Interim coach Derek King’s honeymoon might be ending.
The good feelings probably aren’t going away. King’s positivity and nonchalance are part of his personality, and his image as a regular guy thrown in charge of the Blackhawks is captivating.
But the oft-discussed “new coach bump” is starting to wear off. Hawks players and fans are getting used to who he is, who he isn’t and what he does and doesn’t emphasize in this hard-to-wrangle sport.
Now comes the second chapter of King’s tenure, in which the focus turns to the long-term future and figuring out if he’s capable of leading the Hawks through that. After all, the concept of a regular guy being an NHL coach remains fun only if he’s winning.
King still is making a decent case. The Hawks are 10-6-2 since he took over Nov. 6 after consecutive overtime losses to the Predators and Stars. Before Saturday, he had alternated wins and losses for 14 consecutive games, which is better than what the Hawks were doing under predecessor Jeremy Colliton.
The comparisons to Colliton must end eventually, though, and now might be a good time.
The Hawks set the bar so low during his remarkably awful final stretch that merely clearing it doesn’t mean things are golden. Yes, the Hawks’ even-strength scoring-chance ratio, for example, has risen significantly, from 43.9% under Colliton to 47.5% under King. But 47.5% is still under 50% and ranks 24th in the league.
Interim general manager Kyle Davidson rightly has given King the keys to coach the Hawks for the rest of the season while the team reconstructs its upper-level leadership. That process already is well underway, and once it’s complete, the new boss’ top summer priority will be naming a permanent coach.
King, initially a long shot, has made himself a legitimate candidate. His interpersonal skills, in particular, have stood out.
He has relaxed and united a once-fragile locker room, teaching his players never to panic. He has earned the faith of the team’s few veterans and built upon his pre-existing relationships with many young players.
King has given each player a sense of freedom on the ice, letting them follow their instincts without overthinking each situation, while establishing a consistent, effective structure.
His lack of ego and willingness to delegate duties has created harmony among the coaches, too, with defensive coach Marc Crawford and goalie coach Jimmy Waite taking on large roles.
It all has proved to be exactly what the Hawks needed to stabilize themselves during this crisis-laden season.
But does King have what it takes to not only rescue a shipwrecked team, but also steer a contending team to the playoffs year after year? That’ll be the Hawks’ long-term goal, and they don’t know if King has those kinds of chops.
His knowledge of players on other teams and how to match up lines against them is lacking. His delegations to Crawford and Waite border on deferential, and the Hawks naming co-head coaches would be unprecedented. His system grinds out plenty of points in one-goal games but wouldn’t push a talented team to the top of the standings.
If King’s results over the rest of the season are good enough, the Hawks might be willing to overlook those concerns and see how long he can ride the wave. Stranger things have worked in this fickle sport.
But as King’s weeks stretch into months, leaving behind the flattering comparisons to Colliton, he’ll have to prove his approach is sustainable.
Note: The NHL on Sunday suspended Brett Connolly for four games for his hit Saturday on Stars forward Tanner Kero. Barring additional postponements, Connolly will be eligible to return Jan. 2 against the Flames.