Joel Quenneville pushes right buttons for Blackhawks
BY MARK LAZERUS email@example.com May 17, 2013 9:46PM
Hawks head coach Joel Quenneville watches the last few moments of the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 win over the Dallas Stars Monday April 15, 2013 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: June 19, 2013 6:20AM
A year ago, depending on whom you asked, Joel Quenneville might have been lucky to still have a job. Two straight first-round playoff exits had the 2010 Stanley Cup feeling like a fading, sepia-toned memory.
Now? Quenneville has the league’s top team in the second round as clear favorites to win the Cup, and Friday was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s best coach. Sure, it helps that he’s got a deep, talented roster laden with stars. But he had virtually the same team last year, and look how far it got him.
In the lockout-shortened season, Quenneville has pushed all the right buttons and made all the right moves. Here are five of his master strokes in a masterful season.
1. The buy-in
Quenneville’s primary goal entering the season was to cut down the team’s goals-against average after a woeful season defensively. That meant getting everyone to buy in to his “team game” concept, in which forwards worry about their own zone first, and offense second. No easy task on a team full of such gifted offensive players — not everyone has the mind-set of a Jonathan Toews or Marian Hossa. So Quenneville opted for the trickle-down effect, starting with Patrick Kane. The constant sight of Kane, of all people, backchecking and working in his own zone was emblematic of everything the Hawks have done well this year. After all, if Kane’s mucking in the corners of his own end, what excuse does anybody else have not to?
“The thing you really learn from him is when you do play good defensively, you’re going to have more chances on offense,” Kane said. “One of the things he really stresses is if you’re doing that as a top scorer, or a leader on the team, most guys are going to follow and buy in. That’s something he really stressed to me.”
The result was clear: the Hawks went from giving up the third-most goals in the conference last year to the least in the league this year.
2. Rest for the weary
Facing 48 games in 99 days, Quenneville — a player’s coach with 803 NHL games played — knew keeping his guys fresh was paramount. So he gave his players multiple days off a week, and kept the workouts he did have short and to the point. No coach likes to give up teaching time, but Quenneville understood that keeping guys fresh was more important.
“He knows how to get the best out of his players, whether or not it’s the days off that Kaner enjoys so much,” Toews said. “He really gives us the opportunity to be ready. If we have an off night, or come out flat and don’t have that energy, he understands we don’t need to go on the ice for an hour and a half the next day.”
That’s the fine line Quenneville walks well, between the tough-guy boss who sat Viktor Stalberg against the Red Wings and benched Brent Seabrook for a period after allowing a shorthanded goal against Colorado earlier in the season (“he’ll kick you in the ass,” Dave Bolland said Friday), and the affable, player-friendly cohort who knows when his team needs a break or a laugh (“He’s a teddy bear,” Bolland also said Friday).
3. Saad’s surge
When Daniel Carcillo was hurt in the season opener, Quenneville — a famed tinkerer — could have put Patrick Sharp up there, or could have broken up the quick-clicking third line he assembled in a five-day training camp. Instead, he gave rookie Brandon Saad a chance to skate with Toews and Hossa, a move that greatly expedited Saad’s development into a legit top-line forward and Calder candidate.
In fact, across the board, Quenneville’s ability to restrain himself from firing up the line blender has given the team some needed stability, and made all the days off more feasible.
“He’s kept things pretty constant,” Saad said. “That makes it easer to develop and maintain that chemistry we all have.”
4. The killers
In an effort to preserve his top guys, improve the Hawks’ dreadful penalty kill and light a fire under Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik, Quenneville anointed the offensive-minded forwards as his top penalty-killing unit right away. They bought in completely, and reinvented themselves as penalty-killing stars and defensively responsible fourth-liners.
Their short-handed ice time per game more than doubled from last year, and while Toews and Hossa got more rest, Kruger and Frolik spearheaded the unit’s rise from 27th in the league (78.1 percent) to third (87.2). So far in this postseason, the Hawks have killed off all 20 opposing power plays.
“It’s kind of my role right now, and I’m glad I can be in that position,” said Frolik, a two-time 20-goal scorer with the Florida Panthers. “So far it’s working good.”
5. Stick with Crow
When Corey Crawford gave up his third goal of the first half of the first period at San Jose on Feb. 5, Quenneville had every right to yank him. Especially considering Ray Emery was coming off the performance of a lifetime in Calgary. Such a move could have been devastating to Crawford, whose postseason struggles a year ago were still fresh in his mind. But Quenneville stuck with Crawford, and the third-year netminder rewarded him with a tremendous effort the rest of the way in a 5-3 Hawks win, and more than three months later, he hasn’t let up yet.
Even with Emery posting a gaudy 17-1 record, Quenneville never strayed from Crawford, and never truly entertained the idea of a goaltender controversy. Quenneville stuck with Crawford all the way, and he’s being rewarded for it now.
“Joel’s shown a lot of confidence in me,” Crawford said. “And that gives you confidence as a goalie.”