He was young. He was inexperienced. He was taking over for a legend. He was stubborn in his own ways. He was doomed from the start.
Jeremy Colliton’s time with the Chicago Blackhawks organization ended yesterday, three years to the day from when he took over as head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks. After a season and one month as the AHL head coach of the Rockford IceHogs prior, then-General Manager Stan Bowman picked Colliton, his wunderkind coach, to be the replacement for Joel Quenneville after a 6-6-3 start to the 2018-19 season.
From November 6, 2018 to November 6, 2021, Colliton went 87-92-26 as the head coach of the Blackhawks. They made one trip to the postseason in 2020, when the NHL changed the format of the playoffs for the COVID-shortened season in 2019-20 to accommodate getting Chicago and Montreal into the mix. He never coached during a “normal” season.
But what would have been a “normal season” for Colliton with the Blackhawks? For over a decade before he arrived, the Blackhawks were a perennial playoff contender and a three-time Stanley Cup-winning team. In the two seasons prior to Colliton taking over, the Blackhawks were swept out of the postseason in embarrassing fashion against the Nashville Predators in 2017 and then missed the postseason in 2018. Things were already heading in the wrong direction, even if Stan Bowman and John McDonough believed they had a playoff contender on their hands when giving the keys to Colliton in November of 2018.
Sure, the season prior to him becoming the head coach in Chicago, Colliton led the Rockford IceHogs to the Calder Cup Playoffs in his first season behind the bench. The IceHogs made it the furthest into the postseason in AHL franchise history, ultimately falling in six games to the Texas Stars in the Western Conference Finals. But that team was built with the intention of giving Colliton the proper tools to succeed with moves to add veterans like Adam Clendening, Chris DiDomenico, and keeping Cody Franson buried in Rockford when he likely should have been playing in Chicago. Those moves usually do not happen in the AHL, a league meant to focus on the development of the next NHL stars, and the three were the catalysts to that IceHogs squad having the success they did.
The underlying numbers for the Blackhawks under Colliton show little room for debate that he wasn’t the right person for the job. During his time as head coach, this is where the Blackhawks ranked cumulatively in the league:
• Wins: 87 (25th)
• Goals For per game: 3.00 (16th)
• Goals Allowed per game: 3.32 (29th)
• Shots For per game: 31.1 (11th)
• Shots Allowed per game: 34.6 (last)
• Powerplay: 19.5% (17th)
• Penalty-Kill: 77.8% (31st)
• 5v5 Corsi-For%: 48.15 (24th)
• 5v5 Shots-For%: 47.26 (29th)
• 5v5 Expected Goals-For%: 45.72 (30th)
• 5v5 Scoring Chances-For%: 46.64 (29th)
• 5v5 High-Danger Chances-For%: 43.75 (last)
• 5v5 High-Danger Save%: .8417 (5th)
• 5v5 PDO: 1.004 (12th)
To add to that, Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, and Jonathan Toews had career-years in 2018-19, and the Blackhawks had arguably one of the best goaltending tandems with Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner for most of the 2019-20 season. Both of those seasons would have ended with the Blackhawks finishing outside of the postseason picture, had 2019-20 ended normally. On top of that, Dominik Kubalík was underutilized with Colliton as the head coach, despite a 30-goal rookie season in 2019-20.
Colliton’s much-maligned defensive man-to-man system never worked. Having defensemen chasing opponents from behind the goal all the way to the blue-line in their own zone happened far too often, leaving forwards defending the net or allowing for open passing and shooting lanes with players out of position. He was too stubborn to change a system, his system, that so clearly did not produce a sustainable, winning-style of hockey.
There is blame to go around outside of Colliton as well from a roster construction stand-point. This lands on the front office and the maneuvers of Stan Bowman.
• Henri Jokiharju was traded for Alex Nylander.
• Andrew Shaw was brought back for valuable draft capital.
• Robin Lehner was traded and Corey Crawford walked away for nothing.
• Olli Määttä was traded away essentially for free.
Ultimately, the failures of the Blackhawks on the ice mostly land on Colliton. He wore the boos from the United Center crowds this season, even without them being sellouts. He felt the frustrations, clearly. You feel bad for a guy who was likable off the ice, that things did not turn out for the better in his first NHL head coaching opportunity. But, he was never going to be the one to turn things around for the Blackhawks following the on-ice successes of the “One Goal” era.
We don’t know what is next for Colliton in his coaching career, but I would be shocked if he was not given another NHL opportunity at some point. His time in Chicago will likely become a learning experience for him and he may even do better in his next NHL opportunity. But where that leaves the Blackhawks right now is with a 1-9-2 record, an interim head coach, an interim General Manager, and expectations of the 2021-22 postseason fading far-off in the distance.