Quenneville may be Hawks' missing link

TAMPA -- We often talk about "the missing piece" when it comes to Stanley Cup puzzles. That one, elusive block to complete the tower, the one snapshot to complete the image.

Usually it's a player, a puck-moving defenseman, a shut-down forward, a power-play specialist.

Sitting on a bench near the Tampa harbor is the man who may well be the Chicago Blackhawks' missing piece. He's 50 years old with a graying mustache and a steely glare and three teenage children.

Joel Quenneville won't score a goal for the Hawks and he won't block a shot, but he is the man who holds the key to a team and a city aching to win its first playoff series since 1996.

After gliding through the first two-thirds of this NHL season, including a stretch in which they won eight of 12 road games over a brutal schedule coming out of the All-Star break, the Blackhawks have crashed back to earth in recent weeks.

A giant lead for the fourth spot -- and home ice in the first round of the playoffs -- has evaporated as they've managed wins in just three of their past nine games and are now in a death struggle with Vancouver for that spot, with Columbus charging on the outside rail.

"This is a real, real big week coming up," former Blackhawks player and national broadcast analyst Ed Olczyk told ESPN.com this week.

By April 3, the Blackhawks will have hosted New Jersey and Vancouver, traveled to Montreal and returned home to face St. Louis and Nashville. By then, fans in hockey-mad Chicago will have a sense of whether this is a team that might fulfill preseason expectations when the playoffs start or will go meekly into the playoff scrap heap.

"This is where the experience of Joel really kicks in," Olczyk said.

After Wednesday's 6-5 shootout win against San Jose, Quenneville was 15th in all-time wins as a head coach, fifth among active coaches behind Mike Keenan, Ron Wilson, Jacques Lemaire and Ken Hitchcock.

He is one of only three men to play in and coach more than 800 games in NHL history.

In a couple of weeks, a team that boasts minimal playoff experience will turn to Quenneville for guidance as the Hawks hope to marry off-ice success with rarely seen on-ice playoff success.

How important will Quenneville's experience be?

"From a player's point of view, I think it's very important because of the bumps in the road," Olczyk said. "You need the guy behind them to have a finger on the pulse of the team."

Olczyk, who coached the Pittsburgh Penguins for a short time following the lockout, compared Quenneville's style of matching lines and defensive pairings with Anaheim's Randy Carlyle, who won a Cup two springs ago.

"He believes in guys' roles; he believes in matchups that will give his team the best opportunity to win. Randy Carlyle's a lot like that," Olczyk said. "With Joel, because he's been there, he's going to have a good feel for when something needs to be said, or thrown, or when someone needs to be patted on the back or kicked in the rear. That's his job."

Four games into this season Chicago GM Dale Tallon, team president John McDonough and the rest of the Blackhawks management team decided to fire coach Denis Savard -- one day after Savard won his first game of the season.

With the team in full renaissance mode -- having quadrupled its season-ticket base and been embraced by a long disenfranchised fan base -- management wanted someone else at the helm. They wanted Quenneville.

"It was tricky. I think it was tricky for everyone," Quenneville recently told ESPN.com.

You think?

Savard remains one of the most beloved of Blackhawks players. He was coming off a season in which a young, injury-riddled squad hung tough and missed the playoffs by just three points. Tallon had beefed up the lineup with the offseason additions of defenseman Brian Campbell and netminder Cristobal Huet.

Then … poof … four games in, Quenneville walked through the door. Defending rookie of the year Patrick Kane even wept over the coaching change.

"I think it raised some eyebrows," Quenneville said.

Tallon turned over a lot of stones in assessing whether Quenneville was the guy they wanted to lead the Blackhawks out of the wilderness and received consistently good vibes from people who knew Quenneville, including senior advisor Scotty Bowman, former player Marc Bergevin, who is now with the Blackhawks front office, and assistant GM Rick Dudley.

"Just all the people I talked to that worked with him or played for him," Tallon said. "Although it was a tough decision, it was the right decision."

McDonough, who was a longtime president of the Chicago Cubs, likens Quenneville's demeanor to veteran baseball manager Lou Piniella.

"There's just something that [Quenneville] brings as a coach, as a teacher, as a motivator," McDonough said. "And I think that's what we needed. There's just so many intangibles that Joel brings to coaching. He has a natural intensity that's not contrived."

Defenseman Duncan Keith said there has been instant respect for their coach.

"I think there's probably a lot of things you can mention [that are different under Quenneville]," the defenseman said. "Us being so young and him coming and having that experience that he brings, that even-keeled attitude, not too high, not too low.

"Obviously, four games into the season and you get a coaching change, it's a bit of a shock," Keith added. "But you have immediate respect for him and what he's done."

It's the kind of move that could have doomed the team and undone so much of the good work accomplished on the ice and in the stands. It could have, but it didn't. And, in hindsight, it's the kind of move that should garner Tallon executive of the year consideration, if only for its sheer brassiness. While many have conceded the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year to New Jersey's Brent Sutter, there is no doubt Quenneville should receive consideration for his work with the youthful Blackhawks.

"Right now, we're not happy with the way things have gone," Quenneville recently told a small group of reporters. "We've had probably our toughest stretch throughout the season, and while we're still in it, we've got to recapture that winning feeling. There were stretches in this segment that we probably didn't play as consistently as we were before. Little things we can be better at, whether it's a timely goal, power play, critical penalty, I just think everything was going right for us."

These kinds of flat spots, especially late in the season, have a tendency to skew the overall picture. Are the Blackhawks coming back to their real level or are they victims of their own success?

There's just something that [Quenneville] brings as a coach, as a teacher, as a motivator. ... There's just so many intangibles that Joel brings to coaching. He has a natural intensity that's not contrived.

-- Blackhawks president John McDonough on Joel Quenneville

For much of the year, they have enjoyed a significant cushion on the fourth overall spot in the Western Conference, not close enough to challenge Detroit for the Central Division, but comfortably removed from the frenzied waters that have marked the bottom part of the standings.

Quenneville said that cushion of six or eight points for what would be home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs "has definitely evaporated now. We have to take care of what we have to take care of now. We tried to avoid that all year long, that group of teams fighting to get in the playoffs, trying to create, I don't want to say that luxury, but that breathing room."

With the return to health of No. 1 netminder Nikolai Khabibulin (who thought anyone would be saying that at the end of March?) and sniper Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks are still in position to secure home ice and finish with a double-digit improvement on last season's 88 points.

Whatever frustration Quenneville may be feeling at his team's recent play is buried well beneath the surface.

"I don't think it's a bad thing for us to experience what we're going through right now because we had everything probably fall in our favor," Quenneville said. "Now, it's probably going just the opposite, [and] we want to make sure that we correct it immediately and get back to feeling good."

Here's where Quenneville's experience comes into play and the basis on how he will be judged moving forward. Does he go to the whip or not? How does he prepare a young team with minimal playoff experience for the rigors of the postseason?

"I think you have to be aware of the pulse of the team, and we've got a young group like you said," Quenneville said. "I just think that everybody finding ways individually and collectively is what we're all about. There's different methods -- whether you push, how hard do you want to push them. I know that we've got a real busy schedule going into this last part of the year.

"So, I just think it's a long season. I want to make sure we maximize how much energy we have, but at the same time, we still want to be hard to play against. You don't want to have soft lessons as you go through this, so I think there's balance in what we're talking about here and making sure we play hard and we bring everything that we have in our system to play all-out."

A second-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1978, Quenneville played 803 regular-season games with five different teams before moving into the coaching ranks in the AHL in 1993. He was an assistant to Marc Crawford in Colorado when the Avs won their first Stanley Cup in 1996.

His first head-coaching job came during the following season, when the St. Louis Blues brought him in to take over for Mike Keenan for the final 40 games of the 1996-97 campaign. GM Larry Pleau arrived as GM in June 1997, well aware of Quenneville after coaching him in Hartford.

"As a coach, you're always looking for which players might have that ability [to coach]," Pleau told ESPN.com. "He kind of was that kind of guy. He wasn't that talented a player, but he played on knowledge. He was very smart about positional play."

The other thing that told Pleau that Quenneville was a top coach was the fact Quenneville's dog would go and fetch the newspaper from the end of the driveway and bring it to the house. "I could never get my dog to do that," Pleau laughed.

Pleau and Quenneville's wives became close during Quenneville's time in St. Louis and the families spent a lot of time together. The wives, at one point, ended up going to an Oprah taping together in Chicago. While Quenneville became the team's winningest coach during his eight-year run in St. Louis, the Blues' failure to win a Cup, or even advance to the Cup finals, ultimately cost him his job.

"He was a quality coach. He is a quality coach," Pleau said. "It wasn't easy making the decision we had to make here."

Quenneville took over as Colorado coach after the lockout and guided the Avs to the second round in two of three seasons there, but was fired after being swept by the Red Wings in the second round last spring.

Quenneville points to the very few who go out on their own terms -- Bowman, Ray Bourque. The majority of the time, especially for coaches, the ending is always tough, he said. "That's the reality," he said.

Last summer, Quenneville decided to take a break and accepted a scouting job from the Hawks, allowing him to stay close to home in the Denver area. Still, as a coach, you always wonder if that last job was, well, your last job.

"Absolutely, absolutely," he said. "You're sitting there wondering, 'Will I get another opportunity?'"

Then, another wrinkle.

Just before he was offered the coaching job, Quenneville was charged with driving under the influence after a golf outing in Denver. He cannot speak for the record about the incident, which remains before the courts, but is steadfast he will be found not guilty of the charges.

"I know I wasn't guilty of what I was charged with," he said.

He did not shy away from the incident when he met with Tallon and McDonough, and explained exactly what had happened.

"I told Dale and John. They were both great," Quenneville said.

"I asked him about it," McDonough said. "He was very straightforward and explained it thoroughly and we were satisfied with the explanation. He didn't sugarcoat it. I have a responsibility to ask those kinds of questions."

That's the thing with Quenneville, McDonough said -- you better want to hear answers if you ask questions.

"You'd better buckle up because it might not be what you want to hear," McDonough said.

The same might be said for Quenneville's players as they prepare for the next step on this journey back to hockey's spotlight.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.