It’s either a sign of desperation or a willingness by the Chicago Blackhawks to seek out whatever help they can find for their struggling special teams units. Hawks Director of Player Development Barry Smith has been helping the coaching staff behind the scenes for several weeks, but now he’s stepped up his involvement acting as a de facto assistant coach.
Smith was on the ice for the first time at practice on Thursday, instructing players before the team embarked on a three-game road trip. He was mostly involved in power play work.
“He’s been around us for a while now,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “The experience in coaching whether it’s seeing our power play or special teams or all aspects of our team game. That’s what he’s helping us out with.”
Smith, 59, was a top lieutenant of Hawks senior advisor Scotty Bowman when the latter was coaching his way to a Hall of Fame career. He has been a part of five Stanley Cup championships and when the Hawks were stuck in the middle of a nine-game losing streak in February he joined the club on the road to help.
Many hockey observers believe it’s an unusual move for a front office type to help on the ice mid-season. Just think how much attention there would be if the senior Bowman himself was running Hawks’ drills. Smith is the next best thing. And from most indications, he has provided help since coming aboard on the last leg of the recently completed nine-game road trip.
Almost instantly, the Hawks' penalty kill improved. It went 13 for 13 over the course of five games though it’s slipped again, giving up five goals in the last 12 attempts. Meanwhile, the power play is just 1 for its last 44, hence Smith’s hands-on involvement on Thursday.
“[It’s a] new set of eyes,” forward Andrew Brunette said. “We’re struggling. If you’re not learning, you’re dying. If you can get any help or knowledge you take it and use it to our best advantage.”
So with Quenneville and full-time assistants Mike Kitchen and Mike Haviland looking on, Smith was instructing. Is it a good thing or a bad one that a Stanley Cup-winning coach with 600-plus wins needs help at a crucial time of the season? With a power play ranked 22nd in the NHL and a penalty kill at 28th, it’s hard for things to get worse, so why not Smith?
“He brings a lot of experience with years as a coach in this league,” Brunette said. “He’s coached some pretty good hockey teams with a lot of success in this league. Anytime you get someone on the ice like that you tend to listen to him. Our power play hasn’t been as good as we’d like it and sometimes a different voice or different thoughts [can] help.”
The Hawks recently turned down an interview request for Smith which isn’t unusual. “Assistant” coaches aren’t allowed to speak on the record to the media. But Smith is on the road again with the team, and if the Hawks' power play drastically improves starting on Friday in Ottawa then maybe Smith’s involvement should increase. He won’t be behind the bench, but that doesn’t mean he’s not having an impact.