CHICAGO -- Anytime a team underachieves as the Chicago Blackhawks did this season, the blame game undoubtedly gets played. And for the Hawks, plenty can be assigned to the players.
But what about the men in charge?
There will be an offseason-long debate about who deserves more, general manager Stan Bowman or coach Joel Quenneville? Even for them there is enough to go around:
Stan Bowman: 65 percent
Second-line center: The moment Bowman traded Brian Campbell he was on the clock. He had newfound money and needed a second-line center. It was plausible a good one wasn’t an available via free-agency last summer, after Brad Richards’ mega deal in New York, but that doesn’t mean a trade couldn’t be pulled off either before the season or in season. The New York Islanders’ Frans Nielsen could have been had, but it would have cost Dylan Olsen. Antoine Vermette had a glorious playoff series against the Hawks but Bowman didn’t want or couldn’t get him from Columbus. The Coyotes did. The addition of a center would have had a trickle up and down effect on the entire team. It’s still a need.
Playoff built: Though Bryan Bickell led all skaters in the entire first round, through six games, with 32 hits, the Hawks weren’t built for a long, gritty postseason run. Even giving Bowman a pass for the moment on the goaltending situation -- though the regular season told enough there -- the team was constructed to win one way, with wide open offense. That doesn’t fly in the playoffs. At the end of the day the grit they picked up wasn’t good enough.
Brendan Morrison caught some lightning in a bottle at the end of the series but he was no real answer. Neither, as it turned out, was Jamal Mayers, Sean O’Donnell or Andrew Brunette. No players symbolized the changing of the Hawks more than Brunette and O’Donnell. Older, slower, less physical and less gifted than their younger versions, they just clogged things up -- even if Brunette produced an occasional goal. Maybe Dan Carcillo will turn out to be a good pick-up, but he certainly left enough doubts to say the assessment there is incomplete. Bowman didn’t hit one home run last offseason and it cost him.
Goaltending: Marian Hossa in his prime, same with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The core group is still intact from the Stanley Cup season except in goal. Yes, Corey Crawford had a good rookie year and a very good first postseason, but with those players ready for a long playoff run, no chances can be taken in goal. There is no definitive indication the Hawks looked for a netminder near the trade deadline. Who’s to say if they would have found one definitively better, but by the numbers Crawford was putting up, it would have been hard to find one worse.
Yes, Mike Smith gave up a few goals and five games went to overtime, but he was asked to face 241 shots, and he allowed 12 to get by him. That’s a .950 save percentage. Crawford gave up 17 goals on 159 shots, a save percentage of .893. Why is this on Bowman? Because nearing the deadline he famously said it was only months earlier Crawford had performed admirably against the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round of 2011. But what about the 60 games played in between? Were they meaningless? For Bowman and his staff, apparently they were.
Joel Quenneville: 35 percent
Special teams: It really is impossible to blame Bowman for the problems on special teams this season. Both the power play and penalty-killing units ranked near the bottom of the NHL in the regular season, and they performed that way against Phoenix. If you don’t like the personnel Bowman assembled then you don’t like Hossa, Toews, Kane, Sharp, Seabrook and Keith. In other words, the entire core. No, this is on Quenneville and his much maligned assistants. The power play tried different looks and personnel, but nothing seemed to click. All that talent and yet they were better 5-on-5. The coaches had no answers. The penalty killing was even worse. Unlike the power play, nearly nothing new was tried in-season. Only for some small changes during the nine-game losing streak did the Hawks make strides, only to revert back to their old ways. The inability to block shots at the point nor move opponents from the slot doomed them when down a man. That’s on Quenneville.
Urgency: A coach’s job -- maybe above all -- is to get his players to show the proper desire and urgency, especially when things are going bad. Is it a coincidence the Hawks had the longest losing streak -- nine games -- in the NHL this season? Most of the time -- including under –Quenneville -- teams will respond to a dire situation well before a streak gets that bad. After five games the Hawks should have been ready for a big game but it never came. They went to Colorado and got blown out then practiced and watched extra film before a date in San Jose and it did no good. The next night in Phoenix they were listless as the streak hit eight. Finally, they started to respond, but not before setting the season record. Either Quenneville didn’t bring it out of them in time or didn’t push the right buttons, but it showed a lack of urgency by the whole team. That’s on the coach.
Too nice?: There isn’t a player in the NHL who wouldn’t want to play for Quenneville. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. He’s famous for giving his team more off days than most. And after the Stanley Cup in 2010 he’s been even nicer. Where is the Quenenville who famously benched Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane -- in Phoenix of all places -- several years ago after taking bad penalties?
Viktor Stalberg barely missed a shift in Game 5 when he took four bad ones himself. Keith sat for a little bit in one game earlier in the season after a couple of rough periods, but that’s about as far as Quenneville went in laying the hammer down. How about a healthy scratch for a core guy one time? Or Brunette for ineffectiveness? Or a true bag skate? The one benching he doled out, to Jamal Mayers in the playoffs, was a mystery. If there was one guy who did the job asked of him all season it was Mayers. All those fights in the defense of teammates as a 38-year-old must feel pretty hollow when you’re benched in the postseason. No matter what you believe players ultimately do respond to threats and benchings more than days off. A meaner Quenneville is needed.