Feb. 11-- Chicago might owe Jeremy Colliton an apology.
Many of us wondered if Colliton was up to the challenge of replacing a legend in Joel Quenneville.
We questioned whether Colliton had any idea that coaching at the United Center was worlds apart from working in Rockford.
We doubted Colliton ever would be more than the answer to a trivia question. We made assumptions about Colliton's youth and inexperience, about his lack of presence or panache.
Sorry, but 41 games into the 34-year-old coach's tenure-the equivalent of half a season-Colliton deserves credit for restoring hope in a Blackhawks franchise where it had gone missing. Now, nobody needs to get carried away by calling Colliton "Hockey McVay" or comparing his impact on the Hawks to fellow 30-something Matt Nagy's effect on the Bears. Nagy was the NFL coach of the year; Colliton is merely the man of the moment-but the right man, which isn't insignificant.
The Hawks' surprising seven-game winning streak before Tuesday's game offers an opportunity to compliment Colliton for staying true to himself when nobody in town knew who he was. Fans welcomed Colliton with chants of "Q!" during his first pregame introduction. Nothing in Colliton's nondescript 57-game NHL playing career could have prepared him for the kind of pressure he inherited.
Imagine the looks on the faces of defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who have combined to play in more than 2,000 NHL games, when Colliton announced changes from Quenneville's zone defense to a more demanding man-to-man scheme.
Consider the awkward transition for every forward trying to adopt a more defensive mindset or every defenseman encouraged to advance the puck aggressively rather than look for the stretch pass.
Appreciate how tricky it is to balance the practice schedule of a team full of young players who need ice time and proven future Hall of Famers who crave rest.
Remember how volatile Quenneville could become behind the glass? Coach Q was succeeded by a quieter coach, a teacher more than a screamer, whose understated approach fits Colliton as well as Quenneville's larger-than-life persona fit him.
This all could have gone terribly wrong for the Hawks. It didn't.
The adjustment was awkward. On Jan. 17, the Hawks were tied with the Senators for the NHL's lowest point total. Less than a month later, they woke up Monday four points out of the Western Conference's final playoff spot with 26 games left.
Colliton tinkered with the power play by adding offensive-minded defenseman Erik Gustafsson to the first unit, and the changes have resulted in a nearly 40 percent success rate over the last 20 games. He stabilized the lineup by pairing Hart Trophy candidate Patrick Kane with captain Jonathan Toews on the top line. Former Erie Otters teammates Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome-the 21-year-old equivalent of an NHL lottery pick acquired from the Coyotes in a smart trade for Nick Schmaltz-have supplied similar chemistry on the second line.
Off the ice, insiders say the stoic Colliton never panicked. Cubs manager Joe Maddon's horn-rimmed glasses make him appear hip. Colliton's make him look late for a tax audit. But being predictable and professional never goes out of style for a coach trying to establish credibility with players whose hockey resumes are more impressive than his.
Even after the Hawks beat the Red Wings on Sunday for their seventh straight victory, watching Colliton handle the postgame news conference made it hard to tell whether he was in the midst of a winning or losing streak.
The Hawks are 17-18-6 under Colliton, but given the staleness of the last two seasons, their latest surge makes it feel like more fun than the numbers suggest. They have provided a fan base perhaps spoiled by three Stanley Cups since 2010 a reason to believe again. They put Corey Crawford through his first full practice Monday since a December concussion, raising expectations of a possible return of a goalie good enough to steal a playoff spot or even a series.
They have put themselves in position to be the playoff team Hawks officials swore they were the day they fired Quenneville, showing enough improvement for general manager Stan Bowman to embrace the status quo as the Feb. 25 trade deadline approaches. They have played well enough to understand what Bowman saw in Colliton during that scouting trip to Sweden.
The Hawks don't have to qualify for the postseason to validate Colliton as Quenneville's replacement. We can debate the timing of the move but we no longer can quibble over the credentials of his successor.
Over the next two months, the Hawks will continue this exciting playoff hunt. But regardless of what happens, they can head into the offseason knowing they nabbed the right coach.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
(c)2019 Chicago Tribune
Visit Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.