Blackhawks return to Winnipeg at least in better shape than they left it

The Hawks will play again Monday in Winnipeg, where their 5-1 blowout loss back on Nov. 5 cost Jeremy Colliton his coaching job and represented perhaps the lowest on-ice moment in the season.

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The Blackhawks’ 5-1 loss to the Jets on November 5 cost Jeremy Colliton his job.

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The last time the Blackhawks were in Winnipeg, their pathetic and lifeless performance persuaded a two-week-old general manager to fire their coach.

When the Hawks’ plane touched down again in Manitoba on Sunday afternoon, their big-picture outlook as a franchise still was far from stable. They didn’t have a permanent GM — although that will change soon — and they hadn’t named their next permanent coach. The sexual assault scandal and fallout hung over everything; the team sat near the bottom of the standings.

But at least it no longer feels as if the organization is actively burning to the ground, which is very much how it felt back on Nov. 5.

The otherwise irrelevant milestone of another road matchup against the Jets provides an opportunity to appreciate how significantly, albeit gradually, the Hawks’ day-to-day situation has stabilized.

In that first meeting with the Jets, the Hawks trailed 2-0 after the first three minutes and 4-0 at the second intermission en route to a 5-1 loss. They were dominated 33-18 in shots on goal, 35-19 in scoring chances and 13-5 in high-danger scoring chances. Worst of all, they demonstrated no signs of passion or resilience even once things started careening off the cliff.

Ugly, lopsided games like that are bound to happen a few times to any team in any 82-game season, and indeed, the Hawks’ 5-1 loss Saturday against the Blues looked remarkably similar in many ways.

The surrounding context in early November, though, set that game apart. The Hawks fell to 1-9-2 with the loss. They’d been outscored 42-15 and outshot 312-248 at even strength. It had been, at that point, almost a full month of incompetence and non-competitiveness. The direness of the circumstances was hard to comprehend.

“We recognize things, but we haven’t been correcting them, and that’s our issue,” Connor Murphy said that night. “[I’m] sitting here talking about things, but to do it every shift is a different thing. And that’s what it’s going to take from each of us. That’s the challenge ahead of us.”

Then-coach Jeremy Colliton, who had been fuming in postgame interviews after several previous losses, seemed resigned to the failure that night, arguing their effort was so far below the necessary level that they needed to just “leave this game.”

“We didn’t give ourselves a chance,” Colliton said. “We need to regroup. We’ve got a day off tomorrow. We need to come with energy and play better. We know we can play well.”

Colliton didn’t get to enjoy that day off. Instead, he was fired. Interim GM Kyle Davidson, the following day, said it was the “way” the Hawks had been losing — not the losses themselves — that necessitated the move. A team source later said Davidson was already leaning toward firing Colliton, but the game in Winnipeg persuaded him it unequivocally was the right decision.

Three months later, the Hawks are 17-24-7 — bad, but neither historically nor unbelievably bad.

The coaching change has worked out fairly well, with interim coach Derek King having restored unity and self-belief inside the locker room and molded the on-ice performance into something respectable, if boring. The GM search has been handled fairly well, too, with a number of qualified candidates being considered.

From a macro standpoint, this 2021-22 season probably still will be remembered as rock bottom, and the franchise so far has only taken the first steps in its lengthy climb out of the valley.

From a micro standpoint, however, things have steadied significantly since November. Whether the Hawks win or lose Monday won’t really matter, and that’s not the worst situation to be in.

They certainly couldn’t say that in November.

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