Over the past few months, there have been rumblings from our analysts and readers alike that there may be a disconnect of sorts between our beloved Chicago Blackhawks’ GM Stan Bowman and Head Coach Joel Quenneville. While I am by no means asserting that I have any idea what’s going on behind closed doors at the United Center, I will say when contrasted with the moves made during the 2013-2014 season, the recent transactions that transpired over the past few weeks of the offseason have certainly got my eyebrow raised in intrigue.
Look at it this way: during the regular season, Blackhawks’ management opted to keep aged veteran Michal Handzus on for one more season, traded for veterans Kris Versteeg and Peter Regin, signed veteran Brandon Bollig to a multi-year contract, and sent much touted rookie Brandon Pirri packing. By comparison, this offseason the Blackhawks used their first pick of the draft on a center as opposed to trading for one of the several free agents available for the position, signed Blackhawks youngsters Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin, and Antti Raanta to multi-year contracts, traded away Bollig for a draft pick, and parted ways with Michal Handzus.
If the Blackhawks’ strategy with their player personal during the offseason seems like an about face from their strategy during the regular season, well it’s probably because it is. What’s somewhat concerning here is the sheer starkness in difference between the strategies, and it gets you thinking if everyone in the Hawks’ front office is paddling in the same direction, let alone in the same canoe. Yes, you could argue that Bowman is trying to clear as much cap space as possible (which turned out to be lower than anticipated) to make room for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews’ new contracts, and while that certainly is a factor there was another occurrence this offseason that suggests that perhaps there is more at play.
Perhaps one of the biggest out-of-left-field occurrences this offseason with the Blackhawks was their firing of goalie coach Steve Weeks. As you will recall, Weeks was brought on at the beginning of the season to replace long-time goalie coach Stephane Waite, who left the Hawks for the Montreal Canadiens. While Corey Crawford did implode during Western Conference Finals and Antii Raanta didn’t play well enough during the regular season to shoulder as many rotations as the Hawks needed him to, Crow did nearly take the Hawks back to the Stanley Cup Finals, and Rant is after all, a rookie. So it seems Weeks got the axe a bit prematurely at first glance, especially after just one year on the payroll.
Now I hate to take the tabloid route/angle here, but the conspiracy theorist in me suggests that Week’s dismissal smacks of cronyism, and that he was perhaps brought to the Hawks organization as a personal favor from former Hartford Whaler teammate Joel Quenneville (Weeks and Coach Q were teammates in Hartford from 1984-1988), despite his “credentials.”
Don’t get me wrong, I think Coach Q has served at the Hawks’ head coach helm admirably, but one has to wonder why he doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of props from the rest of the NHL. You could certainly argue the Blackhawks are such a talented team that the coach can only get in the way of their success; a statement Quenneville has not been immune to over the years.
Furthermore, perhaps the biggest shock from this past regular season was the trading away of promising Hawks rookie Brandon Pirri. Pirri’s debut was long awaited by many in Blackhawks Nation, and despite humming along just fine for a rookie alongside Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, Pirri was sent back to the Rockford IceHogs and then to the Florida Panthers because Quenneville was disappointed with the defensive side of his game. Pirri leaving the Hawks was a clear sign of Coach Q’s unwillingness to mentor young players, even for very coachable problems in their game.
This quality is not necessarily a fault, but given the poor play of the veterans Coach Q hung his hat on this past season (namely Regin, Versteeg, and Handzus), his credibility is player personnel strategy has taken a serious hit, opening the window for Bowman to take a more active role in roster reconstruction.
Thus, putting it all together, Bowman’s resounding investment in the Blackhawks’ younger players as opposed to going after lower-maintenance veterans may be a signal that any laissez-faire coaching in the locker room is effectively over, and that any member of the coaching staff employing that style of leadership doesn’t have a future with the franchise, and perhaps Steve Weeks has served as the first example.
I know in all likelihood I’m taking the extreme view on these matters, but again, considering all that’s gone down with the Blackhawks this past year, such questions do beg consideration. Ultimately I’m sure Coach Q can get the most out of the young players Bowman has given him to work with this offseason, the only question is how soon that investment will pay the dividends we all expect.
FOR THE DAGGER!