough numbers back, and when we did have numbers back, we didn’t sort it out,” he said then. “You look at the goals, it’s stuff you wouldn’t expect to happen. I don’t think it will [continue to] happen, but we’ve got to address it.”
On Oct. 18, before the home opener against the Islanders, he noticed a trend but considered it fixable.
“Overall, we haven’t been tough enough to beat,” he said then. “We’ve got to be harder to beat. And a lot of that is decision-making, [giving up] too many odd-man rushes the other way. . . . It should be pretty correctable, and that’s something we’ve addressed.”
On Wednesday, after the Hawks blew a 3-1 lead in a 4-3 loss to the Hurricanes — a defeat that dropped their record to 1-8-2 and their even-strength scoring to 38-15 in favor of their opponents — Colliton seemed to snap.
“It’s just another hard lesson, but I would like us to stop learning hard lessons and respond with a change in how we think about the game,” he said.
“It’s the mindset we have. It’s not about that we need the fourth [goal]. We’d like to get the fourth one, and we’ll get our chances if we just play solid and smart. . . . But you can’t be pushing so hard for the fourth one that you expose yourself going the other way.”
Called out (although not by name) were defensemen Erik Gustafsson, whose ill-fated half-pinch gifted the Hurricanes a momentum-flipping breakaway goal, and Jake McCabe, whose overly ambitious stretch pass and, seconds later, overly ambitious lunge toward a Hurricanes passer led to the tying goal.
After practice Thursday, Colliton continued fuming. He was barely able to look at the camera as he ranted about what he considers a fundamental flaw in his players’ approach.
“We’re still struggling with . . . understanding that it’s not the most important thing to try to score every time you’re on the ice,” he said. “[More important is making] defending your first priority and being willing to grind for 60 minutes, because that’s what’s necessary to win.”
Colliton later identified center Dylan Strome, who was inexplicably scratched Wednesday for the seventh time in 11 games, as one of the players to whom he was referring.
Colliton’s analyses of the Hawks’ breakdowns are largely correct. That said, it’s his job to not only diagnose the issues but also fix them — whether that’s through better coaching and teaching or changes in the team’s personnel or system.
Since the issues haven’t been fixed for nearly a month, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe Colliton’s implication that the Hawks themselves are simply too dense to comprehend and act upon his wisdom.
To be fair, the Hawks have been inhibited by the coronavirus. Colliton didn’t have his full coaching staff for weeks, and he can’t bench Gustafsson, for example, for his repeated errors because there’s no one else to dress. With defenseman Riley Stillman (and center Jujhar Khaira) ineligible to travel to Canada to face the Jets on Friday, the Hawks had to recall defenseman Nicolas Beaudin simply to be able to send a full lineup.
But no singular excuse can justify the Hawks’ four-year-long pattern of defensive ineptitude. They allowed more scoring chances than any other NHL team the last three seasons, and they’ve allowed the sixth-most so far this season.
Colliton’s exasperation makes sense, but it needs to be directed toward himself as much as everyone else.