Plenty of heads turned when Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon opted to replace head coach Denis Savard with Joel Quenneville only four games into the regular season.
While Tallon felt more experience was needed behind the bench to help revitalize and nurture the NHL's youngest team (an average 25.5 years), it was certainly a risky proposition. Tallon admitted the coaching change was one of the hardest decisions he's ever had to make.
"But if you want to be a championship-caliber organization, you have to make tough decisions," Tallon said. "It's about moving forward, and achieving and winning and developing a consistent approach."
Let's see -- moving forward, achieving and winning, and developing a consistent approach. Check, check and check. Quenneville has been nothing short of remarkable in his initial tenure with the Hawks, going 45-22-11 to conclude the regular season after being named the 37th coach in franchise history.
He would lead his enthusiastic group into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the franchise's first appearance since 2002 and now has Chicago in the Western Conference Final for the first time since 1995.
"I think what was important right off the bat, the one thing we tried to work on and concentrate on was how we played in our own end," Quenneville said. "I think our defensive zone coverage was something we wanted to make sure was a stabilizing point for us and foundation for us in our team game."
Boy, was it ever.
The Blackhawks ranked fifth in the League during the regular season with a 2.51 goals-against average after finishing 20th last season (2.82). Through 12 playoff games, the club has posted a 2.92 GAA. Additionally, Chicago ranked fourth in the League during the regular season with an average of 3.22 goals per game after finishing 10th in 2007-08 (2.85). In the playoffs, the Hawks are tops, hitting at a 3.67 goals-per-game clip.
"To win in this League you have to have a rhyme or reason how you check and how well you play in your own end," Quenneville said. "Otherwise you're going to be either in the penalty box or giving up goals. The more responsible you are to playing in your own end, the more you're going to be out of it."
Quenneville was able to get through to emerging superstars Patrick Kane
and captain Jonathan Toews
, and his defense-first approach turned Brent Seabrook
, Cam Barker and Duncan Keith
into overnight successes along the blue line. An unrecognizable force named Dustin Byfuglien has become a familiar face in these playoffs under his tutelage and Andrew Ladd, Troy Brouwer, Kris Versteeg, Dave Bolland
and Ben Eager, all under 25, have benefitted from his teachings.
"He's been awesome for us," Seabrook said. "He's done a great job of keeping things loose and letting the players do their own thing. He works us hard and makes sure we take care of ourselves, but he lets us have fun and enjoy ourselves, which is good because we have such a young team."
He also helped resurrect the career of wing Martin Havlat, who led the Blackhawks with 48 assists and 77 points -- both career highs -- and ranked second on the club with 29 goals and a personal-best plus-29 rating. He leads his team in the playoffs with 13 points, including five goals.
For Quenneville, this is his 10th go-round in the playoffs in 12 seasons as a head coach, but it's only the second time (St. Louis, 2001) that he's reached the conference finals.
"Joel, in my opinion, is a great coach," Blackhawks president John McDonough said. "In Joel, (the players) see somebody that doesn't panic and who provides great leadership."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer