Coach criticism could fire up Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Losers of eight straight games, the Chicago Blackhawks, who now sit just five points ahead of ninth-place Calgary, went back to work on Monday to try to find some solutions to their problems.

The day started with general manager Stan Bowman declaring coach Joel Quenneville’s job was safe.

That's not the concern for me at all," Bowman told the Hawks’ flagship television station, Comcast SportsNet Chicago. "I'm very confident in Joel's ability, our coaching staff's ability."

That’s what every general manager will say about his coach -- until he’s not the coach anymore, right? But it was good for Bowman, and the team, that he got it out of the way in the morning so at least that question had less emphasis as practice began in the early afternoon.

After practice, the players, predictably, echoed their belief in their coach.

“It bothers me,” Patrick Sharp said of the “fire Quenneville” talk. “He’s our leader, he’s our coach. We play hard for him, we believe in him and we know if something would happen there would be a lot of unhappy people in the room right now. We know we’re the guys out there on the ice that control the outcome of the game. There’s no doubts in Joel, that’s for sure.”

And maybe right there is the rallying cry the Hawks needed. Maybe the negative talk about the team and Quenneville is the best thing for them.

Until now, there was little emotion in the Hawks dressing room, especially on the road where they are insulated from the fans and much of the talk in Chicago. Defending their coach was the most emotion they’ve shown in a while.

“He’s been taking this whole thing really well,” Patrick Kane said. “He’s gotten rattled [mad] a few times but he’s been pretty even-keeled, the same guy, same practices, same coach. He’s a great coach. I love playing for the guy.”

And you get the feeling Kane isn’t just saying that because Quenneville gives the players a lot of days off or something else as simple as that. They respect him and he shows them respect back. Incredibly, and maybe even ironically, the typical negative talk that ensues during a streak like this might be the emotional tipping point for the Hawks. They need something at this point.

“The coaches are doing everything possible to get us ready, to get us prepared,” Kane said. “They’ve been great through the whole thing. They’ve obviously been on us, hard, but they’ve stayed pretty even-keeled. They’re doing their job great.”

So maybe the Hawks finally have some emotional motivation… now they need a strategic fix.

The lineup

Obviously sensing the urgency of the situation, Quenneville is trying something he’s resisted all year: loading up his stars on one line. Jonathan Toews, Sharp and Kane finished the game in Phoenix together and should start Tuesday’s game in Nashville the same way. That threesome was dynamic last season and Quenneville is hoping to recapture that magic.

“We came out of the last game, I thought [the] Toews, Kane and Sharp line had a big third period and keeping them together going into Tuesday’s game is something we’re looking at,” Quenneville said.

It means a struggling Hossa will be teamed with less talented or experienced players in Marcus Kruger and Andrew Brunette -- at least to start the game. Hossa has had a terrible stretch since the All-Star break. He has zero points and is minus-6.

“I’m definitely not happy with that,” Hossa said. “Not just the points, I’m not happy the way I’ve been skating. Just have to find a way to get the energy back. I need more pucks. That’s my hockey, play with the puck more.”

Hossa wouldn’t use playing during the All-Star break as an excuse simply because he said that’s exactly what it would be: “an excuse.” But maybe he needed the break. He was flying before it came, so it’s hard to understand why he’s not now.

Dave Bolland centered Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg at practice. Stalberg is clearly in Quenneville’s doghouse after bad passes/turnovers have led to some goals against or prime chances the other way. If the offense struggles on Tuesday you can expect Stalberg and Brunette to switch places -- but only if the younger winger is responsible with the puck.

Brendan Morrison was in the middle between Jamal Mayers and Andrew Shaw while Michael Frolik was the extra forward.

Special teams

The Hawks made some tweaks to both their special teams units. Forget everything else right now, if both -- or at least one -- unit can be quickly fixed the Hawks will undoubtedly win some games again -- or at least one.

But working their power play and penalty killing without Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador is difficult. Both will miss Tuesday’s contest with upper body injuries.

“With both these guys being absent I think our group defense has to be aware and our patience around the ice has to have an awareness to the defensive side of things,” Quenneville said. “In certain areas we have to make safer plays.”

In other words, with Dylan Olsen and Sami Lepisto getting ice time for the first time in a while, the safer play is always the better one.

Quenneville wouldn’t go into specifics about Montador or Hjalmarsson’s injuries. It’s believed Hjalmarsson has a head problem which was first thought to be the flu or another illness. There is no timetable on either player’s return.

Emery in goal

It used to be the most important question to Quenneville. Who is starting in net? It was an afterthought on Monday, the last thing that was asked of him. Ray Emery will get the call on Tuesday against Nashville marking his third start in four games. He’s probably been better than Corey Crawford of late, but not by much.


“Yeah, a few times,” said Kane, chuckling, when asked if Quenneville has “blown his stack” during the losing streak.