Derek King’s patience, honesty and humor have helped Blackhawks endure difficult season
His future remains unclear, but King has done an admirable job in a near-impossible situation as the Hawks’ interim coach. “My beard’s grayer, [but] I’ve learned,” he said.
Derek King was given an almost impossible job this season.
Inherit a 1-9-2 Blackhawks team with no general manager, weeks removed from the housecleaning that resulted from one of the NHL’s biggest scandals in decades. Win over frustrated veterans, improve morale and right the ship despite being an interim coach with no job security beyond this season. Navigate an in-season rebuild and the trades of the starting goalie and second-leading goal-scorer. Keep the team fighting until the final day of a totally lost season.
Considering the circumstances, King has done an admirable job — arguably as good a job as anyone could have done.
‘‘My beard’s grayer, [but] I’ve learned the league,’’ King told the Sun-Times recently. ‘‘I’m comfortable with . . . the whole day-to-day operations: dealing with the media, dealing with management, dealing with the players. I’ve just gotten better, whether it’s with drills or line-changing and managing everything.
‘‘I’ve grown and I’ve improved, and I still have to improve. As a coach, if you think you’ve figured it out, then you’re in trouble. I haven’t figured it out. I never will figure it out. But as long as I keep getting better every year . . . ’’
King, 55, has managed it all with an unfettered realness rarely seen in the NHL. His total lack of ego, down-to-earth personality, earnest sense of humor, patience with failure and quiet optimism for each day are rare traits for a hockey coach. His combination of all five has made him something of a unicorn in these circles.
‘‘It’s [about] making sure I’m communicating this to everybody,’’ he said. ‘‘My door is always open. I try to make sure everybody knows where they stand. I’m honest with them; I don’t sugarcoat anything. I’m not telling what they want to hear, I’m telling what they should hear. This is just the way it is. I lay it out for them, and it seems to work.’’
King’s approach to the job — giving him the image of a regular guy suddenly in charge of the Hawks — worked best in the first couple of months. He brightened the mood, loosened the clenched fists and tight shoulders and reminded the players it was ‘‘OK to make mistakes.’’ The Hawks’ 10-6-0 record in his first 16 games felt rather remarkable.
But in mid-December, as it does for every new coach, the honeymoon phase wore off.
‘‘Everything’s going good; everybody’s talking [positively] about the team and the changes,’’ King said. ‘‘Then all of a sudden you go on one of these losing streaks, and everything switches. You get back into being fragile again. But it was the same [message]: ‘Don’t get all uptight. Don’t let that creep back into this locker room.’ And, for the most part, we’ve done a good job.’’
After their 5-2 loss Monday to the Flames, the Hawks are 14-25-9 since Dec. 16. A lack of talent, particularly in the lower half of the lineup, is undoubtedly the biggest factor. This team wouldn’t be close to .500 even if Barry Trotz were coaching it.
Still, some of King’s weaknesses have been exposed during these months. He’s not a brilliant tactician, nor would he claim to be. His freedom to change the Hawks’ systems has been limited by his interim tag, too. He dislikes the Hawks’ 1-2-2 neutral-zone trap formation that former coach Jeremy Colliton installed, for example, but he has held off on altering it.
King is also inexperienced with line matchups and in using certain players in certain situations because he always had rotated everyone equally in the American Hockey League. He describes situations where, for instance, he ‘‘maybe shouldn’t have had this guy out for this faceoff’’ as his biggest learning moments.
But his eagerness to trust his players, even those who haven’t fully earned that trust yet, might be the perfect approach for a rebuilding team that will have no choice but to trust unproven players in the years ahead.
‘‘You put these guys in situations where you want them to succeed, and hopefully they can get that job done,’’ King said. ‘‘Sometimes they fail, and that’s when I start thinking the easy way would be to put the veteran guys out all the time. But I like to give these younger guys a chance to have that opportunity.’’
Indeed, King fits the so-called ‘‘players’ coach’’ label perfectly.
‘‘I don’t like to look at it like an ‘everybody works for me’ kind of thing,’’ he said. ‘‘Obviously, I have to make the final decisions . . . but I get a lot of information from our coaching staff, then I love to hear what the players have to say. These are the guys that are on the ice battling; it’s not me. So it’s nice to get some feedback from them.’’
King’s future remains uncertain. The odds seem roughly 50-50 about whether he’ll return to the NHL or slide back into the AHL in Rockford when September rolls around.
General manager Kyle Davidson has maintained all along that the search for a permanent coach wouldn’t begin until after the season, but that moment is approaching quickly. Numerous candidates will be interviewed and considered, and the Hawks might be reluctant to promote another interim guy.
Even if he doesn’t get the permanent job, though, the positive things King has done in a brutal situation this season deserve commendation.