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Should he stay or should he go? Weighing Joel Quenneville’s fate with Blackhawks

Let’s preface this with the obvious: If the Blackhawks fire coach Joel Quenneville at the end of this season, about half the general managers and owners in the league will be looking for ways to throw their current coaches under the nearest Zamboni so they can hire him. If Quenneville wants to coach next season, he’ll be coaching next season.

The question is, should he be coaching in Chicago?

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The Blackhawks were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday night, but they’ve been out of the race for several weeks now. This, coming off a stunning first-round sweep at the hands of the Predators last season. That, coming off a one-goal Game 7 loss to the Blues in the first round in 2016.

Joel Quenneville wants his team top pick up its play — especially at home. (Getty Images)

The three banners Quenneville helped raise to the rafters of the United Center aren’t yellowing yet, but those memories are starting to fade, replaced by far less pleasant ones — terrible goals given up, opposing forwards left untouched on the doorstep, turnovers in the neutral zone, superstars playing ordinary hockey. It’s been bad. Real bad.

And the easiest thing to do in order to shock the system is to fire the coach. Quenneville is wrapping up his 10th season behind the Hawks bench. No other NHL coach’s current tenure is more than five years. Twenty-one coaches have been with their teams for three years or less. Quenneville is the greatest coach of the modern era, the second-winningest coach in league history. But every coach has a shelf life. The Kings fired Daryl Sutter. The Penguins fired Dan Bylsma. The Bruins fired Claude Julien.

The game changes, and coaches have to change with it. Quenneville helped usher in this new era of speed and skill, but others have caught up and passed the Hawks by. Can Quenneville once again adapt with largely the same personnel? Can he and his staff find a power play that works? Can he rejuvenate Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad and Duncan Keith? Is the first losing season of Quenneville’s 21-year career a fireable offense? These are all fair and pressing questions.

“We won a lot, we were fortunate,” Quenneville told the Sun-Times in January. “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.”

But, really, how much of this fall from grace is truly Quenneville’s fault?

Quenneville didn’t deliver the mysterious blow that gave Corey Crawford a season-defining head injury. Quenneville didn’t sign Brent Seabrook to an eight-year, $55-million contract at age 30. Quenneville didn’t trade Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artemi Panarin (and he never wanted to). Quenneville didn’t drive Marian Hossa from the NHL.

Here’s what Quenneville did do: He managed Alex DeBrincat’s rookie season masterfully, sheltering him from difficult match-ups for much of the season and nurturing his confidence during a terrific rookie season. He gave Nick Schmaltz a long enough leash at center, letting him deal with the growing pains that come with being at the pivot, and helping him blossom into the Hawks’ No. 1 center of the (near) future. He quickly recognized the Hawks’ situation and diminished the roles of aging veterans such as Patrick Sharp, Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma in favor of younger players such as Vinnie Hinostroza, Anthony Duclair, David Kampf and even Tomas Jurco.

The next wave is almost ready to take the reins from the championship core, and Quenneville deserves much of the credit for that. Quenneville might not be ranting and raving behind the bench as much as he would be in a playoff race, but he hasn’t lost the room. He’s simply had to become more of a teacher, and less of a task-master.

“Even to this day, he’s still coaching hard and he wants to win just as much as we do,” Hinostroza said. “He’s giving us all the right points about what we should be doing before the game and what the other team’s doing. It’s usually the execution that’s not there. I don’t see him giving up at all.”

The bottom line is that if Crawford were never hurt, the Hawks would still be in the race, and Quenneville’s future wouldn’t even be up for discussion. Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass and J-F Berube simply haven’t been up to the task, and the defense in front of them hasn’t been good enough to make life easy on them, and the forwards haven’t been prolific enough to win every game 6-5.

Crawford’s injury, frankly, gives everyone cover — Quenneville, Stan Bowman, the players, even team president John McDonough. Quenneville is far from blameless for this miserable season, but he deserves another year to fix what’s broken, to continue to bring along the next core, and to see if the last 11 months have been a fluke, or if the golden age of Hawks hockey truly is over.

Quenneville is one of the best and most accomplished coaches in the history of his sport, and one lost season doesn’t undo two decades of rampant success. So he’ll certainly be coaching somewhere next season.

It should be in Chicago.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus
Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com