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Since the Blackhawks officially named Kyle Davidson general manager on March 1, one message was made abundantly clear: The rebuild is underway.
Ahead of last Monday’s trade deadline, Davidson traded fan (and teammate) favorite Brandon Hagel to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk and a pair of first-round draft picks. Then, he flipped future Hall of Famer Marc-André Fleury to Minnesota for what the Hawks are calling a conditional first-round pick. In reality, it’s a second-round pick unless the Wild reach the conference final, and Fleury records four of those wins. Not an impossibility by any means, but semantics.
Davidson went as far as to say a rebuild could take up to five years. While that seems like a long time, if the Blackhawks are true Cup contenders by then, Davidson will have done his job and done it well.
With that in mind, I’m casting my vote for Derek King to remain head coach during the rebuild.
Since Jeremy Colliton was fired after a dreadful 1-9-2 start, King has led the Blackhawks to a 23-24-8 record. While not the most impressive record in the NHL, King took over a sinking ship and has steered it back on course, and that’s exactly what he was brought in to do.
With Colliton, the Blackhawks were reeling on and off the ice. The team was getting pounded every night, the “collaborative communicator” Colliton had players’ heads spinning with his over-complicated and rule-heavy system. Instincts had been stripped and long-time NHL stars were struggling to play the game they had mastered.
In October of 2019, Duncan Keith was a guest on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast and talked about his experience with Joel Quenneville vs his experience with 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 on the podcast. “Where I think sometimes, the way it is now, it seems like every situation is already 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.”
When King came in, so did a sense of normalcy. Players were allowed to use their instinct in a familiar system. Players were put in positions to succeed, rather than buried on the third or fourth line as a punishment for not being Patrice Bergeron or Anze Kopitar defensively.
The greatest example, of course, is Dylan Strome. He’s been one of the team’s hottest players of late and has found chemistry with Patrick Kane and Alex Debrincat. 21 points in his last 20 games, and 17 points in his last 10 games.
“He’s been fun to play with,” Kane said of Strome after a March 8th win over the Ducks. “He has the ability to make plays when he gets the puck. I think one thing that’s really noticeable lately is his ability to drive the net and create even more space for himself or his linemates.”
For a guy who was almost a sure thing to be traded, Strome has made his case for being a key part of the rebuild under King’s guidance.
The cynic reading this will say, “Anyone could do what King is doing,” and I get that point. It doesn’t take Scotty Bowman to see that Dylan Strome is more effective when used in an offensive role. It doesn’t take an Al Arbour to see that players, in general, should be used in roles that suit them best. I also acknowledge a recent trend of the team blowing big leads, including Monday night’s eventual 6-5 loss to Buffalo…a game in which the Blackhawks held a 4-0 lead.
But right now, the Blackhawks don’t need Scotty Bowman or Al Arbour. They need to get through a difficult period of hockey with confidence, small victories, and positive messaging. The losses will mount, and it will begin to weigh on the players. Having a personality like King, who never seems too high or too low, but always seems positive, and honest is just what the team needs.
King has the “father figure” coaching personality. When things go wrong, like they did Monday vs the Sabres, he’s not going to flip over a table or scream and yell and get in a player’s face. Instead, he’ll use the ever painful, “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed,” response. Today’s athletes want a connection with their coach, now some distant god-figure that’s unapproachable and hands-off.
I know we’re comparing apples to oranges here, but look at, well, all of the other teams in town. The Cubs had Dale Sveum and Ricky Renteria guide the rebuild. When it was time to win, they hired Joe Maddon and got it done. The White Sox, also with Renteria guiding the rebuild, turned to Tony LaRussa, and the Sox are as strong a contender as any in the American League. The Bulls, after years and years of trying to make it work with myriad bad fits, finally turned to the professional in Billy Donovan and the results have been positive. Closer to the ice, the Blackhawks had beloved franchise icon, Denis Savard, behind the bench, but knew they needed more to get over the hump. When it was time to contend, they hired Joel Quenneville.
If in 3-5 years, the Blackhawks are ready to win and King hasn’t proven to be the guy, then the team should consider bringing in the hired gun. Until then, let King develop these kids and earn the chance to be there when it’s time to win again.
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