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|It hasn't been all Ray Emery's fault, but he shoulders some of the blame for the Hawks' struggles.|
This isn't an opinion as much as it's a fact: Losing streaks like the one the Chicago Blackhawks are in the midst of get coaches fired.
Yes, the unthinkable has crept into the conversation now that the Hawks have lost eight consecutive games and 10 straight on the road while sinking fast in the Western Conference standings.
Here's the reason a coaching change should at least be considered: The Hawks show no signs of coming out of their slump. This isn't a knee-jerk reaction to a losing skid. It's a reaction to big-picture problems brought out to light by the losing streak. Something has to change.
At this point, general manager Stan Bowman has two options to salvage the season. Neither involves standing pat, and both are desperate moves. Either Joel Quenneville should be replaced, or Bowman has to trade for a goalie.
Let's be clear: The former Cup-winning coach should not be on the hot seat because his team has lost eight straight games. It's how it's losing them. No matter what the Blackhawks think and say, these games aren't even close.
"I feel the pressure of winning a hockey game," Quenneville said before the latest loss, a 3-0 defeat in Phoenix on Saturday. "We're in the winning business here. This has gone on too long. You look at the last five games, we could have easily gotten something out of all five. How we're losing games is tough, and it's why we can visit this if we can turn this around quickly. We all know this will make us a better team long term."
A third-period tie means little if the final margin is two-plus goals, as it has been since Game 1 of the trip, a 3-2 overtime loss to Vancouver. When the Hawks have bottomed out these past few years, they bounce back with a gutsy effort or defensive-minded game. Wasn't the 8-4 embarrassment in Edmonton last weekend the bottom? It looked like it at the time.
But that result was followed by a 3-1 loss to Calgary, 5-2 in Denver, 5-3 in San Jose and 3-0 in Phoenix. Seeing a theme here? Despite team meetings and film sessions, extra-long practices and defensive instruction, the Hawks can't play a tight game. Forget about winning a low-scoring game, how about losing one? That's a team not responding to its coach.
"Sometimes it comes down to everyone playing on the same page and playing together," Duncan Keith said. "And keeping it simple and letting the other teams make the mistakes."
Keith is correct. It is up to the players to play. But after a while, the coach has to step in and make it happen. A few consecutive disappointing games are one thing; inching closer to the franchise record of 12 losses in a row is another.
If you think this is about personnel, now isn't the time to argue that point. The team was flying high for a good portion of this season. When the bottom falls out, as it has here midseason, that's on the coach.
In an honest moment, Quenneville even admitted to "letting things slide" on the defensive end as the Hawks were piling up wins via their offense. That was a monumental mistake.
Nowhere more than on special teams has the Hawks' coaching staff fallen short. Specifically on their penalty-killing units. For two years, the Hawks have languished at the bottom of the league in that category. Quenneville refuses to change his personnel or his strategy.
|As the Hawks keep slumping, Joel Quenneville's seat might be heating up.|
The Hawks try to take the middle of the ice away in their own zone during penalty kills by pushing point men with the puck to the side and down near the faceoff circles. In doing so, they open up shooting lanes. Star forwards refuse to block shots in fear of being injured, and it's not a strength of the Hawks' defense to move men out of the crease. Combine that with average goaltending, and Quenneville is allowing opponents to play right into the Hawks' weaknesses.
"You look at all good penalty kills; it's tough to get shots through," Keith said. "They're always in the shooting lanes, always willing to block shots. I think we could do a better job of that to help our goalies out. That would definitely cut down on some of the scoring chances."
The other option is to find a new goalie, and the unknown is better than the known right now. There is little doubt that Nikolai Khabibulin is available from Edmonton. Maybe he has one good run left in him at age 39.
At this point, the Hawks have nothing to lose and everything to gain. There have been many nights on which that one bad goal, especially if it's the first one, has potentially changed the whole game in a negative way for the Hawks. It's tough to determine what would have happened if Ray Emery could've stayed in his net when Radim Vrbata went around him to open the scoring on Saturday.
The situation has reached the point where the players are waiting for "something to happen" in the dressing room. More than one has said as much.
"Something has to give, and it just isn't," Jonathan Toews said after the latest loss. "There doesn't seem to be anything there these last couple of games."
He was talking as much about off the ice as he was on it. The locker room is dead, as is the play on the ice. It's assuredly a shock to anyone following the Hawks that any of this has happened. But it has, and standing pat seems like a silly and blind notion.
No one is declaring that Quenneville should be replaced, but it has to be considered. He was fired twice before, and winning a Stanley Cup doesn't mean it can't happen again. And in this case, it could save the season. The New Jersey Devils famously fired Robbie Ftorek in March 2000 while the team had the best record in the conference but was slumping. The Devils promoted assistant Larry Robinson and went on to a dramatic Stanley Cup title. Yes, it's a rare occurrence, but it's possible.
A new voice might make a big difference in the dressing room while immediately fixing penalty killing. And who knows, maybe the goaltending situation would get straightened out. No one can know for sure Quenneville's part in it all, but at every stop of his coaching career, the Hawks' coach has had goalie "issues."
Senior adviser Scotty Bowman was on hand for the second leg of the road trip and saw the Hawks' woes. The question is, what is the greatest hockey coach of our era reporting back to the bosses?
Think of it this way: There has to be a number in your mind, in Bowman's mind and in CEO John McDonough's mind, that forces their hand. Is it 10 games? Is it 12? How many losses and, more to the point, how many bad losses would it take?
The number is fast approaching.