Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton enduring a start Dirk Graham could appreciate
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Twenty years ago, the Blackhawks were mired in no less of a dire scenario as the one they’re in now.
It was 17 games into the 1998-99 season and the Hawks were 4-10-3, the worst record in the Western Conference, and already looking like a sure bet to miss the playoffs for a second straight time. They had many flaws, one of which — a real biggie, it turned out — was a penalty-kill unit so shoddy the Hawks would lead the NHL in power-play goals allowed.
The Hawks had some talent — Tony Amonte, Alexei Zhamnov, Doug Gilmour, Chris Chelios — but not enough.
And they were led by a first-time coach, Dirk Graham, who may have been in over his head from the jump.
Graham lasted all of 59 games before being fired. He was replaced by interim coach Lorne Molleken, who immediately called for more structure and discipline and labeled the team’s play to that point “horrendous.” Considering those Hawks had their worst 59-game record in 42 years, Molleken couldn’t have been too far off in his assessment.
Jeremy Colliton, who replaced fired coach Joel Quenneville 15 games into this season, has been far more measured than Molleken when discussing his team. But Colliton had a sickly 3-12-2 record (playoffs? Puh-lease) after Tuesday night’s 6-3 loss in Winnipeg, his 14th defeat as an NHL coach.
“No one’s having fun when you’re losing, so whether it’s my first month or my 30th month, that wouldn’t change,” he said. “But I just feel like I come in here with a plan, and the players are buying in, and that makes me feel good that we’re going to get out of this. We’ve been talking as a group a lot — that when we do, we’ll be stronger for it. That’ll help us in the future.”
Not to overdo the comparison with the 1998-99 team, but these Hawks likewise have a special-teams problem — the league’s least-productive power play — that might be their most glaring flaw. Or maybe the power play is fatal flaw No. 2, after their maddeningly persistent habit of falling behind in the first period. Should we chalk it up as a tie?
An obvious difference is the championship core of potential Hall of Famers Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith that remains viable (for the most part). And another difference: Colliton is only getting started. Though his three-year contract doesn’t give him all the job security in the world, he’s not already being viewed as a mistake from inside the organization — as Graham apparently was.
Far from it, in fact. Colliton, only 33, will have the opportunities — as he should — to ride out the storm and show what he’s made of.
For now, there’s no mulling over “the past” — five weeks’ worth, anyway — with him.
“I really haven’t had time to reflect,” he said. “I’m worrying about right here, right now, being in the present.”
Perhaps a four-game home-stand following the loss against the Jets offers some hope. Colliton insists his team has begun to round into better form, even if the results don’t yet show it.
The edge of 17
How new Hawks coaches fared, starting with Dirk Graham’s ill-fated debut of 20 years ago:
Dirk Graham (1998-99)
First 17 games as coach: 4-10-3
Season record: 16-35-8
Former longtime Hawks captain was fired after only 59 games.
Lorne Molleken (1998-99)
First 17 games: 7-6-4
Team rallied under interim coach, who was demoted 24 games into the following season.
Bob Pulford (1999-2000)
First 17 games: 7-8-2-0
Took over team off to 5-13-4-2 start; solid offensively, Hawks came around from there.
Alpo Suhonen (2000-01)
First 17 games: 5-9-1-2
Stepped down after season for medical reasons.
Brian Sutter (2001-02)
First 17 games: 10-4-3-0
Hawks were on fire for first 50 games, but were dominated by lower-seeded Blues in first round of playoffs.
Trent Yawney (2005-06)
First 17 games: 6-11-0
Never got it going, opening door for Denis Savard after 21 games a season later.
Denis Savard (2006-07)
First 17 games: 9-5-3
Had instant impact on 7-12-2 team he inherited, but 10-game winless stretch in January killed the buzz.
Joel Quenneville (2008-09)
First 17 games: 9-3-5
Replaced Savard after four games — and right from the start, the “Q” stood for “quality.”
Jeremy Colliton (2018-19)
So far, it’s a nothing-to-see-here kind of situation.