Joel Quenneville not sweating short-term job security, long-term legacy
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NEW YORK — Joel Quenneville doesn’t want to be here.
As he takes off his coat and has a seat at the restaurant in the team hotel in Calgary for a rare one-on-one interview with the Sun-Times, Quenneville cracks that this is “like going to the dentist.” The Blackhawks coach frequently says that nobody likes winning more than he does. Well, nobody likes talking about himself less than he does.
We’re here ostensibly to talk about his pursuit — if you can call it that; he doesn’t — of Scotty Bowman’s all-time wins record. But Quenneville quickly brushes that off as laughable. “Scotty’s so far away,” Quenneville says with a dismissive wave of his right hand.
The math says otherwise. Quenneville, second all-time with 869 regular-season wins, trails Bowman by 375. At the remarkable rate he has won in his 21 seasons as a head coach, it would take Quenneville about eight more seasons to pass Bowman. Quenneville would be 67 at the time. Bowman retired at 69. And Quenneville has the advantage of three-on-three overtimes and shootouts, while Bowman coached in 314 tie games.
But that’s just it. The rate at which Quenneville has won — more than 45 times per season — is getting more and more difficult to maintain in a league that’s getting deeper and deeper. And the Hawks aren’t going to be anywhere close to that number this season. In fact, they’re in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since Quenneville took over four games into the 2008-09 season. This, after two straight first-round playoff exits, including last spring’s four-game debacle against Nashville. Which brings up a more pressing, more uncomfortable question.
Is Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history, coaching for his job right now?
“We’re in a short-term business as coaches,” Quenneville says. “We’re in the winning business.”
Quenneville points out that his situation is unique in the NHL. Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper is second in tenure, in his fifth season with the Lightning. Twenty-one of the league’s 31 coaches have been hired in the last three years. Since Quenneville’s hiring, the Bears have had three head coaches, with a fourth on the way. The Bulls have had three. The White Sox have had four managers and the Cubs five.
So while it might seem ludicrous to suggest firing a legendary coach who has won three Stanley Cups in the last decade, Quenne-ville — who was nearly fired after a second straight first-round exit following the 2011-12 season — understands it’s a knee-jerk world, and it’s easier to dump a coach than an entire roster.
“We won a lot, we were fortunate,” Quenneville says. “But the message: Does it become too consistent? Does it fall on deaf ears? Do you change your approach? Do you try to be creative? We’ve never been too gimmicky as far as how we do things, as far as the approach and the message. Simple has always been how we like to do it. I don’t want to say we’re getting soft or we’re getting hardened in the way we treat these guys, but I think there’s balance there. When you get upset, you get upset for the right reasons.”
Quenneville has been upset a lot this season — at his team’s puck management, its defensive lapses, its frequent streakiness and occasional sluggishness. The Hawks entered Tuesday night two points out of the playoff picture, albeit with a couple of games in hand. It is the Hawks’ most dire regular-season situation since they backed into the playoffs on the last day of the 2010-11 season.
And, yes, this season has reached those levels of desperation. Already.
“Oh, to me, that’s where we’re at,” Quenneville says. “This is a challenge. We’re trying to get ahead of that water line. But I think the teams that are above that water line aren’t comfortable, either. That’s how this year is. Everybody’s probably feeling the same type of heat.”
Having been fired twice before, Quenneville doesn’t like looking too far ahead. He is more worried about the Rangers on Wednesday than his short-term job security or his long-term chase of Bowman. But as he prepares for his 2,827th NHL game as a player, an assistant coach or a head coach, the fire still burns. Asked if it’s still fun after all these years, Quenneville retorts, “I love winning. I get excited about winning. And I love the challenge of trying to make it work.”
Which, in an unexpected way, has made this season invigorating for Quenneville, who has never had a losing season as a head coach and who usually has had the same luxury as his players to coast through regular seasons for significant stretches. Last year might have been his best coaching job ever, integrating several rookies into the lineup and guiding the Hawks to 50 wins, the second-most in team history. But Quenneville calls the record “flattering” and misleading, a product of brilliant goaltending and timely goals late in third periods. The Predators’ series was proof.
This season has been an even bigger challenge, with an aging core that’s struggling to keep up in an ever-faster league, and even more young players entering the lineup. While that’s made the season tougher, it has also made it more interesting for the master tinkerer.
Quenneville has embraced the challenge of searching for the next core, and he starts rattling off candidates. Alex DeBrincat “came into the year flying.” Nick Schmaltz “went to that next level.” Ryan Hartman “is kind of there.” Gustav Forsling “can really go to the next level.” David Kampf “could be a really nice player for us.” Vinnie Hinostroza, “you don’t know yet, but there’s a lot of upside.” He raves about the team’s potential, saying, “If we capture it, I think this team can get a lot done.”
The trick is making it all work without lowering the bar, which has been raised awfully high. The Hawks and their fan base have become spoiled with success, and being average feels like being awful. Players such as Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane had the luxury of going through their growing pains in front of 5,000 people at the United Center. DeBrincat, Schmaltz, Forsling and Co. are under a much harsher spotlight.
“I was fortunate when I walked in here,” Quenneville says. “They had already turned that corner. But I think expectations are healthy, and peer pressure from the experienced guys who expect things to be done quickly and done the right way, that helps. We can police the technical stuff. But when the message gets sent from the older players to the younger kids, that’s the best message.”
And that has always been Quenneville’s style. Hands-off. Leave the players alone. Don’t hover in the room. Treat them like adults. Tongue-lashings are brief and fiery, but only when warranted. Punishment and rewards come in the form of playing time.
It has worked to historic levels for more than two decades, but it is an old-school philosophy in a new-school league. Quenneville insists his relationship with general manager Stan Bowman — which has been rocky in the past, including last spring after Bowman fired longtime Quenneville confidante Mike Kitchen and traded away Artemi Panarin and Niklas Hjalmarsson for cost-certainty reasons — is solid, and that they actually have fairly similar philosophies on team-building.
Bowman, like Quenneville, will be on the hot seat if this season goes sideways.
But Quenneville isn’t thinking about that. He is not thinking about a fourth Stanley Cup, and he is sure as heck not thinking about chasing down Stan’s dad. For 40 years in the NHL, Quenneville has just worried about the next game, the next period, the next shift.
And he is not about to change.
“I go one year at a time,” Quenneville says, before repeating one of his pet phrases. “We’re in a short-term business. We’re in the winning business. And I want to win.”
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