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Blackhawks already in panic mode?

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A day after the Chicago Blackhawks stripped Denis Savard of his head coaching duties, a co-worker of mine said that he was going to suggest we put up a poll question on our website that read, "Who will be the first NHL coach fired this season?".

"Guess it's too late now," he said.

It may have been too late for that particular poll question, but the query on everybody's mind has now turned to whether or not it's too early for the Blackhawks, or any team for that matter, to fire their head coach.

Chicago began its regular season on Friday, October 10th and Savard wasn't even allowed to complete a full week as he was axed on Thursday after leading the Blackhawks to a 1-2-1 start.

Sports fans know by now that head coaches in the NHL have little or no job security. Even Savard, a Hall of Fame player who spent the majority of his career with the Blackhawks, couldn't escape the coaching merry-go-round and had to watch as his club replaced him with Joel Quenneville after just four games.

Denis Savard had been the club's head coach since November 29, 2006.
Savard had been the club's head coach since November 29, 2006. He posted a record of 65-67-15, including a mark of 40-34-8 last season for the team's first winning campaign since 2001-02 -- which was also the most recent playoff appearance for the once-proud franchise.

Making the playoffs last year would have given Savard more time this season, but since owner Rocky Wirtz took over when his father passed away last September, the Blackhawks are no longer a franchise that is willing to wait for a winning team to arrive.

Chicago has stockpiled a great deal of youthful talent with the likes of forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Jack Skille as well as defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The club also made a big splash in free agency this past offseason, signing blueliner Brian Campbell to a lucrative eight-year deal and locking up goaltender Cristobal Huet for the next four seasons.

Since the passing of Bill Wirtz, the Blackhawks have become a team with a sense of urgency when it comes to winning, something that was never really a concern to the team's late owner. However, his son Rocky has done an excellent job of repairing the franchise's relationship with the Chicago fan base, who often referred to the previous owner as "Dollar Bill" for his frugal ways.

With the offseason moves, Rocky has all but promised a playoff season for Chicago this year, and Savard was obviously deemed to be standing in the way of that goal.

One of the reasons Blackhawks general manager Dale Tallon gave for Savard's firing was that the team lacked energy in the preseason and "got out of the gate flat". It seems to me that there had to be more to the firing than the fact the team appeared to be flat after just four games, including Wednesday's 4-1 victory over Phoenix in what would be Savard's final game behind the Blackhawks bench. Still, no hint of differences between the coach and management or players was revealed at Thursday's press conference, so I guess we have to take Tallon's word for it.

The problem with the termination of Savard is not the decision itself, because Quenneville, the winningest coach in St. Louis Blues history, brings much more experience and success to the table.

The timing, on the other hand, just doesn't make any sense at all. The young players on the Blackhawks can't help but feel they're responsible for Savard's firing, and that will likely place too much pressure on a squad with a great deal of inexperience at the NHL level.

The first job for Quenneville is to keep the team from falling into a deeper hole, but his main objective is to get the Blackhawks, a club with just one playoff appearance in the past 10 seasons, back to the postseason. And with the firing of Savard at such an early date, it's obvious that Chicago wants that playoff appearance to come no later than the 2008-09 campaign.

Quenneville has a record of 438-283-118 for a winning percentage of .592 in parts of 11 years as an NHL head coach. He led the Blues from 1996-2004 and was dismissed in February of the 2003-04 campaign. The 50-year-old former NHL defensemen then spent the past three seasons with the Colorado Avalanche before taking a job with Chicago this September as a pro scout.

Perhaps the presence of an accomplished former head coach like Quenneville as a pro scout made Savard uneasy, and that angst transferred over to his players, resulting in the slow start.

Whatever the reason for Chicago's initial struggles, the fact of the matter is Quenneville has shown the ability to get a team to the postseason, even if his clubs have disappointed once gaining access to the tournament. Nine of Quenneville's 11 teams have reached the playoffs, but only once has he advanced as far as the conference finals. The Blues made it the Western Conference finals in the spring of 2001, just a year after being dumped in the first round after finishing with the league's best record.

It would've been fair to let Savard have a chance to turn this team around, but Rocky Wirtz and the Blackhawks decided to act before things got any worse. If Quenneville is able to make a smooth transition with the players, then the Chicago front office will look like geniuses. But if things get worse before they get better, they'll have to answer a bevy of questions.

As of now, it's unclear if the move was opportune or hasty, but in the long run, the coaching change will be judged by whether or not Chicago is watching playoff hockey come springtime.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo