Commentary

A sign of panic? Savard's firing reinforces that stakes are high for Hawks

Updated: October 16, 2008, 7:24 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

In spite of all the good press and positive buzz surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks, it appears the chaos DNA has not yet been eradicated from the franchise's makeup.

At least that's what the shocking dismissal of coach Denis Savard -- less than 24 hours after coaching the Blackhawks to their first victory of the season -- suggests at first blush.

[+] EnlargeJoel Quenneville
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJoel Quenneville has a 438-283-118 career record, including a 44-31-7 showing in Colorado last season.

Joel Quenneville, the highly respected former St. Louis and Colorado bench boss, becomes the fifth coach to stand behind the Blackhawks' bench since the start of the 2000-01 season.

Suddenly, the feeling that this franchise had turned a corner and was ready to return to elite status, on and off the ice, is on hold. Make no mistake, the firing of Savard four games into this season means the stakes are suddenly very high.

If Quenneville cannot get the team playing at a level that everyone thinks is appropriate, what then? Or rather, who's next?

Because, rest assured, if the Blackhawks sputter, Savard's head won't be the only one to roll. Sources close to the team, and more removed, believe the management team could look considerably different by the end of the season if the Blackhawks don't play well.

Ultimately, there are two lenses through which this situation can be viewed.

On the positive side, if the management team -- a group that now includes legendary coach Scotty Bowman, Bowman's son, Stan, who is an assistant GM, assistant GM Rick Dudley and president John McDonough -- believed in their heart of hearts that Savard was not the guy to get this team back to contender status, then good on them for having the conviction to make a hard, not to mention contentious, decision.

The Blackhawks watched their season-ticket base jump from 3,500 a year ago to almost 14,000 this season. All of their games are on television. The league is buzzing about their renaissance. They need their play on the ice to match those external expectations, and if management didn't think Savard could deliver, then they needed to make a change.

Given the new voices in the management team, perhaps it simply took longer than one might have imagined to get everyone on the same page. Imagine a great ship trying to turn itself in a narrow stream. GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com on Thursday before Quenneville was announced as Chicago's new coach that the group had decided as a whole to make the change and that decision had been made before Wednesday's 4-1 victory over Phoenix.

The problem is, there was little to point to in Savard's résumé to suggest he wasn't doing a good job, or at least a job that didn't suggest a firing was imminent.

Last season, he took a young team that was hit by potentially crippling injuries and kept them in the hunt. He was without Jonathan Toews for six weeks. He was without Martin Havlat for the last two-thirds of the season. They battled through inconsistent goaltending. Still, the Blackhawks stayed close, finishing just three points out of the playoffs.

Which brings us to the second lens through which this coaching change can be viewed, the one that suggests this is a team that hasn't been able to shake its history of shooting itself in the foot, both on the ice and in the eyes of a public that is just now starting to re-embrace the team after more than a decade of indifference.

Elias Says

The firing of Denis Savard after just four games did not rank as a record for an NHL coaching change.

• Bill Gadsby left the Detroit Red Wings after just two games of the 1969-70 season.

• Fred Glover departed the California Golden Seals after three games at the start of the 1971-72 season and went on to coach 68 games as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings.

• In 2001-02 the Pittsburgh Penguins fired Ivan Hlinka, the first European-born and trained NHL coach (along with Alpo Suhonen who coached in Chicago at the same time) after the Penguins lost the first four games of the season.

• Jacques Demers saw his tenure as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens end after four games at the outset of the 1995-96 season (Hockeydb.com indicates Demers coached five games that season).

• Read more Elias Says

Observers -- some close to the team, some not -- question the timing of the move. The Blackhawks, while not off to a rocket start, were a respectable 1-2-1 with three points in their last two games.

The fact Savard wasn't given a contract extension suggested this very fate might befall the former Blackhawks great. Then, when Quenneville was suggested to Tallon as a scout by director of pro scouting Marc Bergevin, who played for Quenneville in St. Louis, it seemed to many the writing was on the wall.

There were whispers that Quenneville's presence at the Hawks' training camp was a signal that changes were afoot and that time was running out on Savard regardless of what strides he may have made with the squad last season or how well the team started.

Tallon told ESPN.com on Thursday there was never any master plan to hire Quenneville as coach when the Windsor native signed on to do some scouting.

"It's the truth," Tallon said. "Marc Bergevin, our director of pro scouting, called me and said he had spoken with Joel. He said, 'Would you want Joel to scout some games for us?' He was friends with Joel, played for him. And I said, 'How can you say no? It's a win-win for us.' Regardless if he were working for us, he would have been the No. 1 candidate if we did this."

Regardless of what machinations were at play before Thursday, the simple fact is the stakes are now immeasurably higher for all those involved with the team.

The pressure is on Quenneville, a coach with a tremendous track record of getting teams to the postseason but not beyond a conference final, to get the Blackhawks firing on all cylinders.

If the team responds to Quenneville and makes good on its significant promise, what with the additions of Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet, and the presence of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, then this moment might be seen as a watershed event, a turning point even, in the history of the franchise.

If he can't, then this will become just another misguided decision by a team doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Worse, it will be the kind of decision that could undo all of the good things that have taken place in and around this franchise over the past year.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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