- Jesse Rogers, Chicago Cubs beat reporter
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CHICAGO -- Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville opened the door for plenty of speculation when he said on Tuesday there was "dysfunction" among his coaching staff with regard to the firing of assistant Mike Haviland.
The picture emerging from West Madison Street is one of dysfunction that extends beyond just the coaching staff. Whispers and rumors of dissension beyond the normal back and forth of a team trying to achieve its goals have been rampant. And for good reason. The situation boils down to two camps: Quenneville's and the Bowmans (general manager Stan and senior advisor Scotty).
Each side lost an ally over the last week when Marc Bergevin (Quenneville) left for Montreal and Haviland (Bowman) was fired on Tuesday. With Haviland's firing -- by Quenneville -- a line was drawn in the sand: This is his team, his coaching staff and the results will be on them. He will choose who replaces Haviland and the power to do so is the first Quenneville has had with the Hawks.
"[Bowman] did offer me the opportunity for the first time since I've been here to look if I need [to make] a change to our coaching staff," Quenneville said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
That's a far cry from this past season when the line between coaching and the front office was as muddled as it could get. Maybe it was inevitable given the set-up. When the younger Bowman was hired as a first-time general manager at age 37 he instantly became the boss of a seasoned veteran coach. To boot, Bowman's father was a senior advisor who was commonly known as the best hockey coach in the history of the game. Can it really come as a surprise, when things went south, dysfunction would reign?
It's exactly when things started to go bad on the ice that the rift between front office and coaching became noticeable. In the midst of a nine-game losing streak in February, Scotty Bowman accompanied the team on the road and saw first-hand the problems the Hawks were having on special teams. Not long afterward, director of player development Barry Smith was asked to help with some coaching duties. But not by Quenneville, according to multiple sources. Smith is a Bowman confidant and the unusual idea of helping a Stanley Cup-winning coach came from Scotty. Quenneville wasn't given a choice in the matter, according to the sources. In fact, it was at that point that assistant Mike Kitchen's job was in jeopardy. But Kitchen is a Quenneville confidant. So Kitchen stayed, and Smith was forced upon Quenneville, no matter the coach's public proclamations of his acceptance of help.
Smith took an active role talking to players and instructing the special teams. It prompted one member of the hockey community to say Smith's involvement was undermining Quenneville. "And the whole coaching fraternity knows it," a source said.
Smith kept the front office appraised of on-ice matters and while the special teams improved incrementally with Smith's involvement, they regressed as the regular season wound down. Things came to a head on the final day of the regular season in Detroit. Multiple sources said there was a loud argument between Quenneville and Smith during which loyalties were questioned. It was the last the team saw of Smith. He never again ran a practice, and his travel with the team was limited to Game 5 against Phoenix. Quenneville eventually won that battle and now has full control of the coaching staff, but he certainly doesn't have full control of personnel. It's assumed he has control of how that personnel is used, but even that is in question.
Kane at center
On purpose or not, a difference of opinions became apparent at the Hawks' end-of-year news conference. Stan Bowman said of Patrick Kane, "Having him in the middle, he's certainly better than any other center that's available." It wasn't even completely clear if Bowman meant on the market or on the Hawks, but does it matter? His views are clear: He likes Kane at center. It was Bowman's idea in the first place to play Kane in the middle when the team didn't acquire a second-line center last offseason.
Quenneville, on the other hand, was high on Marcus Kruger and the job he did in a role he was thrust into when Kane was moved back to wing. Quenneville praised Kane's work in the middle but left most of the accolades for Kruger, calling Kane "a nice option."
The difference of opinion came on the ice as well. If Kane was best for the team at center -- as Bowman said in the news conference -- then why was he ever moved from the middle?
Kane played the entire middle portion of the season back at wing. He returned to center when Jonathan Toews went down with a concussion, playing well there the final month of the season. But at the most important point of the year -- the postseason -- Kane was back at wing. He moved back to center again only when Kruger faltered early in the series against the Coyotes.
The bottom line is it appears Quenneville does not believe the Hawks can win a championship with Kane at center. On top of it, other NHL head coaches have expressed privately their satisfaction with Kane playing center, according to sources. Opposing teams want him to have to play a 200-foot game. Common thinking is, any moment of attention or energy on the defensive end takes away from his offensive prowess. If Quenneville has truly been given full power for all on-ice personnel decisions moving forward, then don't expect Kane at center unless under dire circumstances.
Stan Bowman put the Hawks special teams problems squarely on Quenneville. He was asked if he was satisfied with the coaching with regard to the power play.
"The results speak for themselves," he said. "They were a huge disappointment this year. It's unacceptable to have the caliber of players we have and not have it work. That's a question Joel is probably better able to answer. That's more of a coaching thing than anything. ... For whatever reason ours didn't work. We need to be better in that area. There is no doubt about that."
And to answer that remark, Quenneville eventually fired Haviland but not Kitchen. Haviland was part of the coaching staff that won a Stanley Cup in 2010. Kitchen has been part of one that has overseen two first-round exits. Quenneville has been purposely able to deflect blame for the special teams woes on all coaches, and it's extremely hard to discern who was at fault where, so he has plausible deniability when it comes to explaining why Haviland and not Kitchen was let go. All were seen using the chalkboard in practice and players said all were involved instructing them. Quenneville denied his friendship played a part in Kitchen staying on but the fact remains the coach that Quenneville inherited is gone and his good friend is still here.
Why is all this important?
All along, the younger Bowman was telling his bosses the Hawks had enough personnel to win, and when things didn't go their way in the second half of the season the elder Bowman took steps -- in the form of Smith -- to prove it was on coaching and not personnel. Those steps undermined the authority of Quenneville. And that's something players pick up on immediately. It wouldn't be a surprise if more than one wondered who was in charge.
Maybe a compromise has been struck. No more front office meddling and now the blame -- or credit -- can fall squarely on Quenneville's shoulders. Unfortunately, coaching and personnel are always intertwined. Look at the Kane situation as evidence. The question is can the two sides coexist to bring another championship to Chicago?
CEO John McDonough is an obvious supporter of Scotty Bowman and Quenneville. If he has to choose it's still not clear who would win out. With more defined battle lines, it should become much clearer over the next 12 months.
Does the Blackhawks' 'dysfunction' start at the top?