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Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville faces defining season

This will be a defining season for the Blackhawks’ Joel Quenneville, who is coming off his first losing season in a 21-year coaching career. The mandate from team president John McDonough is clear.

“We need to do better,” McDonough said last week. “We need everybody to do better. I need to do better. [General manager Stan Bowman] needs to be better. Joel needs to be better.”

Last season was disappointing for several reasons — some that were out of Quenneville’s control.

The Hawks learned in June 2017 that they would be without right-winger Marian Hossa, who had a rare skin condition. Little did they know that was just the beginning of their problems.

Chicago Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville looks on from the bench during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Vegas Golden Knights Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights won 5-2. | David Becker/Associated Press

The Hawks also had to play the final three months without star goalie Corey Crawford, who was sidelined  in late December because of a head injury.

But there were some things Quenneville could have controlled.

Crawford’s absence exposed the Hawks’ weak defense, which allowed the ninth-most goals (256) in the league. Quenneville lacked a solution for the team’s struggling defense. He also couldn’t fix the Hawks’ lackluster power play, which was 28th in the NHL.

The Hawks finished last in the Central Division and missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade. McDonough insists that’s unacceptable.

“Internally, the message has been sent,” McDonough said. “I have faith and confidence in all of these people. We’re in the results business, that’s where we are. And expectations from the day that [chairman Rocky Wirtz] took over are very, very high, realistic expectations. The expectations for me this year is this is a playoff team and put yourself in a position to make a run.”

In short, it’s playoffs or bust this season.

It’s a lofty goal for Quenneville, who enters training camp on Friday with a young group of players surrounded by an aging core and lingering uncertainty about Crawford.

“We’re in the winning business,” Quenneville, the longest tenured coach in the NHL, said at the Hawks fan convention in July. “That’s the most exciting thing. Having a team that plays the right way and playing together as a group, playing hard, playing for one another, I think you get excited about that as well.”

There’s no doubt that Quenneville, who helped the Hawks win three Stanley Cups in six seasons, is one of the most successful coaches in the history of both the Hawks franchise and NHL. He has a Hall of Fame resume.

But after last season, something must give. And it’s fair that Quenneville, who has two seasons left on his contract, could be feeling some pressure.

“As a coach, it can happen at any moment,” said Quenneville, who was fired by the St. Louis Blues in 2004 and “mutually parted ways” with the Colorado Avalanche in 2008. “That’s all part of our business.”

And the Hawks aren’t afraid to make an in-season coaching change. Quenneville, of course, knows that. He famously replaced former coach Denis Savard four games into the 2008 season.

“Everybody has the same motivation to win and the final results is being a playoff team and trying to be champions at the end of it,” Quenneville said. “That’s where we’re at. We always have that same approach. As a coach in the short-term business of trying to win the next game, and that hasn’t changed at all.”