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Paul Sullivan: The Chicago Blackhawks' shortcomings figure to keep them from the playoffs. ‘Progress’ will be a team buzzword until the winning returns.

Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Hockey

As they begin the 2021 season playing in empty arenas with a young and unproven team, the Chicago Blackhawks will be trying to stave off irrelevance until the rebuild turns a corner.

When that will be is anyone’s guess, but coach Jeremy Colliton on Tuesday was awarded an extension through the 2022-23 season, so if they’re not there by then, we’ll know the plan’s probably not working.

The decision by Hawks President Stan Bowman was the right call and an easy one to make. A coach of a rebuild deserves to make decisions without worrying about his future, especially one as young as Colliton, who turns 36 on opening night Wednesday in Tampa, Fla.

Colliton is 62-58-17 in his first two seasons on the job, and the Blackhawks news release noted he “helped guide the team to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.” Of course, the Hawks finished last in the Central Division and were only awarded a postseason spot thanks to a revamped format following the COVID-19 shutdown. But no one will remember the gift of a bonus postseason appearance if Colliton evolves into the coach the organization expects him to be.

“Jeremy’s strength as a coach is his communication and relationship with younger players, and that’s something we’ll need as we go forward,” Bowman said Tuesday. “We’ll need those young players to take a step in their career. Jeremy embraces that, and that’s a talent he has.”

It’s going to take a lot more than communication skills to get this team back to the status it enjoyed for the nine-year stretch when coach Joel Quenneville made them the NHL’s most envied franchise.

 

Putting the right players on the ice together and developing an identity will take some time, especially without center Jonathan Toews, the longest-serving captain in franchise history at 13 seasons and counting. A team without its leader is like a ship without its rudder, so unless Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith can pick up the slack until Toews’ return, we could be in for a long stretch of instability.

Last summer’s playoff series win over the Edmonton Oilers may have given the kids the brash idea they can do it again, which is a good way to think as you begin a new season three months later than usual.

But the lack of a proven goalie, the absence of centers Toews and Kirby Dach, and the lack of a consistent power play (28th in the league last year) figure to be too much to overcome. “Progress” will be the buzzword Bowman repeats over and over until the winning returns.

If only the Hawks could’ve received an honorary designation as a Canadian team because of their popularity in the Great White North, they might have had a legitimate shot at a postseason appearance. Because of COVID-19 concerns, the NHL realignment plan grouped all seven teams from Canada into the same division, making it by far the weakest link in the NHL.

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