When Derek King took over for Jeremy Colliton, for the second time in his career, he was coming to a Blackhawks team that was 1-9-2 and playing some of the worst, most discombobulated hockey in the league. A roster constructed with the intentions to compete for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs, looked inept. He came into the position of interim head coach and saw something that wasn’t new to this organization: Fragility.
Derek King: "When I first got here, you could just see how fragile they were. But they’re enjoying it. It’s not pretty sometimes, but that’s the game. They’re battling for each other, playing hard…[and] we’re just finding ways to win."
— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) November 13, 2021
Last season, when the Blackhawks were in the hunt for a postseason position, the wheels began to fall off. They went 5-8-1 in March, 5-7-1 in April, and lost seven of their last nine games to end the season. Connor Murphy called the team fragile and Jeremy Colliton saw it differently.
That fragility appeared to have followed the Blackhawks into this season, losing games in similar fashion to the way that they had finished last season. Blown leads, early deficits, and a lack of a response to adversity. After 12 games and just one win, interim General Manager Kyle Davidson made the move to fire Jeremy Colliton, along with assistants Tomas Mitell and Sheldon Brookbank. Derek King came in and implemented a new mentality to the then 1-9-2 Blackhawks: Relax.
His goal was to have the players loosen up on and off the ice. His demeanor and humor made an immediate impact. His approach to the game, allowing the players to play more off instinct and think the game less has so far translated to a 3-0-0 record to begin his NHL head coaching career. That demeanor, humor, and relatability to the players has resonated with the roster. Following practice on Saturday, defenseman Riley Stillman seemed to make it very clear there was a distinction between King and Colliton in the eyes of those in the locker room.
Riley Stillman on Derek King: “You want to win for a guy like that. He’s open. He’s honest. He’s going to call a spade, a spade. As a player that’s all you can ask for. We want to play our hearts out for him. And I think that’s what we’ve shown in the last 2 weeks.” #Blackhawks pic.twitter.com/XR5JtOGR4u
— Joe Brand (@Joe_Brand1) November 13, 2021
And it’s not just coming from Stillman. Last night, Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews commented on the mood of the locker room following the team’s fourth win of the season and third in-a-row.
Toews from last night on general mood lately: "Overall, guys are feeling much more relaxed and we’re having fun and keeping practices short and high pace. Just going out there and trusting that we know what to do on the ice and just going to play in games."
— Tracey Myers (@Tramyers_NHL) November 13, 2021
Jeremy Colliton was a thinker, a tactician of the game and it was evident on the ice in his tenure as Blackhawks head coach that his approach worked for some, but not all. When you take over a roster that has numerous players on it that have had long successful careers in the NHL and have won Stanley Cups, trying to make them play a completely different style than they had been used to before was a risky strategy. It produced less than favorable results and it lost the locker room for Colliton. For as much as players came forward to say that they were buying into Colliton’s system, the recent words from Toews and Stillman paint a different picture.
It also cannot be overlooked that King, as a “players coach,” comes into the Chicago locker room with a résumé as a former player that far out-weighs that of Colliton’s. Even with less experience as a head coach, when you walk into a room of NHL hockey players, whether you want to believe it or not, having played 830 games means way more to them than 57.
When you have a coach that can be as honest as King has been in the media and likely even more so in the locker room, you want to get results for him. We were told Jeremy Colliton was great at communicating with players. We are seeing Derek King’s communication style getting results already.
Derek King on his popularity with the fanbase: "It's always a bonus, right? It's not somebody throwing beer at me and telling me I should pack it in and quit coaching. So that must be positive." #Blackhawks
— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) November 13, 2021
Hard to not like King as a hockey person, and so far through three games, it’s not hard to root for him as a coach. Will he turn the Blackhawks completely around like Craig Berube did with the Blues in 2018-19? Likely not. But the last two weeks have felt more optimistic and more fun than the first month of the NHL season in Chicago. Under King, playing loose has led the Blackhawks to being less fragile and more stable, funnily enough.