Over the past decade with the Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Quenneville has won three Stanley Cups, made nine post-season appearances and has been at the helm of what constitutes a dynasty in the modern era. But Quenneville’s time with the Blackhawks came to a screeching halt Tuesday morning as Chicago announced the long-time bench boss has been fired, as have assistants Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson.
That Quenneville has been fired isn’t altogether surprising. In fact, many believed entering this season, particularly with the Blackhawks’ window closing and their odds of making the post-season slimmer than it has ever been in the Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane era, that Quenneville’s firing was less a matter of “if” than a matter of “when.” That there was continued speculation that his job was on the line throughout the summer and into the opening days of the season did little to quiet the whispers ‘Coach Q’ was on the chopping block.
But that doesn’t make the “when” any less shocking. Chicago is 15 games into a season in which they’ve been more competitive than most expected. The Blackhawks boast a .500 record and enter the first full week of November barely outside the Western Conference wild-card. Even if they're in the bottom third of the league in scoring chance and high-danger chance percentages, and even if they've been humbled on a few occasions, Chicago has been a top-10 possession team with some bright spots. However, a five-game losing streak — extended Saturday when the Blackhawks blew a one-goal, third-period lead in the final six minutes to the Calgary Flames —seems to have swiftly driven the final nail into Quenneville’s coaching coffin for the Chicago's front office.
“We need to maximize each and every opportunity with our playoff goals in mind and create continued growth and development throughout our roster at the same time,” Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said in a statement. “After much deliberation the last several days, with great respect to what Joel has meant to the Blackhawks, we knew we had to make a change.”
Change, in this instance, takes the form of 33-year-old Jeremy Colliton, who becomes the NHL’s youngest coach. He will be joined behind the bench by Barry Smith, 66, a former longtime assistant with the Detroit Red Wings who has spent the past several seasons in the Blackhawks’ front office in player development and evaluation roles.
However, to suggest new voices alone can fix what ails this iteration of the Blackhawks is misguided.
While Colliton and Smith, as well as the remaining members of Chicago’s coaching staff, may very well be able to provide this group with a collective spark in the wake of Quenneville’s firing, the holes on the Blackhawks’ roster are most responsible for the shortcomings through the first five weeks of the campaign. No doubt, the top talents exist — Kane, Toews and Alex DeBrincat pace the offense — and the defense isn’t without its cornerstones, even if the now 35-year-old Duncan Keith isn’t the same player he was a few seasons ago, but the consistent whittling away of Chicago’s depth has done this team no favors. For that, Quenneville can't be blamed. Rather, that falls on management.
In many cases, those missteps can be chalked up to the cost of winning or the price paid in the pursuit. For instance, Toews and Kane signing twin contracts that carry $10.5-million cap hits was the result of sustained Stanley Cup contention and the success that came with it. The same goes for handing veteran blueliner Brent Seabrook his albatross contract that carries a $6.875-million cap hit, a deal that was inked in the wake of Chicago's third Stanley Cup parade in this era. But the consequences of those signings, along with a salary cap that stagnated for some years, have been salary-dumping deals that the Blackhawks have undoubtedly lost. Dating back to, say, the Nick Leddy trade ahead of the 2014-15 campaign, Chicago has been forced to part ways with the likes of Teuvo Teravainen, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin, Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordan Oesterle in trades that were done to either get under the salary cap or control long-term costs.
None of this is to mention, either, that Chicago has undoubtedly come out on the losing end of a few notable deals that were made in order to keep the Stanley Cup window open. Though the acquisition of Antoine Vermette undoubtedly aided in the Blackhawks’ 2015 Stanley Cup victory, a first-round pick was moved in that deal and two second-round picks were also sent to the Philadelphia Flyers for sparingly used defender Kimmo Timonen. The following season, Andrew Ladd was acquired at the cost of a first-round pick-plus from the Winnipeg Jets, while scooping up Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann sent now-Canadiens standout Philip Danault and a second rounder to Montreal. Chicago was ousted in the first round of those playoffs.
The result of these moves — some necessary, others not — and a consistently low draft position has been a largely toothless bottom-six, a serviceable-at-best top four on the blueline and a prospect pool that has produced few NHLers in recent years. And that, along with the issues between the pipes last season in Corey Crawford’s absence, has been Chicago’s biggest problem over the past season-plus, not Quenneville. The reality is, though, that addressing those issues are much more difficult than replacing the coach. It takes well-executed trades, it takes patience with developing players, it takes some luck with draft finds and, most importantly, it takes time. Unfortunately for Quenneville, and unfortunately for the Blackhawks, time isn’t on their side.
With an aging core and the third-highest average age of any team, Chicago’s window of opportunity for further glory is closing, if it hasn’t closed already. And while Colliton and Co. may be able to jumpstart a now-struggling bunch and get this team into wild-card contention, sustained success likely won’t come again until the underlying issues are addressed.