When it became clear that Jeremy Colliton would become the new head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks – and, at 33, easily the youngest bench boss in the NHL – the most common reaction was probably, “Who?”
Whether it works out or not, there’s no denying that replacing Joel Quenneville (three-time Stanley Cup winner, second most coaching wins in NHL history) with Colliton means a staggering drop in experience.
The fresh-faced coach is jumping right into the fray, as Colliton will debut against the Carolina Hurricanes – and similarly new head coach, Rod Brind’Amour – on Thursday.
Blackhawks fans and many people around the hockey world may find an introduction useful, so let’s get to it.
It was ultimately irresistible to use a photo from Colliton’s New York Islanders days, as that head of lettuce was really on-point:
The Islanders selected Colliton in the second round (58th overall) back in 2003. He began bouncing between the Islanders and the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2005-06, ultimately finishing with three goals and three assists for six points in 57 NHL games. He last played for the Islanders in 2010-11, eventually making his way to Sweden to play for Mora IK, where his coaching career commenced.
A fairly short path to the Blackhawks’ bench
Tracey Myers of the Blackhawks website notes that Colliton ultimately went 98-57-18 as coach of Mora IK, helping the team earn a promotion to the Swedish Hockey League.
That work helped him land a job in the Blackhawks’ organization as the head coach of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs in 2017-18. Colliton managed a 40-28-4-4 record during his lone season as an AHL head coach, while Rockford swept its way through the first two rounds of the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs before falling in the third round.
John Hayden ranked as one of the players who provided glowing reviews of Colliton’s work in the AHL, via that great piece from Myers.
“I just remember the locker room having the right vibes all the time,” Hayden said. “The most recent memory for me was our success in the playoffs, how he managed our team, players individually and the team overall. And he’s not that far removed from playing pro hockey himself, so I think he can use that to his advantage.”
A sobering reminder of just how young he is
If Colliton being 33 and playing in the NHL as recently as 2010-11 doesn’t take you aback, consider that he apparently was teammates with Brent Seabrook in the 2004 World Juniors, as Chris Westcott reported for the Blackhawks’ website.
“Jeremy and I played together when we were 11,” Seabrook said. “We played summer hockey together, we played against each other and our team invited him to a tournament. I can’t even remember when it was, I’ll have to ask my Dad, but it was a long time ago …”
/needs to sit down for a minute.
What kind of coach might he be?
(As you can see, Colliton looks far more clean-cut and sharp now, although his hockey hair was absolutely first-rate back in his playing days.)
When a new coach takes over – particularly one without any previous NHL experience – it can be difficult to get a handle on what makes them tick.
That’s especially true since there are so many catch-all buzzwords that just about any head coach will roll out. Everyone wants to keep the puck in the attacking zone as much as possible. Virtually anyone wants to be aggressive.
With that in mind, you’re searching for needles in a haystack, especially since Colliton is being thrown right into the thick of things as the season’s underway.
From reading through various accounts from players and colleagues, it sure seems like Colliton may be broadly defined as a “players’ coach.” Quenneville seemed willing to change in certain areas, yet he also came across as gruff, so there could at least be a nice “honeymoon period.” Multiple people mention that he rarely yells, and that approach may very well speak to players in refreshing ways.
Considering that he’s 33, could Colliton be more innovative? We’ll gradually find out in how he deploys the team, yet the initial rumblings indicate that he’s open-minded about analytics.
It’s my opinion that, broadly speaking, Quenneville got as much as one could expect out of a Blackhawks roster that – while still boasting some premium, if aging talent – has some major flaws, particularly on defense and from a depth standpoint.
Still, just about any coach has strengths and weaknesses, and the Blackhawks consistently struggled to produce on the power play in recent years under Coach Q. Since 2016-17, the Blackhawks have converted on just 16.7-percent of their power-play opportunities, second only to the Arizona Coyotes.
That’s a pretty glaring weakness for a team that employs Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, so if Colliton can find a way to maintain Chicago’s previous strengths while boosting that power play to become an advantage (or even just upgrade it to league average), then this coaching change could look a lot better than critics might expect.
Overall, it doesn’t sound like Colliton is aiming for enormous changes, which makes sense since he lacks a training camp to institute major tweaks.
“Yeah, there’ll be some things that we adjust,” Colliton said, via ESPN’s Emily Kaplan. “I don’t think we’re going to have a huge amount of change. It’s, ‘Can we push on a few things, detail-wise, that can give us a little jump start?’ And then once we get our hands dirty here and we know [one another] a little better and play some games, then, yeah, things are going to come up and we’ll feel more comfortable and have a better feel for what we have to do.”
The Blackhawks and their new coach remain in a tough spot. For all we know, Chicago essentially handed Colliton hockey’s version of a live hand grenade, as he’s being asked to right the ship as the team is currently suffering from a five-game losing streak.
And it’s true that I’m on record of saying that the Blackhawks would actually be better off being lousy anyway, as it would help trigger a soft-rebuild. There’s absolutely a scenario where the Blackhawks crater under a wet-behind-the-ears head coach.
Yet, there’s also a chance that Colliton could be the breath of fresh air that Chicago needs to turn things around, even if turning things around merely means barely making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs before bowing out early.
It should be fascinating to see how this proud team full of winners handles a new voice in the locker room. Things likely won’t be easy for Colliton, but there’s also an interesting opportunity for by-far the youngest coach in the NHL.
If nothing else, we’ll figure out who Jeremy Colliton is.
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.