Head coach Jeremy Colliton joined the Blackhawks Talk Podcast on Friday to discuss the rebuilding process, what came out of his meeting with the Core Four, the goaltending situation and much more.
Here is the first half of the transcript from the Q&A, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
Jeremy, the team sent out a release this week, saying "we're committed to developing young players and rebuilding our roster." As a coach, how do you balance putting a winning lineup on the ice and making the best decisions to win that game but also balancing the development of the younger players?
Yeah, well I'm excited because I feel like we can be more open about what we're doing. We have had a focus on development, since I got here, anyway. When I look at our team and trying to look forward, I'm not that interested in being a bottom-half team, being a bubble team, hoping to sneak in, catch lightning in a bottle, win a couple rounds. It does happen; we can all point to the success stories and things where teams go on a run, but it's not sustainable. We are more interested in, we want to be an elite team, we want to be a Top 10 team where every year we're in the mix to go deep into the playoffs, so everything we do here should be with that end in mind.
So as a coach, we're still trying to win. Part of the development is being in competitive situations and playing in big games. Our playoff experience in Edmonton was tremendously valuable for our young players, and so we want to get ourselves in those situations as much as possible but we want to do it while playing young players. And I think this past season was a perfect example where we had a lot of young guys in the lineup, a lot of them played big roles. At times it looked like they weren't ready but we give them feedback and help them along, and I think a lot of those guys were huge parts of the success we did have and that's how we're looking at things.
You're still trying to win every night, but I think the idea that the coach's only focus is to win that night, that game, that's not really how I think. That's not the environment I want to have. If I'm choosing someone to run my team or run a business, I don't want someone who's only thinking about short term and burning resources. We all want to have short-term success, but not at the expense of long-term success and that's what I want to be part of. So I think, if anything, it makes it easier for us to do what we have to do and then some of the decisions that we make maybe makes a little bit more sense to people on the outside, whether it's media or fans.
One of the decisions made and certainly going with youth is in net; it was such an important part of your team last year with Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford. The decision to let Collin Delia, Malcolm Subban and Kevin Lankinen battle it out and see who emerges, what was your involvement in that process, and knowing how important goaltending was last year and yet where you finished before the pause, are you a little nervous or do you think it's a little risky to put it all on those three to try to keep you guys afloat and keep you in games?
Well, obviously, I'm involved with Stan [Bowman], we have conversations all the time about things we're doing and where we're going as a team. Stan has gone into the breakdown as far as how we came to those decisions, but we need to continue to develop players, we need to continue to give them opportunity. We got three guys where we feel any one of them could step forward and take the ball and show that they could be a starter in the league, and we've got to see how that plays out. Having said that, we need to get better defensively to protect them.
When we look at the development of our team and getting where we need to go, that's part of the focus for us. We've got to have the puck more, we need more offensive zone time, offensive zone puck possession, we want to win the scoring chance battle, we want to be smarter with how we manage the puck, leaving the next line in a better spot — all these things, that's what going to add up the winning. So, it's just part of the process for us here.
I remember talking to Duncan Keith after the 2017-18 season when Crawford went down with a concussion mid-year, and he said he found himself — the team found themselves — playing a little bit more conservatively because they had two inexperienced goalies as Crawford's replacement. Do you worry that the style is going to have to change where they can't be as aggressive knowing that they don't have Crawford as the buffer back there anymore?
I don't know if the style needs to change as much as we just need to get better at it. We need to ... decisions we make are always important. Finding a way to advance the puck, move it forward, doing a better job of being on the defensive side of the puck when we are defending to limit those chances, doing a better job of boxing out, those things, they're important no matter who your goalie is. So we've got to find a way to improve in those areas. That's what we need to do to be a top team.
The exit of Corey certainly sent ripples across the Blackhawks fanbase, also Jonathan Toews spoke out about it. You were involved in that Zoom call with the core players last week, what was your takeaway from that meeting with Duncan Keith, Toews, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Kane?
Yeah, it was just another opportunity for us to communicate where we're going, what the plan is. It's not the first time that we've had those conversations. We had them in exit meetings, I've had them throughout the season — last few seasons. We need more depth. We need to develop young players, we need to give young players opportunity. When we look at the playoffs, it was a step forward. We played well against Edmonton, I thought we played well against Vegas, but they had more depth than us, they had more guys who could make a difference. So if we want to be in a position to win those types of playoff series', we need more of those guys in our lineup.
We're not in a position where we can go out and sign a bunch of established top-nine forwards or top-four D, we're going to need to develop them from within, so that's basically what we said. That's what we said in the exit meetings, that's what we said in the Zoom call, is we're going to continue to have that focus because ultimately that's how we're going to be an elite team again.
I think for veteran players, sometimes, you don't understand or don't agree with the decisions day to day as far as, 'well how come that guy's playing in that situation? He doesn't deserve it or he's not ready for it.' And sometimes that's even true. But at the same time, we have to look at the bigger picture and what's best for the group and getting the Blackhawks back to being an elite team.
Sometimes, as a player, you're just focused on what's right in front of you — and you should be; that's what you should do because that's what you can control. But ultimately, if we can build our group back up again, it's going to only benefit those veteran players because they're going to have a chance to be on hopefully a Cup contender.
And hey listen, they may not all be around for that, and that's part of the business. Everyone goes through that. There's turnover, there's change, timing doesn't always line up. But at the same time, we still need to do what's best for the group, so we're going to do that.
I asked you during exit interviews whether the mentality and buy-in of the entire group is what will allow you guys to take that next step and you obviously agreed. After meeting with those core veterans, do you feel like you guys are all on the same page in how you can approach going into next season mentality wise? Because those guys do set the tone in the locker room.
For sure, and they need to. They need to be on board with the things we're talking about. Putting the next line out in a good spot, managing the puck, being willing to focus on the defensive game; maybe you've got to play a shift where nothing happens, just don't get scored on, get out of D zone and change, those are all things we've been talking about with the whole group and we need it to be up and down our lineup, that mentality, willingness to work away from the puck, willingness to compete for 35-40 seconds as opposed to maybe resting, playing a minute 10, a minute 20. That's what winning teams do.
If we want to be a better team, we have to do it, so there's not much to talk about. That's what we need to do. And there's no pushback there. It's just when the rubber hits the road and we start playing again, do it from the start and not wait a couple months.
What concerns did the core players express to you in that meeting and to Stan?
Well it's just how do we ... they want to win right now, obviously, and that's understandable. And so do we. We want to win every night, but at the same time, it goes back to what I said at the beginning: I'm not interested in being a bubble team, being a bottom-half team and just try to get lucky. We need to build this back up, and in order to do that, we need to give young players the opportunity. That's the right thing for the Blackhawks and that will be the right thing for them eventually if we can build this back up as quickly as possible.
The word "rebuild" has been thrown around and even Toews had talked about it in that interview. Did you have to clarify, 'hey, we're not tearing this thing down, we're just trying to add young pieces to lessen the burden on those guys?'
Yeah, Stan definitely covered that. I don't think that we've ever said that we're trying to tear it all down. That was kind of ... we made a couple moves and then the media reads between the lines and we're getting rid of everyone. That's not what we're trying to do. It's more a continuation of what we did last year. We had a lot of young guys in — we still have some veteran guys, we're going to have some veteran guys, you need them as part of the mix. You can't have all 21-year-olds, but you also can't have all 29-and-32-year-olds because it's not the way the league is with the cap; the money doesn't work.
It's also, when you look at your team early in the season, if you have a 33-year-old and a 22-year-old, the development you can have from Game 5 to Game 70 in the 22-year-old, that opportunity, you want to take advantage of it, and certainly we need those guys to be close enough that they're ready to play at that level and can handle the responsibility and if they're not, then obviously Rockford is a great option for us. And we're going to use Rockford as well, but it's going to help us.
I want to coach the team looking ahead. How can we build the best group for Game 70 so that we have a chance, and that's what we did last year. But also, how can we build the best group for next year and the year after? We can do all those things at once. You can hold two or three different thoughts in your head at the same time and that's our job as the coaching staff and management to think about those things and it's the players' job to do everything they can to show an example of how we should play, to compete in every situation, have good habits with or without the puck and it adds up to success.
What's it been like to coach a few future Hall of Famers during this transition period where you're trying to build something and you're trying to earn their trust in your approach. Has that been difficult?
Yeah, it's always a challenge. It's the NHL, it's the best league in the world. Certainly the success that this club has had in the past 10 years, there's been a level of expectation that's been set and everyone's used to winning the Cup. We've been in a little bit of a transition where it's understanding where we're at.
People on the outside, I don't think anyone was picking us to win the Cup this year or the year before. I don't think there's a lot of people who picked us to make the playoffs, but we've got a bunch of competitors who expect, they want to be there and that's why they're good. But as a coach — and Stan, too — we've got to know where we're at as a team.
Sometimes when you make decisions ... for example, there's a faceoff at the end of the second period and I'm going to put Kirby [Dach] out there to take it even though faceoffs aren't a strength of his yet. Sometimes on the bench it's like, 'what are you doing, why are you making that decision?' And I understand that, if you look at it with a very short-term lens, that is maybe not the best decision. But at the same time, we need to help Kirby get used to doing those things and to have success.
And OK, if he loses the faceoff, then he's got to find a way to survive the defensive shift then get out and change with the puck and change in the offensive zone. But sometimes he's going to win it, too, and the investment that we make in Game 10 or Game 30 or Game 50 of doing that, that's going to pay off, whether it's in the playoffs or the next season.
That, I would say, is the biggest point of ... sometimes there's a little bit of — I don't know if friction is the right word — but I'm not just focused on right here right now; I'm focused on how I can make this team better so that we can win now and in the future and players are focused on the right here right now and how does this affect me? And it's not a bad thing. Conflict is not a bad thing. But it's my job to take care of the group and take care of the Blackhawks, and knowing that if we have that approach, it's going to be, for the most part, best for the individual as well; not everyone, but that's a part of it too.
Sometimes the decisions you make are bad for certain individual players, but that's life. That's part of it. I can't coach the team so that all 25 guys think this is the perfect situation and they're getting everything they want, and sometimes that's a veteran guy who things aren't always breaking his way and sometimes it's a young player, but all of those decisions need to add up to us being an elite team as soon as possible and that's my focus.