Imagine you’re Jeremy Colliton. You’re young, allegedly great at communicating, and coming off a deep Calder Cup run. You’re the lad in waiting behind a legendary coach who looks to have lost the room, and who’s certainly and ironically fallen out of the Brain Trust’s circle of trust. When the front office drops the hammer on the Joel Quenneville Era—and along with it the groin-grabbing ecstasy of a dynasty bygone—they turn to you, the 33-year-old, out-of-the-box hire who’s had success everywhere he’s gone.
Then you go 12–18–6. And now, the question is, “Who’s to blame,” or, more specifically, “Is Colliton a long-term answer?”
Before we dive asslong into the why and why not regarding whether Colliton’s the answer, let’s get a few things out of the way. First, 36 games do not a coach make, but it does give us an idea for what a coach can be, so consider this a halfway review of sorts. Second, despite what Bowman and McDonough wanted you to believe, this team was a fringe wild card team if everything went perfectly, a 70-point team max if not. Third, Colliton has a contract that runs through the 2020–21 season. With these givens in mind, let’s putz around for a proof for both scenarios.
The Case for Colliton as the Answer
1. Time: In a November 25, 2018, interview with Scott Powers, Stan Bowman had this to say about Colliton’s slow start (emphasis added):
Coming in, we didn’t want to change a lot of things off the bat, but we want to try and change some of the tendencies. The hardest part is guys have played one way for a while. You get habits engrained with you. It’s hard to change them without a lot of practice time, without also thinking on the ice, and I think we’re seeing some of that.
While there’s a ton to unpack in this quote alone, the part I’m focused on is the time factor. Colliton has had very little time to implement the systems he wants to implement. The wholesale changes he has tried to make—man-to-man instead of zone defense, primarily—have been done on the fly. Only one systemic change, the power play, has worked so far (and given the depth of scoring talent the Hawks have always had, that shouldn’t be so surprising). As The Maven so eloquently pointed out a few weeks ago, if Bowman had any courage whatsoever, he would have fired Quenneville before the season began and given Colliton more time to try to implement his systems in a more controlled setting, rather than making him shit his pants, dive in, and swim.
Whether those systems work or not is a question more adequately answered with more preparation. With this season swirling down the drain like piss in the Wrigley troughs, one of the things to look forward to is what Colliton can push out after a full offseason of tinkering. Right now, it’s obvious that the man-to-man system is a diaper fire. It’s possible that that’s just what it is, but it’s also possible that the guys he has just haven’t been comfortable making such a marked change in in-game situations (on top of the sucking, instincts tend to take over).
If Colliton is given at least one offseason to prepare—rather than hoping that guys older than him will change the way they’ve played for a decade on a dime—it’s plausible that the system is only as bad as players within it, which is a bit easier to solve than a broken system.
2. Talent: You and I both knew that unless everything went perfectly, this Hawks team wouldn’t be a playoff team. You can’t really blame Colliton for having a roster whose blue line is the personification of a middle finger in Quenneville’s face foisted upon him. (You can blame him for how he uses it, which we’ll do shortly.) But there might be hope.
At the rate the team is going, they’re likely to be in the running for a top-2 pick in the draft, which could inject young, NHL-ready forward talent into the mix immediately. By most accounts, Boqvist could be ready next year, as might Beaudin. The Hawks have cap space to use for a genuine top-4 defenseman in the offseason, which needs to be the foremost priority for Bowman, lest he’s trying to get fired.
If Colliton’s system requires speed, the Hawks have some waiting in the wings, and they have the salary cap means to go get some.
3. The Power Play: Of all the things Colliton has done right, this is it. Since December 18—which is when the current iteration of the PP1 took over—the Hawks are the absolute best power play team in the league with a 39.6% conversion rate (19 goals/48 opps.). They’re on a nine-game PP goal streak. They’ve climbed from deadass last to 16th in the league in that span. The next closest team to them in that time frame, the Penguins, are nearly 8% behind them at 31.8% (14 goals/44 opps.).
This is what gives me the most hope that Colliton is the answer. For nearly 11 years, the Hawks have had some of the best scoring talent on the planet yet only finished in the top 10 for PP% three times. Their woes on the PP were without a doubt systemic. It took Colliton about a month to fix that. When given the talent, Colliton tapped into it quickly. The power play is just a part of the whole, but if given enough time, you can’t help but wonder if he can fix other systemic problems the team has. So, I’ll argue that that power play is a case study in what Colliton can do given the appropriate talent and time.
The Case Against Colliton as the Answer
1. Firing Bowman: Bylsma–Murray in Buffalo. Hakstol–Hextall in Philly. Peters–Francis (Geraci) in Carolina. While it isn’t a hard-and-fast rule that a new GM will bring in a new coach, there is a history of it. And the drum that beats louder and louder every day is FIRE STAN BOWMAN. There’s certainly a case for it: From trading Teuvo, to signing Manning and extending Rutta as a “fuck you” to Quenneville, to claiming that he saw this team as a playoff contender, Bowman’s recent decision making has been, to put it politely, pigshit.
If Bowman is fired after this season, it’s possible that whoever replaces him will want to go Bret “Hitman” Hart and wash out the old-man smell Bowman left behind. That could include tossing Colliton. This is the most likely scenario in which Colliton doesn’t stick: a new GM throwing out the baby with the bathwater because the baby was born in the bathwater.
2. Lineup Management: Sometimes, the new boss looks awfully similar to the old boss. We’ve recently watched Henri Jokiharju take a healthy scratch in favor of Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom of the “not part of this team’s future” collective. When asked why he did that, this supposed Great Communicator babbled about “fast forwarding his development” by benching him, claiming “you can’t play everyone” (skip to 5:43 in this audio clip). What started off as a somewhat believable answer about Harju’s scratch (82-game season, takes time to adapt, don’t want to burn him out [though sending him to the WJC kind of fucks that narrative, doesn’t it?]) devolved into the question we can’t stop asking: “When is it Seabrook’s turn,” or, more accurately, “Why isn’t it Seabrook’s turn?”
And it’s not just that. It’s making DeBrincat play not-top-6 minutes with guys who are only skating because they won a fucking drawing (which is something Colliton has changed recently, which is good). It’s starting Cam Ward in situations that aren’t back-to-backs. It’s slotting Anisimov over DeBrincat and Saad (which is finally changing, too). The talent is what it is, but it’s the management of that talent that’s questionable. In a perfect world with this lineup, you’re looking at something like:
Dahlstrom–Seabrook, Koekkoek (rotating)
Although time is a factor in figuring out what you’ve got, it’s not really a mystery anymore. Load up the top 6, let Jokiharju create, and if you want to rotate your D-men, rotate the ones who either suck or aren’t a part of the future (this possibly includes Gustafsson). Until Colliton shows us that he can scratch Seabrook or Keith after a bad game, his “we might rotate guys” schtick will be hard to take seriously. He’s been put in an impossible situation with the defense, but if they’re really trying to win, when Seabrook and even Keith’s play warrant it, scratch them. (And kiss my ass with any cynical “asses in seats” arguments you want to make. If McDonough is as good a marketer as he says he is, he’ll find a way to market the team as it transitions away from the Old Guard. Even name recognition stops drawing after too much losing, so position the team to win more now.)
3. The Stats: Let’s look at this in two ways: Colliton vs. Quenneville this year; Colliton vs. Quenneville last year after Crawford’s injury. We can control for Crawford’s appearance this year because he wasn’t very good in the time he was here.
|47.85 (26th)||45.73 (29th)||41.76 (31st)||.994 (T-21st)||.417 (30th)|
|51.5 (10th)||49.17 (20th)||43.64 (27th)||.989 (22nd)||.500 (22nd)|
|51.96 (8th)||51.99 (6th)||46.88 (25th)||.979 (29th)||.394 (28th)|
* = After Crawford Injury
CF% = Corsi; SCF% = Scoring Chances For Percentage; HDCF% = High-Danger Chances For Percentage; PDO = Shooting Percentage + Save Percentage
No matter how you slice it, the Hawks are statistically worse across the board than they ever were with Quenneville, and that’s with marginally better luck (i.e., higher PDO) than Quenneville ever had (and Colliton’s PDO would likely be higher if he weren’t throwing Cam Ward and his .888 SV% out there with aplomb). They possess the puck less, have fewer scoring chances, and give up more high-danger chances. It’s no coincidence that they’re the worst in the league in HDCF% and second-worst in points percentage, in front of only Ottawa, a team that should be relegated to the AHL.
What’s even more worrying is that the team is getting statistically worse under Colliton despite marginally better talent. This year, Quenneville didn’t have Murphy or Strome (whether he’d use them properly is another story). He had Manning and Rutta, and we don’t need to sing that song again. He didn’t have Collin Delia to throw a .923 despite facing 35+ shots per game. While neither Murphy, Strome, nor Delia are saviors, they are better than what Quenneville had to work with.
So, What Are We Doing Here?
In the end, despite the record and the stats, you let Colliton ride out his contract at the very least. Watching what he did with the power play is enough to wonder what more he can fix, given time and talent. Whether it’s Bowman or someone else (other than Chiarelli), the key to Colliton’s success will be getting something resembling defensive talent on the roster. Connor Murphy can’t do everyone’s job.
Boqvist, Beaudin, and Mitchell (once he finishes college) are supposed to be those guys soon, but you still need to bring someone in via trade or free agency. Karlsson is probably a pipe dream. We know that Carolina wanted Saad for Faulk. Would they take Saad, Gustafsson, and a prospect like Beaudin for Hamilton? If they would, would you do it? All of these guys could fit the system Colliton wants to implement. The question is, “Will he have enough time with them?”
We always knew this team would be bad, but Colliton was supposed to at least stabilize that. He hasn’t really done that yet. With more time and a full offseason, we’ll have a better idea for what Colliton can do. I want to see.