Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 8, 2018

But What Have You Done For Us Lately, Joel?

Joel Quenneville lost his job this week. That might not seem noteworthy unless one lives in Chicago, and even there it’s probably of particular interest only to fans of the city’s NHL franchise. Quenneville woke up Tuesday morning as head coach of the Blackhawks, but went to bed that night a man looking for work. Sometimes, as in this case, a coach’s firing wreaks collateral damage. When Chicago general manager Stan Bowman decided that a 6-6-3 record to start the season wasn’t good enough, especially when the team’s last five games had all been losses, he dismissed assistant coaches Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson as well. Bowman then asked Jeremy Colliton to take Quenneville’s place behind the Chicago bench, promoting the 33-year-old from the head coaching position at the franchise’s AHL affiliate in nearby Rockford, Illinois.

It is one of the harder truths of sports that “job security” and “head coach” are not words frequently used in the same sentence. Although the NHL season is only five weeks old, Quenneville isn’t even the first team leader to be shown the door. That dubious distinction went to John Stevens, who was axed by the Los Angeles Kings three days earlier. The NBA, the other major sports league with a season just getting started, has also seen its first firing with the dismissal of Tyronn Lue from the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench late last month.

Yet even if every coach lives with the expectation of eventually being fired, the news of Quenneville’s dismissal is a reminder that even a sterling resume is no redoubt against the twin onslaught of sagging performance and a frosty relationship with a general manager. Because the one thing Joel Quenneville surely possessed was a record of great accomplishment in Chicago. Of the franchises that comprise the Original Six NHL members, only the New York Rangers have fewer championships and fewer appearances in the Stanley Cup Finals than Chicago. But before Quenneville took over early in the 2008-09 season the Blackhawks trailed even the Rangers with three titles to New York’s four, and were tied with the Broadway Blueshirts for fewest appearances with ten.

With just those three Stanley Cups in eighty-two seasons, fans in Chicago were used to disappointment. But Quenneville wasted no time in instilling a different attitude in both his players and the paying customers who finally had good reasons to fill the seats at the United Center. Named head coach after the team took just one of its first four games in the fall of 2008, he took a team that had made the playoffs just once in the past ten seasons all the way to the Western Conference Finals the following spring. One year later Quenneville’s team topped fifty regular season wins for the first time in franchise history and steamrolled to a title without facing a single elimination game in any of four playoff rounds. Three years later, in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Chicago won again, this time besting the Boston Bruins four games to two in the Finals. And just two seasons after that Chicago claimed its third Cup on Quenneville’s watch, eliminating Nashville, Minnesota and Anaheim in the Conference rounds before downing Tampa Bay in six games in the season’s final series.

Three titles in six years is a record of dominance. One must go back to the Detroit Red Wings run from 1997 to 2002 to find its equal, so the logical expectation would be that a head coach with such a record would be given considerable latitude by his front office. Fans in Chicago now know how GM Bowman defines “considerable.”

The first sign of trouble for Quenneville came at the end of the 2016-17 season, two years after his team’s last championship. Chicago appeared poised for another deep playoff run, having won fifty regular season games for the second time ever and garnered the number one seed in the Western Conference with 109 points. Instead the Blackhawks became the first top seed to be swept by a number eight seed in the opening round. Chicago skaters failed to light the lamp on home ice, shut out 1-0 and 5-0 by the Predators in the first two games. Quenneville’s team at least managed to score in Nashville, but still went down by scores of 3-2 and 4-1.

That bitter disappointment was compounded last season, when Chicago lost more games than it won and missed the playoffs for the first time during Quenneville’s tenure.

This year started hopefully, with the team skating to a 6-2-2 record over the first three weeks. But since a 4-1 victory over the Rangers on October 25th Chicago has managed just a single point in five games while being outscored 22-9.

While many coaches responsible for three championship banners hanging in an arena’s rafters would be given a chance to lead a franchise out of such a slump, Quenneville had the added burden of an often-fraught relationship with Bowman. The general manager’s calculations surely considered the reality that Chicago’s biggest problem is a roster that had to be torn apart because of the NHL’s hard salary cap. That’s a burden that isn’t going away any time soon, and one that ultimately falls not on the coach but on the front office. By firing Quenneville, Bowman is trying to point the finger of blame elsewhere. Hiring the youngest head coach in the NHL, one with no prior major league coaching experience, might also give the GM some additional job security, something that Chicago’s salary cap woes strongly suggest he’s done nothing to earn.

With those three Stanley Cups and a .627 regular season winning percentage during his time behind the Chicago bench, Joel Quenneville won’t be unemployed for any longer than he chooses. An article on listed eight teams – more than one-quarter of the league – as possible landing spots, and that number didn’t include the option of continuing to cash the Chicago paychecks due him by contract while waiting for the NHL’s next expansion into Seattle in 2020. Still, his firing is a stark reminder that in all our major leagues, few positions are as tenuous as that of head coach. The message to Jeremy Colliton is clear, don’t get too comfortable kid.


  1. That’s why I never became a head coach.



    • Which is a shame for two reasons. First, because you would have been a great one. Second, because I could have used my personal connection to score a good seat wherever you were coaching.


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