The last I checked the role of a coach it to guide and lead a team, not to provide a degree of difficulty

The Blackhawks are in the cat bird seat to win the 2014 Stanley Cup.  Despite history making clear the difficulty in trying to repeat as keepers of the Cup, there is not a better odds-on favorite to hoist the hardware this summer at present.  The Hawks are deep and talented and they’ve proven that this core knows what it takes to win a seven game series when it’s all on the line in May and June.  Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are amongst the top ten players in the world and Duncan Keith is probably in the top twenty.  Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa fall somewhere in the top forty.  The talent is there as is the leadership in the locker room.  They’re good, damn good.  Good enough to win on their own – regardless of who’s sporting a suit and standing behind them on the bench.

In Chicago they put something in the water that causes our various fan bases to raise the coaches of championship teams onto pedestals beyond reproach.  Ditka aside, White Sox fans thought Ozzie Guillen was still a good idea six years after he brought a pennant to the south side for Christ’s sake.  Joel Quenneville has called the shots for two Stanley Cup champions in the past four years and will go down as one of, if not the greatest coach the Blackhawks organization has ever known.  History books are written by the victors and thus are often riddled with inaccuracies.

Joel Quenneville had a sixteen year career playing professional hockey career spread across three AHL and five NHL teams.  He recorded more than thirty points once and averaged 15.625 points per season.  He was a journeyman defenseman.  A grinder.  His was a respectable career by most standards and I’m not here to tarnish it.  I just think it’s important context from what I’m about to write next.

Joel Quenneville is an average hockey coach and the Blackhawks would be every bit as good as they are with or without him calling the shots.  In many ways it can be said that he’s holding them back from becoming everything they could be.

The Blackhawks play a wide open, puck possession style of hockey that it both pleasing to watch for the casual fan and absolutely maddening to play against as an opponent.  Their skill is such that their lines often play a level above their assignment meaning that the Hawks 2nd line often times is as good as their opponents 1st, their 3rd is as good if not better than the opposition’s 2nd, etc, etc, etc…  They roll four lines throughout the season which save the wear and tear on the stars who they need to get through the challenges that await in the spring.  The ability to do so is more of a testament to the drafting and talent acquisition of the front office in my estimation than it is of the acumen of the man with the moustache.  Any hockey coach from Pee-Wee to professional would aspire to follow this model, it’s not rocket science or particularly innovative, the problem is that most do not have the assets at their disposal to pull it off as Coach Q does.

Given the talent on the roster I frankly don’t think they could play any other way.  If Barry Trotz were to inherit the Blackhawks roster I think he’d have to alter his defense-first approach in order to put the players in the best position to succeed.  So while the team’s inherent nature is to play up-tempo and free flowing, I find it infuriating when Coach Q appears to go out of his way to bog down the process.

As has been written here ad nauseam, the Blackhawks have not had a true second line center since Bernie Nichols left town in 1996.  While a welcome addition at last year’s trade deadline, a true second line center Michal Handzus is not.  At 36 his value in the locker room may have some weight but on the ice it’s all but negligible.  In a second line center, the Hawks are looking for someone who can accentuate Patrick Kane’s skill set which is the exact opposite of what Handzus has done to date.   In fact, per a fantastic article by Jay Zawaski from January, Patrick Kane had yet to score a goal with Handzus as his center, and that was as he was coming off his second NHL 1st Star of the Month award.  Read that again – Patrick Kane had yet to score while on the ice with his primary center for 222:44 minutes and somehow he still won back-to-back player of the month awards.  The boys over at The Committed Indian basically fall into seizures every time this subject comes up.

It makes no sense to me how the man who controls the lines can consciously go out of his way to make them so poorly.  Aside from Handzus (who should be anchoring the 4th line at best), Coach Q also seems to have an inexplicable man crush on Brandon Bollig, the team’s defacto enforcer who’s ready to trade blows in the next fight that’s never going to come.  For the team that defines the new NHL, the standard bearer that all other organizations are adapting as fast as they can to emulate, why in the world is Coach Q rying to slow down the pace by watering down his own talent in essence bringing the team back to the pack?

It would be one thing if Quenneville was playing the hand that he was dealt and there were no alternatives available to him.  I’d get that, I would.  But it’s simply not the case.  The Blackhawks are in possession of two young players that by all means are a far better fit for everything they’re trying to do as a team, but it would appear their coach is the only road block from the team truly achieving it’s potential.  Brandon Pirri is a 22 year old center who led the entire AHL in scoring (during his age 21 season) last year and would fit in ideally as that 2nd line center the team has been so desperately seeking.  In fact in his short cup of coffee with the big club this year Pirri notched 11 points in 28 games (and per the same Zawaski piece Kane scored three goals and added seven assists while skating with Pirri in only 171:53 together).  There is no reason that Pirri is not building his NHL reps right now for the Blackhawks and getting accustomed to the speed of the game in preparation for the playoffs except for the fact that he’s no longer on the team.

On Sunday night it was announced that the Blackhawks have traded Pirri to the Florida Panthers (Dale Tallon is a sucker for Blackhawk prospects) for a pair of 3rd and 5th round draft picks.  I have no inside information here but this deal has Quenneville’s finger prints all over it.  Stan Bowman repeatedly brought Pirri up to the big club every time there was an injury or an opportunity and Quenneville would respond by limiting his minutes or not playing him entirely.  It got to the point where Pirri was out of options and could not be called up again and thus Bowman’s hand was forced and had to find Pirri a new home.  I have a feeling this one is going to go down as a win for Dale Tallon, and that’s not something that happens all that often.

I don’t understand the rationale being employed here but it would appear that Quenneville’s love for journeymen workhorses – a roll he can identify with from his playing days – is now actively hurting the quality of the roster that the organization is able to field.  In addition to the Pirri saga, does anyone outside of the Quenneville household truly believe that Brandon Bollig is providing more value to the team than Jemery Morin – the former Atlanta Thrasher top prospect who was acquired for Dustin Byfuglien in 2010 and who currently has a ten game point streak that includes eight goals and eight assists in Rockford?  I don’t understand what’s going on here.  I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

The Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions.  I fully appreciate everything they’ve done in turning this organization around and my fear is that we’ve become spoiled as fans.  But something doesn’t sit right for me when in a playoff series the Hawks are the first team to shuffle their lines adapting to their opponent rather than making their opponent adapt to them.  It also says something when the Canadian Olympic team gives Coach Q zero consideration to participate in their program, instead turning to Detroit’s Mike Babcock who the Blackhawks ousted in seven memorable games last spring.  Do you think Steve Yzerman and Team Canada’s brain trust feel that Coach Quenneville outcoached Babcock in that series or did the Blackhawks simply have that much more talent that just about any coach could have guided them to success?

The Hawks have a solid playoff run in front of them and the season has been an unabashed success thus far.  The question however is how much better could it be?  It’s something to consider before we all decide to erect a statue sporting a bronzed moustache on the west side of town when this is all said and done.