The Blackhawks’ awful start last season –one win in their first 12 games –shattered their spirit and unity in the locker room.
The Hawks may well have to endure another awful start this season. That awful start might turn into an awful middle and awful end, too.
But they can’t allow that misery to shatter their spirit and unity again. And it’ll be up to Luke Richardson, as the Hawks’ new head coach, to foster a culture with enough cohesion, stability and trust to ensure that.
“You want to keep the highs really rolling high,” Richardson said Wednesday. “And then when it spikes down low, we want it to spike right back up, not hit down low and stay there for a while.
“‘Success’ for this team might be a different meaning for us and fans and [media]. But as long as it’s an upward trend, and the downward trends are really nipped in the bud early and turned around quickly, those are the signs of a team growing.”
Richardson accepted this position, his first NHL head coaching gig, knowing it would be difficult.
He has embraced the fact that his job –to help the Hawks play their best –and the biggest goal of his boss, general manager Kyle Davidson — to acquire the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NHL draft –stand somewhat in opposition to each other. Although Davidson has shied away from explicitly referring to “tanking,” the funniest exchange Wednesday between Richardson and Davidson hinted more than subtly at it.
“I told Kyle right off the hop that we’re going to make his job the toughest job possible and try to win as much as possible,” Richardson said, drawing some laughs.
Davidson interjected with a smile: “Having said that, I want to win.”
But difficult might be an understatement.
The 40-odd players who will enter Fifth Third Arena for the first on-ice sessions of training camp Thursday –camp technically began Wednesday with fitness testing, medical evaluations and photoshoots but nothing on-ice –will include some of everything.
There will be Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the powerful, somewhat disgruntled veterans entering their final seasons under contract. They’re going to vacuum up almost all the attention given to the Hawks this season. Richardson said he talked to them “the most” of anyone this summer, but it’ll be crucial that they and he build and maintain a strong working relationship.
There will be a surprisingly sizable number of other veterans, some of whom are new this season, hoping to re-prove they can make big impacts (Max Domi, Andreas Athanasiou) or be NHL regulars (Colin Blackwell, Jack Johnson) or stay healthy (Connor Murphy, Tyler Johnson, Jujhar Khaira).
There will be plenty of young, semi-established guys hoping to take the next step (Taylor Raddysh, Philipp Kurashev, Sam Lafferty, Caleb Jones, Riley Stillman).
There will be even more prospects –a group headlined by Lukas Reichel but with far too many members to list here –vying for available NHL roster spots.
There will be the two presumptive NHL goaltenders, Petr Mrazek and Alex Stalock, attempting to stay afloat and prove themselves, too, despite appearing on paper to be arguably the league’s worst duo.
And there will be Seth Jones, in a category all to himself. The 27-year-old defenseman is entering the first year of his eight-year whopper of a contract on track to be the Hawks’ next captain but also on track to wait into his 30s for his next playoff appearance.
Richardson will somehow have to bring all those groups together.And he’ll have to do so quickly, before October and its inevitable discouraging moments rolls around.
The 53-year-old former Canadiens assistant brings a calm, honest, positive demeanor to the job –and believes those traits will rub off on others around him –but this situation will certainly put his immaculate league-wide reputation to the test.
“The first step, before we talk about success on the ice, [is] we have to have success … jelling this team together and finding some chemistry together,” he said.
“Even skating around before and after practice, talking to guys about certain drills [or about] plays in games from the night before, that’s huge. It’s going to take some time to get around to everybody and for everybody to feel comfortable with us. But I’m confident [we’ll get there] with the personalities that we have on the coaching side.”
Richardson’s staff is impressive. His three assistant coaches are all experienced former players with similarly rational, steady personalities. Kevin Dean will oversee the defensemen and penalty kill, Derek Plante will orchestrate the power play and Derek King will work alongside Richardson doing general game prep and opponent scouting.
Beyond those assistants, the public’s extremely low expectations for the Hawks this season might theoretically be one more thing working in Richardson’s favor, but he won’t want to rely on that. His own expectations for himself and his new team, after all, are quite a bit higher.
“It’s always been in my nature to be competitive, to win in this league,” Richardson said. “There’s really no timetable. It might take some time. But I’m an optimist, and I think we can cut that time and make it go quicker. If we do, that’s great, and everybody [will be] happy because we’re going in the right direction.”
Davidson reiterated Wednesday there have been no trade discussions — nor, for that matter, contract extension discussions –with Kane or Toews. The two veteran players are expected to speak to the media Thursday.Kane and Domi will start camp on a line together. Richardson suspects Domi’s speed will complement Kane well.The Hawks remain “definitely open” to weaponizing their salary-cap space in a trade, Davidson said, if another team wants to shed an oversized contract before opening day.Read More