It was never going to be an easy job for Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton.
Replacing a future Hall of Fame coach while handling an aging, declining roster with significant salary cap constraints only raised the difficulty on Colliton, who was the youngest active head coach in the NHL when hired at the age of 33.
A rookie head coach in his first playoff series is going to have missteps, of course. So there must be some level of context associated with any critiques of Colliton.
However, with Chicago’s most noticeable stars in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane already on the wrong side of 30 — not to mention the mid-30s duo of Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford — time is a luxury not afforded to Colliton. Chicago needs to mesh its young talent with its aging core and return to league contention rapidly, or the entire roster may soon be scheduled for demolition. And Colliton, too, must quickly prove himself worthy of this challenge in a brief timeframe.
And that’s where a few of Colliton’s decisions through two games in the first-round series against the Golden Knights raise concerns, the healthy scratch of Adam Boqvist for Game 2 chief among them.
Longer leash for Boqvist
To be fair to Colliton, Boqvist didn’t exactly cover himself in glory during Game 1.
Boqvist was on the ice for two goals against in 16:37 of five-on-five play with no defensive zone starts, racking up a 9-3 shot deficit and a 2-0 high-danger chance deficit, those scoring opportunities likely associated with his own shortcomings in the defensive zone.
Lucas Carlsson, who drew into the lineup for Boqvist in Game 2, had — and get this — almost identical stats at five-on-five. Carlsson had two goals against and the same shot deficit but had a 4-0 high-danger chance deficit in 10:07 with zero defensive zone starts.
The main issue with sitting Boqvist is the lack of development opportunities afforded a player that will turn 20 years old Saturday and is one of the most important pieces to the Blackhawks in the next two to three years. There are going to be defensive miscues. There are going to be abysmal turnovers. But there remains a wealth of talent within Boqvist, and its emergence is vital to any sort of short and long-term success the Blackhawks hope to experience. He’s was an eighth overall pick and must be given the chance to sink or swim in the deepest end of the hockey pool that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Getting a 23-year-old Carlsson onto the ice is fine because he looked good in his six games before the pause and it wasn’t Nick Seeler, but it shouldn’t come at Boqvist’s expense. If Carlsson’s inclusion in the lineup is so important, little fuss would be made if either Olli Maatta or Slater Koekkoek were removed, as third-pairing defensemen are often third-pairing defensemen for a reason.
There’s also the lingering issue of how Kane was deployed on the ice in Game 1.
Kane looked like his old self in Game 2 with three assists, including a slick backhand pass to Dylan Strome for an easy tap-in goal to tie the game 3-3 with 13 seconds remaining in the second period. Game 1 was a much different story, though.
Kane posted an abysmal 30.77 Corsi-For percentage, with linemate Alex DeBrincat’s 28.00 the only worse mark on the team. Kane was on the ice for just eight shot attempts and four shots on goal while surrendering 18 and nine, respectively. He was also on the wrong end of a 9-3 deficit in scoring chances and a 5-0 shutout in high-danger chances during his 16:40 of ice time (all of those numbers apply to DeBrincat as well).
How does all this relate back to Colliton?
Among Blackhawks forwards, the line of DeBrincat, Kirby Dach and Kane had a team-low 14.29 percent offensive zone starts in Game 1.
FOURTEEN POINT TWENTY-NINE PERCENT. THAT’S ONE IN SEVEN.
What sense does it make for the single best offensive weapon the Blackhawks have to consistently start 200 feet away from the opposing net? How is he supposed to score when he’s forced to play defense first? And when his linemates are a 19-year-old rookie still finding his way and a gifted sniper who has his own defensive shortcomings, what type of impact are those three supposed to make in the game!?
Credit can go to Colliton for correcting this issue in Game 2 (Kane had a 71.43 oZS%), but that’s just solving a problem that never should’ve existed in the first place. Mistakes that lead to defeats in a seven-game series — especially as a No. 8 seed against a No. 1 seed — will only add to the probability of the Blackhawks being eliminated as soon as this weekend.
Again, Colliton didn’t walk into a rosy situation in Chicago. The high degree of difficulty probably isn’t fair to a first-time coach.
But fair’s got nothing to do with it.
Stats from Natural Stat Trick