I’ve been called an apologist for the levels of patience that I’ve granted Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, defenseman Brent Seabrook and others whom many had bailed on weeks, months or years before me. I’m still upset that Joe Maddon and the Cubs parted ways. I still hold a place in my heart for former Bears coach Lovie Smith.
All that said, it's time for the lifeless Blackhawks to fire coach Jeremy Colliton.
On Tuesday night, the Blackhawks were absolutely dominated in a 4-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks, who entered the game as losers of five straight and owners of the worst record in the Western Conference. The Sharks were a team that was reeling, ripe for another loss, fragile and ready to be beaten. Instead, the Blackhawks -- as they’ve done more often than not this season -- came out flat, couldn’t control the puck or couldn't muster an attack at all. The Blackhawks were outshot 26-8 through the first two periods. They managed to pick up two late goals, but it was too little, too late. The 4-2 score was flattering. It should have been 7-0. Once again, goalie Robin Lehner made it respectable.
The showing came two days after the Blackhawks beat the Ducks in overtime despite being badly outplayed for much of the game. On Saturday night, the Kings -- another Western Conference bottom feeder -- skated circles around the Hawks. Because of goalie Corey Crawford’s heroics, the Hawks got the game to overtime before losing 4-3. The Blackhawks (4-7-3) have earned just 11 points in their first 14 games and sit in a last-place tie in the Central Division.
The last three games have become the norm for the Blackhawks, not the exception. The Hawks look lifeless most nights, lost and without much of a system. They lack speed and aren't physical, yet Colliton insists on a dump-and-chase system. There’s no point in a dump-and-chase system if there’s no chase. The Hawks aren’t fast enough to win a race to the puck or physical enough to jar it loose from a puck carrier. Colliton has failed to adjust his system to fit the roster he’s been handed. Say what you want about the team that Bowman has assembled, but this team is better than the results and efforts that it has produced.
I had high hopes for Colliton entering this season. After the initial tailspin after Joel Quennville’s firing last November, the team got right and played at a 100-point pace when the calendar flipped to 2019. I assumed that with an entire summer to implement Colliton's system, the Blackhawks -- with a clearly improved roster -- would only look better. It appears that full transition was a terrible development for this team. The Blackhawks' success last season was based on a hybrid Quenneville/Colliton system. It's all on Colliton this season, and it's not working.
In October, Blackhawks veteran defenseman Duncan Keith was a guest on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast. He was asked about Quenneville and in the middle of his thought, he kind of unintentionally compared Quenneville to Colliton. It didn't reflect well on Colliton.
"Probably one of the best things about Joel, for myself, and for the teams we had ... he allowed us to play the game and not overthink it," Keith said. "Where I think sometimes, the way it is now, it seems like every little situation is already played out for you ... laid out for you ... how to play it. When to me, in hockey you got to be able to read and react and think quickly and be natural out there. That’s kind of what I appreciated about Joel the most."
That stood out to me when I first heard it and hasn’t left my head since. The Blackhawks, especially their veteran players, are thinking too much. There's no read-and-react. They look like they’ve forgotten how to play hockey. I don’t know if it’s fair to say Colliton has lost the team, but I’m not sure I can say he hasn’t either. The (justified) recent benching of Seabrook didn’t play well with the veteran leader. He was outwardly and publicly upset about it. Seabrook carries a lot of weight in the locker room. He's their unquestioned and vocal leader. Despite the regression in his play, he has the respect of all of his teammates. Losing Seabrook is a quick way to lose the team.
As I concluded that the Blackhawks should fire Colliton, I was weighing the merits of the organization instead moving toward a full rebuild instead of firing the coach as a potential big change. But ask yourself this: Would you pull the plug on Jonathan Toews and/or Patrick Kane -- who are both coming off career offensive seasons -- to see what Bowman and Colliton could create in a rebuild? Would you trade Keith to keep a coach who has proved nothing and a general manager who has more misses than hits over the last five seasons?
Even if the Blackhawks were ready for a full rebuild, they'd get pennies on the dollar for their veterans in an in-season trade.
The answer is clear to me: fire Colliton, name assistant Marc Crawford the interim head coach and put Bowman on notice. Bowman shouldn't be allowed to hire another head coach. If the Blackhawks' play continues to disintegrate under Crawford, fire Bowman, hire a new general manager and head coach and begin a full rebuild in the offseason.