Heat's on in Chicago
Bad defense and a losing streak are threatening coach Joel Quenneville's job
There are gripes in the Blackhawks dressing room and concern in the front office
Goaltending has been a problem, and the trade market holds iffy quick fixes
DENVER -- It has always been Joel Quenneville's quirky little habit to take a slip of paper from his pocket and scribble notes whenever his team is scored upon. Who was on the ice, short observations of what went wrong -- those kinds of things are quickly jotted in longhand. Unfortunately for Quenneville, he's been flirting with writer's cramp a lot this season.
Only three other teams in the league had endured more flashing red lights than Quenneville's Chicago Blackhawks, who had allowed 163 goals as of Feb. 9.True, only five other teams had scored as many or more than Chicago's 171. But nobody is too happy right now around the Blackhawks dressing room. On a visit to Denver earlier this week, looks of real concern were easy to discern on many faces within the organization.
Not even two full years since winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961, the Blackhawks have turned in one eighth-place Western Conference finish (which wouldn't have happened without a loss by Dallas on the final day of the 2010-11 season) and are coming a little too close to eighth in the standings again as they enter the final two months of this campaign. There is enough concern about the state of Chicago's team that Quenneville's job security could be in some danger.
Think it can't happen? This is the NHL. Peter Laviolette won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and was fired in 2008. John Tortorella won the Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004 and was axed three seasons later. Bob Hartley won it with Colorado in 2001, went to Game 7 of the Western finals in 2002, and was canned 31 games into the '02-03 season. Randy Carlyle won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007, and now he's looking for work.
Quenneville has a contract that runs through the 2013-14 season, but money is about the only thing it guarantees. The pressure is always high on coaches in a league where financial profit usually only comes with a playoff berth. Quenneville is not immune to such reality. If his team's current six-game losing streak (0-5-1) continues, and the postseason starts to look at all like the dicey proposition it was last year, sources close to the situation tell SI.com that a change behind the bench is possible.
Chicago's defense and goaltending are its biggest problems, but quick-fix solutions for GM Stan Bowman with the Feb. 27 trade deadline looming look iffy at best. Teams with real assets to sell want a king's ransom in the cap era, and it's often just too tough to justify paying a high price for what could be a rental part. In a chat with USA Today, Toronto GM Brian Burke this week called the trade deadline "a pit of quicksand."
But there is also some internal grumbling among the Blackhawks about the team's systems -- especially the power play. Chicago ranked 14th in the league entering Thursday at 17.9 percent, down from 23.1 (fourth) last season. Duncan Keith has been a disappointment at the point on the PP, and as strange as it might have been to say last summer after his poor season and big contract, Brian Campbell's departure to Florida in a trade for Rostislav Olesz -- who was sent to the minors earlier this season -- is now widely seen as a bad trade by Bowman.
Gripes on a team about the coach and his style/system are too easy in times of losing, but make no mistake: nobody is happy that a club with stars such as Keith, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Brent Seabrook barely made the playoffs last year and has now has lost six in a row.
Better goaltending would make everyone look better and any talk of axing Quenneville seem absurd. But neither Corey Crawford nor Ray Emery has grabbed hold of the No. 1 job for any serious length of time, and Quenneville essentially is going back and forth between the two. Crawford, who looked so strong in the late stages of last season and a first-round loss to Vancouver, will get his latest chance at being the man again on Friday in San Jose, three days after Emery took the loss in a 5-2 setback to Colorado.
Crawford, who signed a three-year contract last summer at a cap hit of nearly $2.7 million, was projected to take further steps toward stardom, but so far he hasn't lived up to expectations. His saves percentage was right at the goaltending Mendoza line of .900 entering his start at San Jose, down from .917 last season. It was .927 for the seven-game playoff series against the Canucks.
Before the game against Colorado on Tuesday, Crawford spoke of trying to regain the confidence he had last spring. "You're human, there's thoughts that creep in once in a while," he said. "But it's a game, one that I've been playing a while, and you've got to stay positive. If things aren't going your way, you've got to work hard and battle through it."
Emblematic of Crawford's recent troubles is the goal he allowed from center ice to Kevin Klein in Nashville on Jan. 21. It broke a 1-1 second-period tie and the Predators went on to win, 5-2.
Crawford had won his previous two starts, but he's 0-3-1 since, allowing 14 goals on 89 shots. Included were five of the eight goals that Chicago surrendered to Edmonton last week -- the game in which the Oilers' Sam Gagner scored four and tacked on four assists.
"Consistency has definitely been an issue for me," Crawford said. "I've played some great games, and had some I wanted back. But there's nothing I can do about it now. My focus is on the next time I get in there."
Quenneville, in his fourth year behind Chicago's bench, has never had a losing season as a coach in the NHL, with an overall record of 608-374-84-69. He is well-regarded throughout the game, and has a deep knowledge of hockey's defensive aspects. (He was a blueliner with the Maple Leafs, Rockies/Devils, Whalers and Capitals from 1978 to 1991.) He has been accused of being a Captain Hook with his goaltenders through the years, as evidenced by Chicago having had six netminders who arguably held the No. 1 spot during the past three-plus seasons (Nikolai Khabibulin, Cristobal Huet, Antti Niemi, Marty Turco, Emery and Crawford).
"Well, I don't know if I'm impatient with goalies," Quenneville says. "'Crow' played the majority of the stretch last year. I don't know if that's being impatient or not. This year, he's had the bulk of the games, and Ray has come in here and played pretty well when he's gotten the net. He had one stretch where he got to sustain it. I accept criticism in that regard and there have been some tough stretches in that area, but at the same time, the goaltending here for the most part has been pretty good."
Emery, who helped take the Ducks to the playoffs last year with some superb late-season play and who went to the Cup final with Ottawa in 2007, has been a relative bargain for Chicago at $600,000, with an 11-5-2 record and .901 saves percentage. Yet, only Tampa Bay's tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Mathieu Garon have lower combined saves percentages than Emery and Crawford so far.
"I think January and February are tough months in this league in general," Emery says. "If there's little cracks in your game, they tend to show during the dog days. It's probably a good opportunity for us to course-correct and start going the right way. That said, there has to be a sense of urgency, and you need to start playing a system and consistently for the stretch run. I think we know what we need to do, but we kind of stray from it here and there."
As for anything he could impart to the younger Crawford, Emery said, "You kind of have to have a bad memory as a goalie. You can't get too caught up on one bad play or one bad game."
Owners and general managers, though, get wound up after two bad games in a row. The little slips of paper they write on when difficult times continue are usually pink, not white.
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