The right man at the right time
With his future in doubt, Joel Quenneville answered the challenge this season
CHICAGO -- It was early May of last season when the Chicago Blackhawks were at their post-Cup nadir and a power play had as much to do with the front office as the hockey rink.
A first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Phoenix Coyotes marked the second spring in a row the Blackhawks went out like lamb. There was no doubt this season would be important for the front office and the coaching staff, namely coach Joel Quenneville.
Some would say it would be a defining season for the future of this organization.
While no one with hiring or firing power would say Quennville's job was in jeopardy, winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 only served as a reminder of what this job was now about: getting back to that ideal. The same holds true for general manager Stan Bowman.
A bad 2013 could have resulted in big changes for a team that makes money, but also spends prodigiously. Rocky Wirtz has shown that loyalty comes after performance.
Even after a record-setting start and a Presidents' Trophy -- both meaningless come May -- it's fair to assume a second-round playoff exit to the Detroit Red Wings could have spelled doom for some coaches, executives and players, or at least presaged changes to come.
But none of that came to pass. The Blackhawks have new life. With five straight wins and a 2-0 lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference finals, it looks like Quenneville should not only get a contract extension, but also city TIF money for mustache care and maintenance.
The 2010 season set a standard that looms larger than the titles won by the Bears, Bulls and White Sox, because in the NHL, nearly every playoff team can conceivably win the Cup. If the Hawks can pull off two in four seasons, it will cement Quenneville's legacy in hockey and in the city of Chicago.
With a talented roster and an organization that treats its players in a first-class manner, Quenneville should be judged by playoff success, and ultimately by the Cup.
Hockey insiders will say Quenneville has done an excellent job this season, from the team's celebrated 24-game point streak to start the season to the more nuanced coaching decisions he's made. If the Blackhawks are playing a sharper, more focused game, then it's fair to say he deserves some credit for doing a better coaching job than in the past two years. He's always been a line-juggler, but he seems truly open to line experimentation while also running a tighter operation.
With the exception of those three straight losses to Detroit, the Blackhawks have been efficient and deadly all season, and devoid of drama. Quenneville avoided a goaltender controversy when Ray Emery was playing excellent and now Corey Crawford is a playoff hero.
It was fair to call his two-game benching of Viktor Stalberg in the Detroit series a mistake, but he rectified it, and there was Stalberg making a nifty backhand pass to Andrew Shaw for the Blackhawks' first goal in a 4-2 win over Los Angeles on Sunday.
Quenneville freed Brent Seabrook from his doghouse and the veteran defenseman has been a force on defense and in shooting the puck. He's given rookie Brandon Saad significant responsibility and ice time, and it's paid off.
It's tough to gauge a coaching job when so much in hockey is decided on rebounds and deflections, but when a team comes back from a 3-1 playoff deficit and looks reborn, it's safe to say the coach made some critical adjustments, or at least, didn't screw anything up.
After the disappointing end to a disappointing season in 2012, Quenneville got more control of his team when he fired a Bowman guy, assistant Mike Haviland, and his own guy, Marc Bergevin, left to coach the Montreal Canadiens. The coach said there was "dysfunction" on the staff.
Bowman and his father Scotty had undermined Quenneville in a very public way earlier in the season by assigning front office employee (and Scotty Bowman loyalist) Barry Smith to help fix the wretched power play. While the special teams unit was foundering, forcing Smith on Quenneville was seen around hockey as a slap in the face. But maybe it was a wake-up call. Maybe he had gotten laissez-faire in coaching his team.
It wasn't just that move that threatened Quenneville. In his end-of-the-season interview with the media, Bowman reiterated his desire to see Patrick Kane at center, a short-lived experiment in 2012. Quenneville thought differently and Kane has been at right wing, where he dominated this season.
After the season, Quenneville succeeded in pushing the front office to give him more leeway in running his team. Didn't he deserve that, especially with a short time left on his contract?
Bowman let Quenneville pick Haviland's replacement, and the extended search led to the coach's former assistant Jamie Kompon, who had been let go by the Kings after their 2012 Cup win, to run the weak power play.
Before the hire was made, this is what Bowman said of the power play, which ranked 26th in the NHL with a 15.2 percent success rate:
"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."
The power play improved slightly to 19th and 16.7 percent -- fourth among active teams in the postseason at 16.3 percent -- though the biggest change on special teams was on the penalty kill, primarily the responsibility of assistant Mike Kitchen, which went from 78.1 percent (27th) to 87.2 (third). In the playoffs, it's improved to first at 95.7 percent.
Quenneville doesn't kill the penalties, doesn't make the saves or fire home the rebounds. There is often too much credit or blame directed toward coaches who are wholly dependent on the skill and mental acuity of their players.
But Quenneville deserves his share of the credit for a dream season regained. He's two wins from the finals and six from another parade. Needless to say, if he gets that far, he won't have to beg for more control again.
Because it will be clear that the Q is the answer.