Arms crossed, polo buttoned and mask tightened, Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton sat deep inside Fifth Third Arena on Friday — weeks away from the start of his fourth season — exuding the same quiet, calm confidence he did during his first three.
But it’s clear to him this season should — and must — be different.
”We expect to be better,” he said. ”We made some progress last year, but ultimately I don’t think you can be in this league if you don’t want to be the best and get in the playoffs and win playoff series. We’re looking to take another step. And with the guys we’ve added, we think they can help us do that.”
While Hawks general manager Stan Bowman has attracted heavy attention all summer — both positively for his splashy trade and free-agent acquisitions and negatively for his apparent mishandling of the alleged 2010 sexual-assault scandal — Colliton has avoided the spotlight.
Colliton, 36, spent valuable time with his family after a season away from them, then drove from Calgary, Alberta, to Chicago with them this month in time for his kids to start school. He has spent the last couple of weeks — and plans to spend the remaining few before training camp — casually catching up with players as they, too, trickle back into the city.
Behind the scenes, however, Colliton was in close touch with Bowman, who dramatically reconstructed the roster he will coach.
”I’m very happy with what we’ve been able to do,” Colliton said. ”Obviously, I have input. That’s one thing that Stan does: He wants to hear what you think and wants us to look at players and have an opinion. And then, ultimately, he makes the calls. If you looked before the offseason at some areas we wanted to improve, he has hit all of them.”
Colliton offered many of the same praises of new cornerstone defenseman Seth Jones that Bowman gave him last month. ”His size and skating combination, in a defender, is a huge advantage,” Colliton said.
The trickle-down effect Jones’ addition will have on every other defenseman’s workload intrigues Colliton even more, however.
”He can play a lot of minutes, and it just adds so much depth to our team,” he said. ”There’s less ice [time] we have to divvy up. And when you play a little bit less, a lot of times you can improve your performance.”
Colliton is even more familiar with new goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who takes departed defenseman Duncan Keith’s place as the one Hawks veteran older than the coach.
During their playing days, Colliton and Fleury faced each other numerous times in the Islanders’ and Penguins’ organizations and were Canadian teammates during the world junior championships in 2004.
”He’s a tremendous practice goalie,” Colliton said. ”One thing I remember, even from way back then, is he never gave up on a puck. . . Even in warmups before a game, he’d just refuse to get scored on. And that kind of thing is contagious. One of the positives that we were thinking about when we acquired him is just his effect on the other goaltenders, [particularly] Kevin Lankinen.”
Colliton described Fleury as an instant mentor for Lankinen, whom he talked to about that recently. He also sees plenty of starts ahead for both goalies as the Hawks juggle an 82-game — ”82-plus, hopefully” — schedule again.
Jake McCabe, Tyler Johnson and other veterans have joined the mix, too. Jonathan Toews continues skating, although Colliton declined to handicap his confidence in Toews participating in camp. Patrick Kane has worked this summer to heal his undisclosed late-season injury, and Colliton said he doesn’t ”foresee any issues” there.
The result is a much-improved team, one that warrants higher expectations than any Hawks team since 2018.
It will be Colliton’s responsibility to ensure the Hawks meet those expectations. And that will be another new challenge for him.
Colliton already has navigated a lot during his NHL tenure. He survived the abrupt transition from Joel Quenneville in his first season and major pandemic-related interruptions and distractions in each of the last two. His work last spring, molding a patchwork roster into a compelling and mildly competitive team, was his most impressive yet.
For those reasons, he has enjoyed relatively strong job security, perhaps disproportionally so in this cutthroat business.
But the honeymoon is over. The shelf life for hockey coaches who don’t win isn’t long, regardless of extenuating circumstances, and Colliton hasn’t yet done much winning. His Hawks coaching record sits at 86-83-24 — essentially, 86 victories and 107 losses. That needs to change soon.
As he officially enters the first season of the two-year contract extension he signed in January, Colliton realizes that necessity but views it through a healthy perspective.
”I don’t feel any anxiety,” he said. ”I’m excited. We always expect to win. You want to win. The fact we have improved the roster and we have some more depth and competition, that’s only positive.”
The Hawks learned from the COVID chaos of last season, even permanently adopting some of the successful technological innovations they invented on the fly last season. The vast majority of the team is now vaccinated. Colliton doesn’t know the exact percentage but said there has been ”tremendous compliance.”
The Hawks also learned from their tactical successes and failures of last season. Colliton spent the summer, as usual, analyzing every facet of his oft-debated system — from forechecking to defensive coverage, neutral-zone gaps to special-teams structures — and brainstorming tweaks he could make.
Come October, when Colliton’s crossed arms return to the United Center bench, it’ll be time to prove he’s not only the ideal coach for the Hawks’ rebuild but also the ideal coach for their resurgence.
”Since I got here, the goal hasn’t really changed: We want to be an elite team, year in and year out,” Colliton said. ”We’ve made a lot of strides toward that. It’s not always a straight line. In any business or sport or whatever, it’s often not a straight line. But I feel really good about the journey we’re on.
”A lot of the guys I’ve been able to coach for several years now, I feel very comfortable that they know what we’re trying to do. We have a pretty good partnership going. It’s fun to have been part of the journey. And when we have that success, it’s going to be pretty rewarding.”