Getting to know Blackhawks’ new coach, Jeremy Colliton

2 Comments

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.

Playing days

It was ultimately irresistible to use a photo from Colliton’s New York Islanders days, as that head of lettuce was really on-point:

via Getty

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.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

Getty Images
2 Comments

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

tampa bay lightning
Scott Audette/Getty Images
2 Comments

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
Julian Avram/Getty Images
2 Comments

TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

marc-andre fleury
David Berding/Getty Images
2 Comments

ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.