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Blackhawks Rebuild Report: ’18-19 Some Change But Not Enough



In the Blackhawks Rebuild Report, Chicago Hockey Now takes an in-depth look at different elements of the Chicago Blackhawks rebuild. All contenders eventually fall into the rebuild cycle of some kind. But these stories are designed to track how the Blackhawks expedited this cycle with a series of poor decisions, and an inability to fix what was broken.

Starting with the 2016-17 season, which started the fall, CHN looked at 2017-18 and how the Blackhawks would miss the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Now it’s onto 2018-19, where one big move was made that shook up the organization.

The Blackhawks 2018-19 Season

In light of all that has happened over the past three seasons, it must be remembered that all of this comes before anything was known about Kyle Beach. So when then-head coach Joel Quenneville was fired by the club, there was a mourning period within the fanbase because of his work winning three Stanley Cups. Obviously the perception has changed following what occurred. But this is important to remember for future pieces.

Chicago turned to Jeremy Colliton, who was coaching AHL affiliate Rockford. He was lauded by management and the front office put long time Scotty Bowman associate Barry Smith on the bench to help ease him in. This is also important to remember because it was Smith who once drew the ire of Quenneville during an incident in 2012. With Colliton, it seemed the Blackhawks finally broke the unspoken (or rarely acknowledged) tension between then general manager Stan Bowman and Quenneville.

Some saw it as someone the front office could steer in the direction they saw fit. While there’s no hard evidence for that assertion, Colliton was certainly a different personality than Quenneville.

Colliton was good in Rockford. He coached well in Sweden, earned a shot in Rockford, and took the IceHogs to the Conference Final. There was success. But how it would it translate?

The idea was he would come to the big club, and help develop the younger kids into regulars in the NHL. The Blackhawks cut Quenneville loose after a 6-1 start saw five-straight losses. Colliton presided over Patrick Kane’s career season that saw 110 points and 44 goals. He finished with a 30-28-9 mark but Chicago missed the playoffs again.

The record was better. There was improvement from a season earlier. But there were still problems–some of which would be kicked down the road for later.

When asked about Quenneville’s firing, then President and CEO John McDonough had this to say about what they would be trying to achieve now that the coach was gone.

“I wouldn’t label it as a rebuilding, I would reference it more as a remodeling,” McDonough said. “You still have Hall of Fame players, my expectations are that this is a playoff team. And if you get in, anything can happen. So that is the phase that we are in right now. You never know whether to call it a rebuild or a remodel. We want to win. We want to rewin. … Sometimes, as painful as it is, you need a fresh start.”

The Aftermath

In the previous piece, it was written that McDonough was not truly a hockey guy. Yes, he presided over the team as the president and CEO. But to say that he played one of the biggest roles in Chicago winning three Stanley Cups is a faulty assertion. The people before him, namely Dale Tallon and Mike Smith, built the foundation that would allow McDonough and others to reap the benefits in the 2010’s. It’s not to say McDonough didn’t have his role in their success. Of course he did.

But it wasn’t as if he was the missing piece of the puzzle that suddenly opened the door to winning. He came on as things were rising.

The winning, though, would allow him to tighten his grip on things. So the culture that continued, guided by what McDonough called a “re-win,” would go forward.

The 2018-19 season was a line of demarcation for Chicago.  They had two ways to look at things:

  1. They tear it down and try to rebuild
  2. They do the “win on the fly” that few teams have been able to do successfully. This is the re-win he spoke of.

The New York Rangers chose the first and have seen modest success, but fell way short of expectations this season.

Others not so much. But the second option has come with little success and often takes gobs of time.

McDonough always appeared to approach things with the “brand” in mind–and it makes sense. He’s a marketing guy. The logo was always prominent in interviews. The ads for the team were always spot on. On the surface, things popped and it looked good–so long as they were winning.

But losing wouldn’t work for McDonough. He had no time for it. One can suppose it makes sense–it’s bad for business playing to empty crowds and returning to the days where players would go unnoticed walking the streets of Chicago. The 2018-19 season saw career highs for Kane and Toews, and if there ever a time where a real conversation could be had about the future, it was then. Complicating matters more, as will be discussed later, the team’s stars had no interest in a rebuild.

A look at the roster from that season sees a top heavy team in Kane, Toews, and a 41-goal season from Alex DeBrincat. No they didn’t make the playoffs. But it sure looked like DeBrincat was a rising star. Maybe McDonough was onto something. Perhaps they could “re-win” with the wunderkind in Colliton and riding their stars and newcomers to a new era.

Hindsight provides us the ability to look back and scoff. In the moment then, though, many wanted clarity as to what Chicago was doing. Not a middle of the road approach that would just barely miss the playoffs, and result in middle round picks that would take years to develop.

But as a global pandemic would bring the world to its knees, the Blackhawks would experience one after shock after another until a massive earthquake would destroy everything. It would give them no other choice but to rebuild a new foundation out of the rubble.

Until then, they’d give their damndest to “re-win.” That, too would fail. And eventually, the man who once claimed his managing style was one that “welcomed choppy waters”, would get his wish.

In those choppy waters a season later, he’d be thrown overboard.

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