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Decision to back Joel Quenneville is paying off for Blackhawks

Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville tries get attentiofficials first period Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 overtime loss Detroit Red Wings Sunday January

Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville tries to get the attention of the officials in the first period of the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings Sunday January 8, 2012 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 4, 2013 11:49PM



Asked to describe what has made Joel Quenneville such an effective coach during the Blackhawks’ record start to the season, winger Patrick Sharp said that Quenneville “knows how to push buttons.”

“There’s a lot of buttons,” Quenneville replied.

Indeed, few coaches have as much to work with as Quenneville. He has elite offensive talent in guys such as Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews and Sharp. He has one of the top blue-line tandems in the league in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. And he has a strong goalie and a veteran backup in Corey Crawford and Ray Emery.

Of course, he had all those things last year, too. Yet last spring saw the Hawks tumble from the top of the league standings with a soul-sucking, mind-numbing death march of a nine-game losing streak, then get bounced out of the playoffs in the first round for the second time since the franchise’s soul-cleansing, paradigm-shifting run to the Stanley Cup in 2010.

The stars were fading, failing to live up to their potential. The defensemen were pedestrian, failing to protect their goaltenders. The goaltenders were unreliable, failing to bail out their defensemen. The coaching staff was dysfunctional — Quenneville’s description — failing to deliver a cohesive message. And Quenneville had lost the room, failing to keep his team focused, motivated and sold on his schemes and style.

That was the perception ­outside the United Center ­offices, at least. Quenneville was on the hot seat. No job was safe. An offseason overhaul was needed. A new second-line center, maybe. A new goalie to compete with (replace?) Crawford. A new voice behind the bench, perhaps.

Blow it up.

Hawks general manager Stan Bowman heard it all and read it all. And he ignored it all.

“You have to be aware of what’s going on around you, but that doesn’t really influence what we do,” Bowman told the Sun-Times. “In other words, the things swirling around, the fans and the media, we don’t get caught up in that for the good or for the bad. We have to do our analysis on the performance of the team and the performance of the coaches, and you try to set all that other stuff aside. It’s not easy to do that, but it’s part of the job. You can’t be swayed by that. Because in some ways the fans don’t have all the information we have. There’s a lot of things we know that the public doesn’t know.”

So Bowman stood pat, only signing a pair of No. 6 defensemen in Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank and hoping late-season additions such as Johnny Oduya and Andrew Shaw would prove to be difference-makers in a full season. Quenneville stayed, only firing assistant Mike Haviland and replacing him with another longtime cohort, Jamie Kompon (Quenneville’s decision, Bowman insisted).

Media wailed. Fans gnashed teeth. The downward slide was sure to continue.

Well, one lockout and 22 games in a row without a regulation loss later, Kane is playing at an ­otherworldly level, the Hawks have one of the stoutest defenses in the league, Crawford and Emery are virtually unbeatable, Quenneville’s on the coolest seat in the league and Bowman can sit back and happily watch it all unfold from his swank United Center suite.

If anyone has the right to feel vindicated by the Hawks’ ­preposterous start, it’s Bowman and Quenneville. Not that they’d ever offer up an “I told you so.”

“I get that question a lot,” ­Bowman said. “I understand it. I just don’t really approach it that way. We were disappointed [last year], but there were a lot of good things that happened. We viewed it as us being very close to making a big run last year. It’s not like we were way off the mark.”

Part of it is good fortune, of course. No team benefitted from the lockout more than the Hawks. The delayed start to the season ­allowed Hossa to recover fully from the concussion he suffered in the playoffs. And the truncated training camp (with no preseason games) ­allowed the Hawks — who returned their lineup virtually intact — to hit the ice running while other teams scrambled to integrate new faces into new schemes.

But while this is almost the same roster as last season, it isn’t the same team. Quenneville gave rookie Brandon Saad a chance on the top line when Daniel ­Carcillo was hurt in the opener, and Saad has emerged as a relentless ball of hustle and ­scoring chances, a new fan favorite. Quenneville gave Dave Bolland a chance to be that elusive second-line center, and he instantly clicked with Kane and Sharp (Bolland is likely to return from an upper-body injury Tuesday or Wednesday).

Quenneville threw together a patchwork checking line of Shaw centering Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg, and they’ve quickly developed a striking resemblance to the line of Bolland, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd that sparked the Cup run. And the famously finicky Quenneville has resisted the urge to tinker with his lines, showing the patience to stick with what works.

“Joel’s done a fantastic job,” Bowman said.

Beyond that, the Hawks have bought in fully to Quenneville’s defense-begets-offense style. Kane is backchecking nearly every shift. Saad is modeling his game after Toews and Hossa, two of the best two-way ­players in the league. And a pair of offensive-minded guys, Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik, have embraced fully their new roles on the fourth line and the penalty kill, allowing Quenneville to roll four lines and match anyone against anyone, much the same way he did in 2010.

“We certainly feel good about our team, the way they’ve approached it — they’ve got to be commended for how they’ve done it,” Quenneville said. “We give them some criteria and some guidelines for how to approach the game, but they’ve got to implement it, they’ve got to do it. We’ve really progressed in our team game, as far as how we’ve played in all zones. Everybody’s contribution’s been meaningful.”

Kane credits Quenneville for keeping the players — from the kids to the stars — focused and motivated, taking the streak game by game and not getting ahead of themselves.

“He’s never satisfied; if I’m not playing good tonight, I’m not going to get as much ice time, that’s just the way it is,” Kane said.” He deserves a lot of credit, for sure. It’s tough to get a team to win a couple in a row, let alone [22] games straight without a [regulation] loss. He’s been huge for our team.”

Quenneville, like Bowman, shrugs off the idea of vindication, deferring credit to those around him. After all, the Hawks haven’t won anything yet. What happens in January and February doesn’t matter. What happens in May and June does.

But with the local and ­national focus settling in on what the Hawks are doing these days, there’s no escaping it. After another truncated postseason and an offseason of turmoil, the Hawks didn’t really make any moves.

And that might have been the best move of all.

“I’m excited,” Quenneville said. “I don’t think I’ve changed too much. But I’m definitely having fun.”



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