After the 1997-98 season, the Chicago Blackhawks fired their head coach Craig Hartsburg. The ‘Hawks missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1967-68 season and started their path to near organizational destruction. The reason I bring up Craig Hartsburg is because he was the last real NHL head coach the ‘Hawks had before Joel Quennevile took over for Denis Savard. In the ten years since Hartsburg was let go, not one other former ‘Hawk head coach ever caught on in another coaching gig. Coincidence? Probably not.
Since nobody has started to beat the drum yet, let me be the first; Joel Quenneville should be a top candidate for the Jack Adams Award (The NHL’s equivalent to Coach of the Year). Since Coach Q took over for Savard, the ‘Hawks have gone 15-4-6. Now in the spirit of fairness, there is no way to know if the ‘Hawks would be succeeding like this under Savard. However, Quenneville has done two things that have been instrumental to the ‘Hawks success that Savard never would have or could have: fix the power play and inspire Martin Havlat.
In the year and a half Denis Savard coached the ‘Hawks, whenever criticism or questions arose about the power play, the first person to get thrown under the bus was Assistant Coach John Torchetti. Savard would let anyone know who asked ‘Torch runs the power play’. While it’s admirable for a head coach to delegate responsibility among his assistants, when something’s broke, the head coach has to come in and fix the damn thing. Savard never did and the power play suffered horrendously last year finishing 24th out of 30 teams. It looked like more of the same this year even though Dale and the front office invested a ton of money into fixing it by signing Brian Campbell to a 37 year contract. They still had players holding on to the puck for way too long, too much standing around in the offensive zone, and their breakout was still that silly ‘Have one guy skate as fast as he can towards the opposing player standing at center ice and then dropping the puck to a teammate who is following.’
Enter Joel Quenneville. Never once did Quenneville take the public responsibility of running the power play away from Torchetti but anyone who has watched the ‘Hawks at the beginning of the year until now will say something has drastically changed. The puck doesn’t stay on one player’s stick for more than a second and a half. It moves from side to side, up and down incredibly quick and has led to a ton of easy power play goals for the ‘Hawks. Not only that, but instead of making their breakout difficult, Q simply has Campbell skate it in or head man it to Kane, Toews, Sharp, or Havlat to establish the zone(How novel, give the puck to your best stick-handlers, BRILLIANT!). The ‘Hawks now have the fifth rated power play in the NHL, their highest ranking in seven years.
One of Savard’s biggest failures as head coach was his inability to motivate Havlat. Last year, there were whispers loud enough to be heard in the Czech Republic that Savard and Havlat hated each other. Savard called him out in the press. Havlat bitched. Savard had a meeting with Havlat to tell him ‘be more like the player we saw in Ottawa’. Sometimes, harsh actions speak louder than harsh words, especially when dealing with metrosexual Czechoslovakians.
When Q switched up the lines on December 3rd, he did it probably more than anything to try and light a fire under one of his most skilled players, Martin Havlat. Havlat has always been a player on his team’s first or second line but has become lazier in his zone with each passing year. Q thought outside the box and decided to stick Havlat on the third line which is always matched up against the opposing team’s top line. By doing this, he implied to him either start playing hard on both ends or get lost. Message delivered. In the seven games since the change, Havlat has two goals, four assists, finished on the plus side in five of the games (the other two games he was a zero), and has dominated shifts.
If the ‘Hawks keep up their torrid pace, Quenneville will gain even more support for the Adams and deservedly so. In the thirty-five years the league has given out the award, only one ‘Hawks coach has ever taken home the award, Orval Tessier in 1982-83.
Also, if you haven’t checked out the Fifth Feather’s debut on Hockeenight’s PuckCast, do it already, even if only for a few minutes. No one can say they’ve truly lived until they hear four guys ramble on about the advantages and disadvantages of having Matt Walker in the lineup.