Coaches are featured in the final installment of this blog series presenting 2019-20 season reviews.
* Click here to view the season review of defensemen
* Click here to view the season review of centers
* Click here to view the season review of wingers
* Click here to view the season review of goalies
Do you remember this date in Blackhawks history: November 30, 2018?
While you may not necessarily remember that exact date, you surely remember this statement made on that day:
“This is the NHL. It’s not really a developmental league. It’s about winning. It’s about results. That makes it more fun. Winning. Winning games.”
After the Blackhawks lost to the Jets that night, these words were uttered by Duncan Keith when he was asked in a post-game interview if the veterans are responsible for keeping the younger players positive.
While some claimed that Keith was referring to himself, many argued that his comments were directed at Jeremy Colliton who was less than a month in as the new head coach after Joel Quenneville was fired on November 6.
Was Keith admitting an unwillingness to mentor rookies and other unripened teammates? Or was he critical of Colliton for coaching the team -- one with decorated veterans owning 22 Stanley Cup rings, multiple NHL trophies, and international medals -- with a developmental mindset?
Perhaps it was a little from column A and a little from column B. Or maybe it was from column C: much ado about nothing as just words stated in the moment by a frustrated player after a team loss.
Regardless, those comments still resonate today as Colliton will be entering the final year of his contract and is rumored to be close to an extension.
So how did Colliton do in his second year as the head coach?
One measure of effectiveness as a head coach is looking at gross numbers, i.e. statistics and standings. His overall record as an NHL bench boss is 62-58-17 with 30-28-9 last season (6th place in the Central Division) and 32-30-8 this season (7th in the division).
The Hawks didn’t make the playoffs last season and only made the postseason this year because of a reformatted system -- or gimmick for the cynical crowd -- that included more teams for a qualifying play-in stage before the traditional 16-team tourney.
A second measure of effectiveness is a basic tent of human resources: look at whether a person fulfills the duties expected of them. Since none of us are privy to viewing the actual job description, we’ll have to guesstimate.
A simple job description of the head coach is to prepare the team to compete and win through strategies to provide structure and unison. Something like that.
Does Colliton achieve this?
It isn’t that Colliton doesn’t have a system. He does and it’s not a foreign one in that there are other teams that use the same or variations of his system on offense and on defense.
Rather, the issue seems to stem from whether he is professing a system that matches the player personnel. For example, if the team needs to dump and chase, are there players who are good at chasing to win pucks?
Or as another example, if the team plays the man-and-a half-defensive scheme, are all players on the ice able to play that to a T?
Also, it needs to be taken into account that Colliton has outwardly stated it doesn’t matter who each player is partnered with. Skillset isn’t a determining factor either. Instead, working hard and competing matter most.
While stressing work ethic and compete level is never a bad thing, should they be prioritized to the point where teammate chemistry and skill are relegated to non-factors in decision-making when drawing up the lineup and strategies?
Let’s take defining the job description of the head coach a step further to address Keith’s comment: does the coach have a duty to develop players especially at the NHL level? If so, is Colliton the right fit?
For a team that is still handcuffed with a tight salary cap, the team has built around the core with lower-priced veterans and youngsters on ELCs. Development of those youthful players is still a must if they are to be playing substantial minutes on the varsity team.
This situation is now exacerbated by the financial impact of the pandemic where pursuing high-priced free agents and re-signing the team’s own RFAs to lucrative deals are not viable options at least for the foreseeable future. As a result, reliance on rookies is even more necessary.
So addressing the question of whether Colliton is the right fit to be an NHL head coach with a developmental mentality, one answer is player development is a necessity given the makeup of the roster will inevitably and increasingly have young players taking on significant roles and minutes.
If it is assumed that Colliton is a developmental coach, the next question is whether he is good at his job.
A third measure of coaching effectiveness is whether prospects mature in appropriate ways and at a deliberate pace to get them ready to be impact players in the NHL.
Whether a prospect is an elite talent like Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist or a role player like David Kampf and Matthew Highmore, impact means contributing in whatever role they are put in versus floundering and being inconsequential.
Ever since Colliton arrived in the Blackhawks organization -- first as the IceHogs head coach and now as the Blackhawks head coach -- prospects are arriving ready to play in the NHL when recalled. This is a stark contrast from the Ted Dent era when prospects would never graduate to the NHL or were ill prepared when they did.
Colliton was a productive coach in Rockford and has some Rockford players he coached with him now in Chicago who play well-rounded games such as Kampf, Highmore, and Lucas Carlsson.
Dylan Sikura has become a more well-rounded player under both Colliton and current Hogs head coach Derek King. They have continued to emphasize to Sikura the need to push the pace every shift and make an impact without the puck just as much with it.
While Alex DeBrincat never played in Rockford, Colliton did coach him during prospect camps and tournaments like the rookie tourney in Traverse City. Same with Dominik Kahun.
Even if Colliton is charged to be a developmental coach, he can’t do it alone. He shares in that duty of player development with not just his assistants Marc Crawford, Sheldon Brookbank, and Tomas Mitell but also an army of other coaches and specialists.
Crawford has evolved from a veteran NHL coach who many view in the retread category to one who is a staunch advocate and instructor of coaching millennials. That shift in coaching philosophy is the byproduct of having millennial children of his own: daughter Katie who was a volleyball player at the University of British Columbia and son Dylan who is an assistant video coach for the Blackhawks.
Like Colliton, Brookbank is a contemporary of the veteran core on the team having won a Cup with them in 2013. While he can relate to the veterans, Brookbank also has a respectable reputation in the league -- as evidenced by the warm receptions he got from officiating crews before puck drop when they saw him behind the bench -- that allows him to be a good role model for the youngsters.
Mitell is a bit of an unknown as he had zero background in the NHL whether as a player or coach. Colliton coached for 4 years with Mora IK in the Swedish Hockey League and Mitell was one of his assistants. Kris Versteeg recently brought to light in a Spittin’ Chiclets podcast that the Blackhawks are implementing some systems from Swedish hockey which is likely how Mitell is a piece of the puzzle.
In two years coaching the Blackhawks, Colliton hasn't moved the needle as far as team success in the standings dropping from 6th in the division last season to dead last this season.
Also, for two years in a row, the Hawks failed to qualify for the playoffs-- at least based on standard rules -- but was gifted a berth with the reformatted 2020 postseason.
Despite the lack of team success so far, Colliton does mesh well with the younger players particularly being a heavy communicator with them. He also has had a good track record with prospect development starting from his time in Rockford.
One way to think about Colliton is that he is a pretty decent developmental coach but is far from being a functional tactical coach. The veterans are the ones that seem to have the most difficult time with Colliton and that could stem from the fact that they don’t need to be developed anymore and really just need a tactician.
How does Colliton and crew manage that, though, when the team is getting younger and was the youngest team in the postseason?
Colliton’s third year as head coach may be pivotal as it is predicated on striking that balance of being both a developmental coach and a tactical one.
One would also hope that a contract extension is based on whether he can achieve that balance to bring about positive results in not only individual player development but also in the standings, special teams rankings, and playoff seeding.
See you on the boards!