Rozner: Blackhawks' Colliton: 'We want to be relentless'

  • Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton explains to Jonathan Toews what he wants done in a game against Carolina last season at the United Center.

      Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton explains to Jonathan Toews what he wants done in a game against Carolina last season at the United Center. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/31/2020 7:44 AM

• Second in a series

Late in the second period of Game 3 against Vegas, with the Blackhawks down 1-0 in the game and 2-0 in the series, they gave up a goal remembered only for Adam Boqvist guessing wrong in the neutral zone.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But before that happened, Jonathan Toews lost a board battle and Dominik Kubalik was late to his check, and after the Boqvist tweener caught him standing still, Duncan Keith got beat on a 2-on-1 and Corey Crawford gave up a big rebound.

Lots of details missed on a single rush.

More than anything else, that sequence -- and many dozens like it in the series -- was how impressive the Vegas puck support was in all three zones.

In the corner, up the wall, near the dot and through the middle of the ice, seemingly always on the correct side of the puck and in the proper spot, teammates knowing they have an outlet and rarely having to peek.

It's easy to say you need clean breakouts, but if forwards aren't open for defensemen, it leaves the defense with no good option. It's easy to say you want possession deep in the offensive end, but without size and effort, the cycle falls apart.

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The truth is the Hawks from 1 through 18 did not belong on the ice with the Knights.

"The Vegas series was a very good illustration of where we're at," Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton said in a Zoom call with the Daily Herald. "The commitment to play the right way was the highest it was all year in the playoffs, but still not where we need it to be to compete against those top teams.

"We showed that we could do it for long stretches of the series and we played them evenly for those stretches, but every game there was a 10- or 15-minute window where their depth or compete level or their skating ran us over.

"We need to develop more depth so that it's easier to hold everyone accountable, where we have guys at every position for every role and for every situation that can do the job."

If there is an absolute truth in hockey it's that you get out of the game what you put into it, but it is also true that when you play for the team, not yourself, good things usually happen.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Colliton has preached for the better part of 18 months that forwards need to get back to help and their decisions must be smarter, meaning if there is a question on a 50-50 play, think defense and being on the right side of the puck, instead of cheating the other way with hopes of collecting a point.

"If Player A is not willing to play the way we need him to play, then Player B will do it," Colliton said. "We're not there yet, so we need to develop young players. Part of that is opportunity and then once they get the opportunity, it's accountability, which can come in different ways.

"It can come through verbal feedback, video in 1-on-1 meetings, and it can come through ice time, but that needs to be for everybody, not just for young players.

"With more depth you can spread minutes out and you're comfortable they can get the job done. It's easier for everybody. It's going to help everybody. Everybody plays better when they're held accountable."

Colliton has spoken frequently about proper changes and shorter shifts, not leaving the next line in an impossible spot where they're chasing for an entire shift.

That is at best selfish. At worst, hanging around too long and searching for a scoring chance when you're too tired to get back and help is a loser's mentality.

"It's an easy sell. That's what leads to winning, but we have to build those habits. We're moving in the right direction," Colliton said. "As young players come in, we have to make sure they have the habits. That takes time. I believe we've made progress there. It's not where we need to be, but I don't sense pushback on that."

If not pushback there was at least frustration early last season when Colliton changed the breakout, designed to make for cleaner exits and to keep the puck out of their own net.

Players did not take to it. Fans mocked it. And the press couldn't understand it unless it showed up on a stat sheet.

"Look at how Vegas plays in the D-zone. They overload, have multiple players around the puck. That's what we started last year trying to do, the first 15 games, but we couldn't do it so we adjusted," Colliton said. "We tweaked it. We went back to a little different way of playing, sort of how we did it the year before.

"Going forward we need to be a team that can play different ways and have success because you never know what the adjustment is going to be in a playoff series.

"Change is hard, right? We're trying to become more flexible in how we play. We have tried different things tactically, and we're going to continue to because you need to be able to play different ways and adjust at the snap of a finger.

"Some guys hadn't played that way before, so it's an adjustment. The biggest thing is we just weren't breaking out. We weren't able to get to the neutral zone with possession.

"We weren't able to enter under control because we had committed so many guys down low. As you said, Vegas doesn't have a problem doing that. We need to develop that within the group and we need to develop the group."

If you don't see Vegas as a model right now, what would your roster look like? The Knights are big, fast, skilled, deep through four lines and above all else committed to playing for each other.

When Colliton speaks of what he would like to see, it sounds very much like the team that took out the Hawks in the postseason.

"We want to be relentless," Colliton said. "We want to hunt the puck when we don't have it. We want to have numbers back to defend so we can get it back as quickly as possible. We want to attack as quickly as we can once we get it back. We want that up and down the lineup.

"We want to have within the forward group more guys who can share the load defensively, so if you're the center you don't have to play low every single time back.

"It's hard to go goal line to goal line to goal line and compete as hard as you need to in order to win those 50-50s. You want multiple guys who are comfortable playing down low so maybe that center who didn't have to play down low has the juice to forecheck and hunt the puck and win it back to create a chance.

"We're trying to build that up. That will help our defensemen. It's easier to hold the gap when you have back pressure. Well, you gotta have guys who are willing to work and push the puck from underneath so that the defense can hold the gap and force turnovers there.

"Every part of our team has to work together, but we need more of that push up and down the lineup."

And Colliton feels like last season there was improvement along those lines.

"We made some significant strides in the second half to playing more of a winning style," Colliton said. "Playoffs we prepared well and the guys' commitment was really good, and we were able to win a series.

"It was a good test for us and a great opportunity for our guys to see what the level is like against a team like Vegas. For some guys, it was too much. A couple of our young players, they didn't have the playoff they wanted.

"On the outside maybe you view that as a negative thing. I don't see it like that at all. It's a learning experience for them. When they go to their (off-season) training and get prepared for next season, it's like, 'OK, this is the level.'

"We have all season to work at reaching that level. We want to have a better regular season and have a chance again to test ourselves in the playoffs. All those experiences are good for our young players, whether they succeed right away or not."

I thought Vegas was clearly the best team going into the postseason, but they went out in the conference finals against an equally ferocious Dallas team, losing 4 games by a goal, two of those in overtime.

"They were an excellent team and a lot of people thought they would win, but that shows why you want to have multiple runs at it," Colliton said. "It can't just be, 'We're going to build this up and have a year and then blow it up and rebuild.'

"We want to build something sustainable. Just because you have the best team one year, it's no guarantee. Look at Tampa. Went out in the first round last year when everyone thought they had the best team.

"This year, they win. It's hard. But you want to be in the mix every year."

• Next: Jeremy Colliton the father, husband and coach of a team trying add youth to a veteran core.

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