In-season coaching changes are hard to predict in the NHL. There were zero of them last season, which was a rarity. This year, there have already been two so far (Joel Quenneville and John Stevens) and they're usually done for a similar reason: the group is underperforming and teams want to salvage whatever is left of the season.
Chris Kunitz was part of a mid-season coaching change as an alternate captain with Pittsburgh in 2015-16 when Mike Sullivan took over for Mike Johnston on Dec. 12 after the Penguins went 6-6-3 following a 9-4-0 start. It was probably time for a new voice there anyways, but the Penguins lost four straight games in regulation to start Sullivan’s tenure as coach. Things didn’t look great.
But it wasn’t because players weren’t responding. It was more-so the challenge of getting acclimated to a new system and unlearning old habits on the fly. That’s what the Blackhawks are going through right now with Jeremy Colliton.
“Some of the guys have played a different system and haven't played anything like this,” Kunitz said. “Being around the league, I've played in a system like this, I feel comfortable with the changes on the fly. But for some guys, it's not that natural instinct to do something different than they've been doing for 8-10 years."
In many ways, Sullivan and Colliton have a similar coaching style: play with pace, be aggressive on the forecheck, quick and clean zone exits. It helps having a guy like Kunitz in the locker room to help with that transition, for both the younger players and veterans.
Once the Penguins did get accustomed to the new system, they never looked back. They snapped that four-game losing streak on Dec. 21 and didn't lose back-to-back games in regulation the rest of the season. It was exactly what they needed. They went into the playoffs as one of the hottest teams — winning 13 of their final 14 games — and eventually went on to win the Stanley Cup, the first of their back-to-back.
Obviously, the 2018-19 Blackhawks are not the 2015-16 Penguins. But it provides a glimpse into how it takes time to adjust to a different system mid-season while also offering hope that it's not too late for a struggling team going through a coaching change to turn around their season.
"Any time there's something changing, guys want that 'why' or 'how does this affect what's going on out there?' Kunitz said. "It's easier if we talk through it as a group or with coaches to better understand why we're doing it and how we're trying to accomplish it and where the puck is supposed to be at certain times. Whenever we can just have that natural instinct to transition from watching it to doing it on the ice, that's when we'll have more success."
After going winless (0-2-1) in Colliton's first three games as an NHL head coach, the Blackhawks got back in the win column with a 1-0 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night. They had been making progress, but weren't seeing the end result reflect that.
The Blackhawks got reinforcement that what they're doing is working so far, as long as they stick with it. If they continue to do that, the points will follow. And that's all they can control right now.
"It's starting to believe in yourself," Kunitz said. "... It's a process of understanding the system and getting to the right level of comfort with each other, but also going out there and outworking the other team. That's what it boils down to.
"With changing the systems, it's more learning and trying to educate yourself. Go out and practice, coach says keep it clean, have good passes and the results will come. When we go out there and we keep it clean in the D-zone, when we've come up the ice we've had good things, we've had success. Probably haven't scored as many goals as we should have, but in the end we have to work harder in our D-zone and when we do all that and put a complete game together, I know the end result will be there."