Getting to know Blackhawks’ new coach, Jeremy Colliton

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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.”

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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.

Paul Maurice and the Jets could really use a win right now

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This was always going to be a challenging season for the Winnipeg Jets.

After a surprising run to the Western Conference Final during the 2017-18 season, they regressed last season and opened this season with a makeshift defense due to offseason departures and the still unsettled situation regarding Dustin Byfuglien. At times, and especially recently, the defense has looked has looked exactly like the patchwork unit that it is. They get bombarded on the shot chart, and had it not been for some superhuman play from starting goaltender Connor Hellebuyck over the first couple of months their playoff chances for this season might already be in the toilet.

But they’re not.

They are still — for now — very much in the Western Conference Wild Card race, and with a win on Wednesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets could enter the All-Star break and bye week just a single point back of a playoff spot. Considering the state of the defense and the way the team has actually played at times, that would be a decent conclusion to the first half of the season.

It would also probably be a big win for coach Paul Maurice, whose seat seems to get warmer with each and every loss. And the losses have been piling up recently. After losing in Carolina on Tuesday night, 4-1, the Jets have lost five of their past six and are just 6-11-2 in their past 19 games.

On Tuesday, it was another tough start that saw the Jets give up three early goals and have to play from behind again. When asked about another slow start, Maurice was defiant in saying there was no slow start (using an expletive in the process) and instead defended his team’s effort and the way they played. It was a little surprising given how rough this recent stretch has been, especially the past three games when they’ve been outscored by a 16-4 margin. Listening to him talk about the team’s effort and how they “played their asses off,” it almost sounded like a coach that is resigned to his team being undermanned at a major position (defense) and that things are just unraveling. It was basically: They did everything they could, and this is all they had.

Given the current situation and the recent slide, it’s enough to wonder if Thursday’s game against Columbus is approaching must-win territory. It is believed that Maurice’s contract expires at the end of this season, and as Ted Wyman of the Winnipeg Sun pointed out after Tuesday’s game, it’s really hard to see the Jets giving him another contract extension after two straight years of declining results.

If there were ever a time for a team to consider a change, wouldn’t this be it? A coach in the final year of his contract, for a struggling team that seems to have hit its ceiling with that coach, while the team itself is still flirting with a playoff spot. Not to mention the fact that after Wednesday they have a week-and-a-half and an opportunity to hit the reset button coming out of the break.

Whether or not that would make a difference is certainly up for debate. There is probably not a coach or prospective coach in the league that can turn this defense as constructed into a contender, and no matter who is behind the bench is going to have to rely on the forwards being able to outscore their opponents and hope for Hellebuyck to return to his Vezina/MVP level from the first couple of months.

It just seems like the Jets and their coach are at a crossroads for this season, and maybe beyond.

It is difficult — and maybe even silly — to put so much emphasis on one regular season game in the middle of January, but Thursday’s game against Columbus seems like it has the potential to dramatically shift things one way or another for the Jets.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Police investigating after Gritty accused of punching 13-year-old in back

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We have an early contender for strangest hockey story of 2020.

Philadelphia police are investigating a claim that Gritty, the rambunctious googly-eye mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, punched a 13-year-old fan in the back during a meet-and-greet with season ticket holders in November.

The claim comes from Chris Greenwell, a Delaware native and 22-year Flyers season ticket holder, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As Greenwell tells it, after waiting in line for more than hour to meet Gritty for a photo, his son “playfully patted” the mascot on the head before walking away. At that point, Gritty is accused of getting out of his chair, taking a running start, and punching Greenwell’s son in the back as hard as he could. He told the Inquirer that he took his son to a chiropractor a week later, providing the paper with a document showing that his son was diagnosed with “mild pain” and a “back bruise.”

When Greenwell and the Flyers could not come to terms on how handle the situation, he reported the incident to Philadelphia police who are currently investigating.

The Inquirer details email exchanges between Greenwell and the Flyers ownership group, Comcast Spectacor, where he initially complained about the lousy quality of the picture where Gritty did not look at the camera.

From the report:

After the alleged punch, Greenwell emailed officials at Comcast Spectacor, first complaining of the “lousy picture” with the mascot who didn’t look at the camera. Then he raised the “more serious and disappointing” concern.

“I know it was not correct for my son to harmlessly tap him on his head but for a Flyers employee to get (sic) throw a full punch at someone with his back turned and hurt a 13 year old boy is assault, unprofessional and unacceptable for your organization,” he wrote.

During that email exchange the Flyers claim there is no video footage to support Greenwell’s claim, while no witnesses were able to verify the same story. Still, Greenwell and the Flyers attempted to find ways to make it right. Greenwell suggested the team show his son on the scoreboard or allow him into the locker room to get autographs from players.

The Flyers countered by giving him the opportunity to sit on the team bench during warmups before a future home game.

That was not deemed to be acceptable.

That was not the only issue in the exchanges.

From the Inquirer:

But the email exchange soured when Greenwell and Kleinman disagreed on what was said during a December phone call. Greenwall claimed Kleinman told him that Gritty admitted he hit Brandon. Kleinman denied saying that.

“At no time did I state that one of my colleagues hit your son,” Kleinman replied in a Dec. 23 email. “Gritty, however, recalls being hit on the head repeatedly by someone during one of the earlier photo shoots.”

Greenwell, who said he is dumping his season tickets with the team, added that he only wanted an apology and something special for his son.

Gritty is a little different than your typical mascot in how the Flyers have it act. When they unleashed Gritty on the world prior to the 2018-19 season they described it as having “bully tendencies” and being “mischievous.” Everything about the Gritty persona since then has backed that up. There was always the chance that Gritty might fly too close to the sun and get burned.

According to one fan, that happened.

The Flyers insist it did not happen that way.

Now we are left with … this.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Panthers finally giving fans reason for optimism

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The Florida Panthers not only gave head coach Joel Quenneville a win in his first return to Chicago on Tuesday night, they extended their winning streak to six games and roll into the All-Star break and bye week as one of the NHL’s hottest teams.

They are also in the rather unfamiliar territory of having a strong hold on a playoff spot this late in the season.

The Panthers are just one point back of the Tampa Bay Lightning for second place in the Atlantic Division while also owning a four-point cushion over the Toronto Maple Leafs. It obviously doesn’t lock them into anything, but it has to be a pleasant change of pace after slow starts the previous two years all but crushed their playoff hopes by the All-Star break.

It’s also a big step in the right direction for an organization that needs to earn the trust of its fanbase and give people in their market a reason to finally care about them. As we detailed back in August, this has been the least successful organization in terms of playoff success since the start of 2000 across the NHL and NBA. Overall, they have made the playoffs just five times in 25 years and have only won three playoff series ever — all of them coming during one improbable playoff run during the 1995-96 season.

In recent years we’ve seen teams come out of nowhere after years of struggle to go on deep playoff runs. Two years it was the Winnipeg Jets, after never winning a playoff game in the first 17 years of their existence, going to the Western Conference Final. A year ago it was the Carolina Hurricanes snapping a nine-year postseason drought and going to the Eastern Conference Final.

There is at least some reason to believe the Panthers could be capable of going on a similar run this season.

The offense is legit

Pop quiz: Who is the NHL’s highest scoring team right now? Toronto? Pittsburgh? Washington? Tampa Bay? Colorado? All good guess, and all wrong. It’s the Florida Panthers, averaging a league-best 3.83 goals per game as of Wednesday.

Leading the way is their outstanding top-line duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Individually, they have each been top-10 scorers in the NHL over the past three seasons and together they are one of the best top-line duos in the league, producing goals at a rate similar to some of the league’s best.

But it’s not just them that drive the offense.

Thanks to Frank Vatrano‘s hat trick on Tuesday, the Panthers already have seven players with at least 14 goals this season, most in the league. There are only six other teams in the league that have more than four (Vancouver has six; Colorado, Vegas, Washington, and Winnipeg all have five each).

Goaltending can still be the big difference maker here

This is probably the wildest part of Florida’s success.

Goaltending was by far their biggest area of need this offseason and they addressed it by delivering a dump truck full of money to Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky had been one of the NHL’s best goalies during his time in Columbus and on more than one occasion helped carry the team to the playoffs. The Panthers’ hope was that he could be their new No. 1 goalie, solidify the position, and be the missing piece to finally get them back in the playoffs.

The Panthers may end up back in the playoffs, but right now it is in spite of their goaltending.

As of Wednesday the Panthers sit 27th in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage and 25th in all situations save percentage. Typically teams with goaltending like this do not make the playoffs, or even have a chance to make the playoffs. Out of the bottom-15 teams in overall save percentage right now, Florida and Vegas are the only two teams holding a playoff spot.

On one hand, this might be their undoing in the second half if Bobrovsky can’t get back on track.

On the other hand, if he DOES get back on track the Panthers could be a dangerous team to deal with. There was always risk with giving a 31-year-old goalie a seven-year, $70 million contract, but his career shouldn’t fall off a cliff this quickly. His first half in Florida has been similar to his first half performance in Columbus a year ago. He finished last season by catching fire in February, March, and April and not only helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs, but also sweep one of the best regular season teams in NHL history. He still has that ability.

They could still use some help on defense

While Bobrovsky has definitely struggled, it would be unfair to put all of the Panthers’ goal prevention problems on just him. Because there are some issues in front of him.

The Panthers have invested a ton of money and resources on their blue line but the results have not yet followed. In terms of shot attempts against, shots against, scoring chances and expected goals the Panthers are no better than average (and in some cases near the bottom of the league). That’s something that is going to have to be addressed, but the salary cap situation will not make it easy.

Big picture: The Panthers have some flaws, and right now might have to get through Tampa Bay and Boston in rounds 1 and 2 in a potential playoff run, but there is reason for optimism here. They have the highest scoring team in the league, the eighth best points percentage in the league, and have done that with some of the worst goaltending in the league. A tweak or two on the blue line and Bobrovsky rediscovering his ability to stop pucks and there might be something interesting brewing here.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

My Favorite Goal: Spurgeon’s baseball swing goal for Wild

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Welcome to “My Favorite Goal,” a regular feature from NBC Sports where our writers, personalities and NHL players remember the goals that have meant the most to them. These goals have left a lasting impression and there’s a story behind each one.

Today, Derek Stepan of the Coyotes remembers Jared Spurgeon‘s baseball swing goal vs. the Devils in 2017.

Derek Stepan wasn’t even involved in the game that featured his choice for favorite goal. With the Devils visiting the Wild on Jan. 17, 2017,  a deflected shot was saved by Cory Schneider and flew into the air to the side of the New Jersey net. That’s when Spurgeon quickly gloved the puck and dropped it to himself and swung for the fences for a goal.

PREVIOUSLY ON MY FAVORITE GOAL
Darren McCarty shows off goal-scoring hands during 1997 Cup Final
Alex Ovechkin scores ‘The Goal’ as a rookie
Marek Malik’s stunning shootout winner
Paul Henderson scores for Canada
• Mario Lemieux’s end-to-end masterpiece; Hextall scores again
Tomas Hertl goes between-the-legs
Borschevsky’s goal sealed with a kiss

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.