Chicago Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton showed in November that he could bend a bit and tweak his system to free up more offense.
In turn, Hawks players have shown since December that they’ve bought in more to Colliton’s philosophies. For one, you can’t usually sacrifice defense for opportunities on offense.
“It was probably mid-December, it was a little bit of a change in the commitment to the work ethic away from the puck,” Colliton said Monday before Game 2 of the Hawks’ best-of-five Stanley Cup qualifier series against the Edmonton Oilers. “Making sure as forwards we’re always getting above (the puck). Making sure as (defensemen) we’re having the gap. Understanding that all five guys, we need to work together.
“It’s a simple thing, but we need everyone to do it all the time. Otherwise, things break down.”
Put another way, you can’t press the offensive zone or extend your offensive shifts to the point you’re behind the puck carrier or give up odd-man rushes when the puck goes the other way.
“The shift length has been a big improvement, just being willing to keep your shift to 40 seconds, (though) there’s going to be times it’s unavoidable,” Colliton said. “But understanding that we don’t need to win the game on any given shift. It may be that what we need from you as a player is to pass it on to the next guy in a good spot (and) leave the next group in a position where they can maybe win the game for us.”
Colliton’s system seems to have made a believer in Hawks interim President Danny Wirtz, but he told NBC Sports Chicago’s Blackhawks Talk podcast that it’s general manager Stan Bowman’s call to make about Colliton’s future with the team.
“He has a lot of confidence in Jeremy right now,” Wirtz said of Bowman, “and we’re really starting to see how his approach, you have to give these things time. You have to let folks like that implement their system and see that buy-in build as it goes on, and I think you’ve seen a system that, when played properly like on Saturday, clearly has some great results and gets the most out of our team, so that’s obviously Stan’s decision.”
In November, it had been a little more than a year since Colliton replaced Joel Quenneville, and Patrick Kane and other offensive players weren’t thriving as well in Colliton’s defensive-oriented system as they had during Quenneville’s Stanley Cup years.
Colliton listened to players and made adjustments.
Among them, he switched up the forward lines and changed defensive zone coverage to create more space so forwards could carry the puck in transition instead of relying on dump-and-chase, which wasn’t working as well for them.
“All of a sudden, it seems like we have more options coming out of our end, we have more motion, more speed, which is always a good thing,” Kane said at the time, according to blackhawks.com.
Conversely, it takes time for even veteran players — some with 10 years and three Stanley Cups worth of experience — not only to reconcile offensive styles they’ve been using for years with new offensive and defensive concepts, but also to believe in them.
“There’s a lot of new faces, new system for a lot of guys coming in,” defenseman Olli Maatta said Monday. “Just getting used to it and starting to trust that system that it works. It’s like old habits from past teams (were) kicking in at the beginning of the season.
“That cost a lot at the beginning. We weren’t on the same page as a team. But December, January, we started picking it up a little bit, started to trust the system. Just do your job, just trust it, don’t hesitate. Reading off each other is a big thing. That’s how we started feeling, and we got better and better as the season went on.”
Over the first 32 games, through a Dec. 12 loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the Hawks averaged 2.7 goals per game and their opponents 3.2. Starting with a Dec. 14 loss to the St. Louis Blues, they flipped that dynamic, scoring 3.3 goals per game to opponents’ 3.0 over the final 38 games before the league shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Hawks’ Corsi For percentage at even strength, meaning their ability to control the puck more than the other team, saw a slight uptick by about a percentage point to 49% over the same time span.
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Jonathan Toews mentioned during training camp last month that some of the veterans, who lost a few scrimmages to a squad of younger teammates and backups, were getting reacquainted with the details and “trying to get ourselves in the right mindset to be playing the systems right.”
In Game 1, everything appeared to be all systems go against an outmatched Oilers team, and Colliton won his first postseason game. At 35, he became the youngest NHL coach to win his playoff debut since current Hawks assistant Marc Crawford did it May 6, 1995, with the Quebec Nordiques.
“We’ve been playing freely offensively,” Hawks defenseman Connor Murphy said Sunday, “and it took a little bit of time for us to start to adapt to some of the systems defensively and through neutral zones and things.
“But it’s been harped on by him about the process of getting better as a team day by day and that it’ll take time and keeping a positive attitude.”