Rozner: Colliton says Blackhawks are done trying to sneak into playoffs. They're looking to build something bigger.

  • "The goal is to be a Top 10 team that's always in the mix, always in the playoffs, and you feel like you have a chance," says Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton.

    "The goal is to be a Top 10 team that's always in the mix, always in the playoffs, and you feel like you have a chance," says Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton. Associated Press

  • Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton ponders his options in a game last season at the United Center.

    Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton ponders his options in a game last season at the United Center. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 10/31/2020 8:50 AM

• First of three parts with Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton.

There is considerable angst in Blackhawks Nation.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's understandable given a decade that delivered a reasoned sense of entitlement, a belief that there should be a parade every year.

But it's been five years since the last Grant Park festival and to pretend that the Hawks are good enough to win now -- or were good enough to win in August -- does not further the process.

It might help the remaining veterans prepare for a season, or help some fans get through an off-season, but it doesn't help the Hawks get closer to another Stanley Cup.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Daily Herald, Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton explained the lens through which he views what the team is expecting over the next year or two.

"I'm trying to win every game," Colliton said with a smile over Zoom. "That doesn't change. But I'm doing it while trying to make sure we can win Game 70, as well as Game 5, next year and the year after. I can do both at the same time."

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That means young players will go from minor roles to meaningful minutes. It's something of a rebuild without the teardown, as many key veterans remain in place.

"It's a bit of risk putting a young guy in a situation that you're not sure he's ready for, but how will he get better if we don't try it?" Colliton asked. "Depending on how they respond, that dictates where you go from there. Do you give him more? Next time is he going out there?

"That's something we're trying to normalize. Last year, a guy would go out of the lineup and the media thought it was the end of the world. Sometimes they're gonna play a little more than people on the outside may expect, and sometimes they're coming out (of the lineup) because that's what they need in the moment to take a leap forward."

The Hawks have been trying -- a little at a time -- to get younger for two years. The big change now -- after moving on from Corey Crawford and Brandon Saad -- is that they're giving the fan base a peek behind the scenes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"You could probably see what we were doing, based on how many young guys we were playing and the situations they were getting into," Colliton said. "We know we're not good enough yet and we need to develop more NHL players. We need to develop more difference-makers and we need to do it with young guys. We were doing it last year.

"We got the playoff opportunity. We beat Edmonton, but Vegas was better than us and we have to continue the process and develop guys who can help us win."

The NHL is not a development league so the temptation is to always try to win that shift or that game with a veteran, and when you're only one piece away, you can forever be up against the cap and use those last few dollars for a final piece.

It would be irresponsible, however, to pretend you're one piece away when that is far from the truth.

The Hawks need young players to arrive in Chicago and perform here before entry-level contracts expire and decisions have to be made. That's the way the league works today. There is no time for pretending or hoping.

There's also the perpetual dream of sneaking into the tournament and winning it all, but this is mostly myth, a happy cliché that anything can happen once the playoffs begin.

If you look at the final 16 teams this summer, the Hawks could have taken down perhaps one or two of those teams, and not one of the last eight.

That's a prayer, not a plan.

"The goal is to win the Stanley Cup," Colliton said. "The goal is to be a Top 10 team that's always in the mix, always in the playoffs, and you feel like you have a chance.

"To get there we have to have more depth throughout the lineup. We talk a lot about skating and competitiveness and the ability to make plays. If we have that up and down the lineup then it's going to allow us to be more flexible tactically.

"We need to give the young guys the opportunity and the more guys we have ready to play at a high level, it's a lot easier to execute the things you want to execute."

The best teams are getting bigger, heavier and tougher to play against. Pretty is fine when you have considerably more skill than the opposition, but those days are over for the Hawks, the natural result of cap casualties and the aging process.

Those are my words, not Colliton's, but it's apparent what is occurring around the game.

"Vegas, Tampa, Boston, Dallas. They make plays. It's not that they're not allowed to make plays, but they have to do it safely. It's a risk-reward," Colliton said. "The harder you play without the puck, the more you compete without the puck, the more you force turnovers and you control the territorial game, that opens up the opportunity to make those special offensive plays that everyone sees on the highlights."

The Hawks' recent acquisitions were designed with that in mind.

"Especially when the games are bigger, one doesn't happen without the other. You have to have that push without the puck to get the puck back when the opposition is exposed, so then you can make your plays," Colliton said. "The other side of it is, if you turn the puck over in critical areas, you're exposed defensively and it's really hard to recover.

"When you have your structure and you have five guys on the right side of the puck, it's a lot easier to defend. We know that. We have to improve."

If the Hawks had brought everyone back and stayed right up against the cap, they might have been a fringe team again.

So then what?

Maybe get in. Maybe not. But did the Vegas series suggest the Hawks were close? You already know the answer.

It would have been easier and without controversy to continue along the same tired path, trying to grab that last spot in the tourney, making veteran players and fans happy in the short term.

But outside of the Kings, who did not have a low-seeded roster in 2012 and won twice in three years, it's not a formula for long-term success.

"Teams do catch lightning in a bottle. There have been low seeds that have gone to the Final, but it's not sustainable. Those teams haven't been back," Colliton said. "We want to be a team that's always in the mix for the Final Four, but it takes time. I don't know how much time.

"But as an organization, our goal is to do everything we can to get there. To me, that's the right approach."

• Next: What the Blackhawks learned from the series against Vegas, how they want to play the game and how they intend to get back to the top.

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