From today's vantage point, the 82-game NHL schedule seems to stretch endlessly into the distance, the view of the finish line obscured by a series of 10-day road trips and mid-week battles against overly familiar division rivals.
But the truth is that the end, like an object in a rear view mirror, is a lot closer than it appears. In the parity-driven post-lockout era, four or six points gained -- or lost -- in October are just as precious as the ones battled for down the stretch. Teams have relatively little time to determine if perceived shortcomings are temporary blips or potentially devastating trends.
That might explain why the Blackhawks waited just four games to dismiss head coach Denis Savard after the much-hyped team stumbled out of the gate at 1-2-1. It might...but it's more likely that even a fast start would only have bought him a temporary reprieve.
When GM Dale Tallon failed to offer Savard a contract extension last summer, and when former Avs coach Joel Quenneville was hired as a pro scout in September, it was apparent that Savard was a dead man coaching. Thursday's firing may have come quickly, but it wasn't unexpected. And odds are that Savard's gig won't be the only one lost in Chicago. Not with new arrival Scotty Bowman exerting considerable sway over the operation in his role as Senior Advisor for Hockey Operations.
More on that later.
First, let's consider Savard and his replacement. It didn't take Bowman long to recognize that Savard's strength was motivational rather than structural. That was fine last season, when Savard was tasked with ushering 16 players into their first NHL games and he kept the group competitive right through the final weekend. But his take-no-chances system failed to make the most of one of the team's most obvious assets: the speed of its young forwards. Special teams, a constant source of frustration last season, have continued to struggle. And there were questions about Savard's use of some players, particularly promising power forward Jack Skille. Those flaws were less of an issue when there were no expectations of success. This season, they were intolerable.
In Quenneville, the Hawks have a more experienced hand on the wheel, but it's hard to say that he's a strong choice for this team. He'll certainly instill a focused defensive scheme, and that won't hurt. But -- Paul Stastny excepted --Quenneville has never been recognized as someone who brings out the best in young talent. His in-game management skills left the Avs vulnerable to opposing teams that were better equipped to adapt. And then there's his reputation for mishandling his goalies, one of the primary reasons he was turfed in Colorado. Given the delicacy of the situation in Chicago with Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin, that's no small issue.
But Quenneville's the man now for better or worse, and now that he's in place, the spotlight falls directly on the checkered history of Tallon. As GM, he's done an excellent job bringing in young talent, drafting wisely, making smart deals for forwards Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg and signing free agent blueliner Brian Campbell. But his bungling of the cap left the Hawks with the league's most expensive goaltending duo and forced the trade of Robert Lang and the demotion of Cam Barker. That's left Tallon with a peach-fuzz-faced group struggling to live up to the lofty promises generated by the team's marketing department, and less than $700,000 of wiggle room under the cap.
Tallon has to be looking somewhat admiringly at the Phoenix Coyotes. Although their roster also relies heavily on blue-chippers like Peter Mueller, Mikkel Boedker and Kyle Turris, GM Don Maloney has surrounded them with players like Olli Jokinen and Shane Doan, veterans who are capable of easing the pressure on the youngsters.
Adding experience like that would win Tallon points with Bowman. From the very start in St. Louis, Bowman's teams have revolved around veteran players, and while the old master has to like the potential of this group in Chicago, he's probably uneasy with the mix. If Tallon fails to make the necessary adjustments, especially adding a legitimate second line center, he might not be around to see the Hawks play their biggest game of the season -- on New Year's Day at Wrigley Field against the Red Wings.
The Hawks might have some intriguing options available to them in that case. Stan Bowman, currently the assistant GM, might seem like the obvious choice. But there's also the thought that Papa Scotty could convince an old friend, possibly Jim Nill or Steve Yzerman, to defect from the Red Wings front office. That would have been inconceivable a year ago, but now that owner Rocky Wirtz and president John McDonough have revamped the Blackhawks' corporate culture, the job has enough appeal to lure a high-end candidate from hockey's tightest management team.
That shows how far the Hawks have come over the past year. What happens during the next few weeks under Queneville will show how much farther they have to go.