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What is going on with the Blackhawks?

May 10, 2012 Leave a comment

(ESPN CHICAGO) — Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville opened the door for plenty of speculation when he said on Tuesday there was “dysfunction” among his coaching staff with regard to the firing of assistant Mike Haviland.
The picture emerging from West Madison Street is one of dysfunction that extends beyond just the coaching staff. Whispers and rumors of dissension beyond the normal back and forth of a team trying to achieve its goals have been rampant. And for good reason. The situation boils down to two camps: Quenneville’s and the Bowmans (general manager Stan and senior advisor Scotty). In the midst of a nine-game losing streak in February, Scotty Bowman accompanied the team on the road and saw first-hand the problems the Hawks were having on special teams. Not long afterward, director of player development Barry Smith was asked to help with some coaching duties. But not by Quenneville, according to multiple sources. Smith is a Bowman confidant and the unusual idea of helping a Stanley Cup-winning coach came from Scotty. Quenneville wasn’t given a choice in the matter, according to the sources. In fact, it was at that point that assistant Mike Kitchen’s job was in jeopardy. But Kitchen is a Quenneville confidant. So Kitchen stayed, and Smith was forced upon Quenneville, no matter the coach’s public proclamations of his acceptance of help. Smith took an active role talking to players and instructing the special teams. It prompted one member of the hockey community to say Smith’s involvement was undermining Quenneville.  “And the whole coaching fraternity knows it,” a source said. Things came to a head on the final day of the regular season in Detroit. Multiple sources said there was a loud argument between Quenneville and Smith during which loyalties were questioned. It was the last the team saw of Smith. He never again ran a practice, and his travel with the team was limited to Game 5 against Phoenix. Quenneville eventually won that battle and now has full control of the coaching staff, but he certainly doesn’t have full control of personnel. It’s assumed he has control of how that personnel is used, but even that is in question.

The excerpt above is from Jesse Roger’s expose if you will of the Chicago Blackhawks front office.  While I think this is a very well done piece by Rogers, I am I more confused than ever.  Who is calling the shots?  Who has ultimate authority? The front office hierarchy is terribly perplexing, but the one thing that is apparent is that the Blackhawks are a mess.

The dysfunction and distrust infecting the Blackhawks came to light in the past two weeks.  Chicago Blackhawks’ Assistant GM Marc Bergevin left to become the General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens and it was rumored that Joel Quenneville would go with him.  Was Quennville ever actually approached by Bergevin? Was Quenneville just using this as a bargaining chip?  Who knows, but within the week Joel Quenneville fired assistant Mike Haviland.  Coach Quenneville said that there was some dysfunction in the coaching staff and that the move needed to be made. Mike Haviland was a long time AHL coach and was hired before Joel Quenneville’s arrival in Chicago.

I met Mike Haviland at a bar on Armitage in late October.  We watched football and talked hockey for the better part of an hour.  Despite the shootout loss the night before to the Bruins both Haviland and I were filled with optimism about the season.  Kane had been playing some of the best hockey of his career in the first few weeks of 2011-12.  I asked him simply “What’s gotten into Kane? His game is on a different level.” Haviland was effusive in his praise of Kane and mentioned two very specific reasons as to why Patrick Kane had elevated his game. “He has a pretty serious girlfriend.  Good girl. Sweetheart from Buffalo.  Seems to have changed him a bit.  He still drinks like a fish, but he is more serious. Came into camp just completely ripped.  Really worked hard this offseason”.  Then Haviland touched on Kane’s move to center. “Moving Kaner to center was the best thing we ever did.  He needs the puck on his stick and playing in the middle funnels everything to him”.  I then asked if the move to center was permanent, Haviland’s response really stuck with me and now, in light of the front office chaos, seems so relevant. He said “I don’t know if it’ll be permanent. Joel[Quenneville] doesn’t really like him there.  Not sure if he can handle the grind all season.  It’s tough to play all 200 feet, but so far he’s doing it”. The two comments, one right after another, seemed odd.  If it was the best decision the team ever made, why wouldn’t it be permanent and why wouldn’t Coach Quenneville be on board?  So I asked “If Joel doesn’t like him at center who decided to put him there?” To which Haviland replied “It was an organizational decision.  Kaner played center in Junior.  When we couldn’t find a top 6 center in the summer we agreed to experiment with Kaner in the middle. So far so good, but we’ll see”.   We continued to talk about hockey and the conversation shifted as my friend came over and joined the conversation.  Haviland couldn’t have been nicer.  He is a very amiable guy.  Loves telling stories and slapping backs.  He bought my table a bucket of beers after my friend and I returned to our table.  It was a memorable encounter for me(obviously) and I was sad to hear that he was fired, but it also made sense given our conversation that day.

Haviland’s firing proves that Quenneville has been given more power, but it doesn’t shed any light on who is actually running the Hockey Operations department.  Maybe I was naive, but I always assumed that Scotty Bowman didn’t have all that much power in the organization.  That he was basically a GM emeritus and not involved in the day-to-day operations. Similar to Vito Corleone right before he died.  Just running around with the grandkids and occasionally dropping some sage advice to his son who is actually running the business.  Now we come to find out that it was Scott Bowman’s idea to have his longtime confidant, Barry Smith, show up to practice mid-way through the season and start coaching special teams.  That’s more of a Michael Corleone move. Pushing out Tom Hagan(Kitchen) and inserting his treasonous brother-in-law(Barry Smith) as consigliere.  And if we are sticking with the Godfather theme…I think Stan Bowman is most definitely Fredo.

Even with all of those insightful and accurate Godfather references the Blackhawks structural hierarchy is still muddled.  Does Stan have complete and final say?  Is it by committee?  What is John McDonough’s role?  McDonough is the one figure who has seemingly stayed out of the fray somehow even though he brought in all of the people involved in this saga.  It was McDonough who was instrumental in Quenneville coming to Chicago.  Dale Tallon was reluctant to fire his long time friend Denis Savard.  Then it was McDonough who fired Dale Tallon and replaced him with Stan and Scotty Bowman.  Tallon was shown the door largely because he was blamed for over-paying Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet, as well as some of the clerical oversights that led to contract issues with a crop of RFAs.  However, it is now being rumored that McDonough had his finger prints on both the Campbell and Huet signings(Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry now claims that McDonough forced the Soriano signing when he was in the Cubs front office as well).  McDonough’s background is in marketing so it can be conceived that he wanted to make a splash by winning headlines in the offseason.  It worked.  Chicago was excited about the Hawks for the first time in over a decade and they sold out every game during the 2008-09 season.  However, even with the success on the ice and at the ticket office, the Blackhawks put themselves in a precarious position with the salary cap as all-stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith needed to be signed to longterm extensions.  Now the salary cap became Tallon’s problem and McDonough decided that he wasn’t capable of fixing it.  Tallon out, Bowmans in.

When the decision to implement Barry Smith was made by one of the Bowmans, is that something that McDonough has to sign-off on?   How much autonomy do the Bowmans have inside of Blackhawk Hockey Ops?  Blackhawks fans are frustrated, but they don’t know at whom to point their finger.  If the Bowmans do have complete autonomy then they have done a poor job to date.  The Campbell trade was a complete, and I would argue unnecessary, bust.  They vastly overpaid Michael Frolik.  They failed to acquire any viable goaltending solution so they were forced to overpay Crawford.  They gave Andrew Brunette $2m and a top 6 role even though he can’t skate and the Hawks entire system is built around skating and puck-possession.  Also, if the Bowmans really are so unsatisfied and underwhelmed with the performance of Quenneville, why not just fire him?  At least the organization would have one voice.  Sending an unwanted power-play expert undermines the Coach’s authority and can fracture the room. The Blackhawks have been on a downward spiral since the minute the Stanley Cup parade ended in 2010, and the decline actually started when the team was on their way to the Cup.  Every decision seems to be worse than the last.

At some point the buck has to stop with Rocky Wirtz.  The team in many ways has never been more successful.  However, for the first time in Rocky’s era as Chairman the team is seemingly miles away from the Stanley Cup. Mr. Wirtz needs to get his house in order.  Wirtz may not be a hockey guy, but he is a business man.  He knows that every organization needs structure and for their employees to have defined roles.  Right now that doesn’t seem to be the case.  2012-13 is a make or break year for the entire organization.

Follow the Chief @WindyCitiSports

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