After last season’s disastrous start…a start that began with a 1-9-2 record and a coach firing, it would have been very easy for the Blackhawks to just promote their interim head coach Derek King. After all, the full-blown rebuild was on, and the results of the games didn’t matter. Why not give a good guy a chance to see what he can do? How much damage can he do really? He did well enough last season, and hey … he’ll keep things light. Instead, general manager Kyle Davidson decided to seek out a head coach for the rebuild in beyond. He found his man in Luke Richardson.
At Richardson’s introductory press conference on June 29, Davidson remarked, “We wanted someone who could lead with authority and who would hold players accountable. In addition, we were looking for someone who could develop and coach young talent, while also connecting with our veteran players.”
This season, Davidson has checked every one of those boxes.
The Blackhawks’ roster was built to lose. Davidson has been honest about what this season is about, and hasn’t tried to hide the fact that wins are not ideal in the chase for the team’s next franchise player. That hasn’t stopped the Hawks from competing and keeping games respectable all season long. In the 70 games Chicago has played, 38 of them have been decided by two goals or fewer. In those games, the Hawks’ record is 17-15-6. Despite last night’s 5-0 loss to Colorado, the Hawks don’t get blown often out, despite the cavernous talent gap between themselves and their opponents most nights.
For a team that’s been one of the NHL’s punchlines all season, they’ve been much more respectable than they get credit for, and I think Richardson deserves the bulk of the credit for that respectability.
When we had the chance to interview Richardson back in June, he gave some insight into how he would handle things when the chips were down.
“We want to create a family atmosphere. I don’t like talking about my hockey playing career with the players. I’m here to take the experiences I’ve learned and help them. They know that I’ve been though everything … disappointment … put on waivers …[being sent] to the minors … I’ve seen it all. I want them to know that I’m with them. There are some nights I might have to be hard on a player, but I’m still with them the next morning. I think that will lead to a better environment.”
While the 2022-23 season has been less tumultuous than the season prior, it hasn’t been without its distractions. The team went through a stretch where it lost 21 of 23 games. The Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews trade rumors were the main story and a distraction, for most of the season. By the time the deadline passed, they had traded Kane, Jake McCabe, Max Domi, Sam Lafferty, and Jack Johnson. This team had every opportunity to mail in the season, and to this point, with 13 games to go, they haven’t.
Of course, the “try-hard, hustle, never-say-die” thing isn’t really quantifiable on paper.
No one was talking about it during the streak of 21 losses in 23 games, right?
The other part of Richardson’s coaching that makes me optimistic for the team’s future is his ability to explain the game. In all my years watching and covering hockey, I’ve never heard a head coach offer so much detail into specific plays, moments, and strategies.
Watch this clip from December 15. Richardson is talking about the Blackhawks’ defensive woes at the time. He explains it with such clarity, even we morons in the media understand.
If he can make us understand, just think of the impact he’s having on the young hockey minds that are or soon will be on the Blackhawks roster.
“He’s constantly reinforcing every little detail that we need to focus on because, obviously, we’re not Boston,” center Jason Dickinson told The Athletic.
“It all starts now, coming together as a team,” MacKenzie Entwistle said. “Not everybody’s going to score 40 goals, but how are you going to contribute every night? That’s what a lot of guys are figuring out, and it’s been working for us. A lot of it has to do with Luke.”
After Monday’s tough oss, Richardson was as pointed as he’s ever been, specifically about Ian Mitchell’s performance.
“It’s always tough coming in and out of the lineup, but that’s just pro hockey,” Richardson said. “You have to be ready when you get your chance. He was a little tentative and stepped back on a couple goals where he’s close to his man. He’s just got to step into that man and play the body.”
As you can read, even when a player has possibly his worst game of the season, Richardson offers a bit of understanding before the criticism. Mitchell can rest assured he’ll likely have a clean slate with Richardson on Tuesday.
The Blackhawks’ future is uncertain. There are many boxes to check before they can contend again, but they can already check the “Head Coach” box in permanent marker.
The Week Ahead
Thursday, March 23 @ Washington Capitals
6:00 pm on NBC Sports Chicago & WGN Radio
For the next few seasons, the main goal for the Washington Capitals will be getting Alex Ovechkin to surpass Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal record (894). Ovechkin is at 819 and counting. Somehow, the 37-year old winger is still scoring with regularity. He doesn’t play with the reckless abandon of his early career anymore but leave him in that left circle and you’re screwed. Barring catastrophic injury, Ovechkin will pass Gretzky. The Caps will keep him around until it happens, which might feel a little gross, but far be it from anyone around the Blackhawks to criticize an organizational lack of focus on winning games. Meanwhile, Old Friend Dylan Strome has had a nice season with the Caps. His 52 points are good for second on the team, and his play this season has earned him a new five-year, $25 million contract extension.
Saturday, March 25 @ Minnesota Wild
4:00 pm on NBC Sports Chicago & WGN Radio
On March 8, Wild leading scorer Karill Kaprizov’s body bent the wrong way, which is never good. The winger hasn’t played since, and isn’t expected back for 2-3 weeks. Surely, this injury has sunk the Wild, right? Nope. Since his injury, the Wild are 3-1-1. 21-year old winger Matt Boldy has nine points in those five games. The Wild are 12-1-3 in their last 16 games, and are currently second in the Central Division standings, one point behind the Dallas Stars. Doesn’t this game somehow feel like a Blackhawks win, though?
Sunday, March 26 v Vancouver Canucks
5:00 pm on NBC Sports Chicago & WGN Radio
The Canucks, who looked like a threat to challenge the Blackhawks in the tank standings, have won eight of their last 10 games. JT Miller has 12 points over those 10 games. Vancouver has been playing just well enough to finish this season firmly in hockey hell…without a shot at the playoffs or Connor Bedard.
This game will also be the Blackhawks annual Pride Night. This season, the NHL has experienced myriad Pride Night controversies, and while we don’t expect to see any push-back from any current Blackhawks, these things tend to pop up quickly. There’s nothing I’d rather do than celebrate how wonderfully and seamlessly Pride Night goes for the Blackhawks that night. Let’s hope our optimism is justified.