Commentary

Savard out through no fault of his own other than inexperience

Updated: October 16, 2008, 7:13 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

Denis Savard, like his team, was learning on the run. It worked last season when the Chicago Blackhawks made huge strides in their development.

But now the time has come for those young Hawks to get over the hump. And the front office in Chicago believed Savard was still too green as a head coach to be the man to get them there. We'll never know if that's true, since Savard only got four games (1-2-1) into the Hawks' hyped-up season.

"We all felt that with an even younger team than last year, we needed some experience behind the bench to keep us consistent. That was the ultimate decision," Hawks GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com on Thursday, hours after firing Savard and replacing him with veteran Joel Quenneville.

[+] EnlargeDenis Savard
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesLast season, Denis Savard led Chicago to its first 40-win campaign since 2001-02, but the team fell three points shy of a playoff spot.

"It's the worse thing I've had to do in my life," said Tallon. "It was a tough decision and you have to make tough decisions to get to where you want to go. We feel that Joel is the answer for our young team."

Quenneville, on paper, will be better equipped to challenge the coaches in his own division. Savard, through no fault of his own other than inexperience, walked into a gun fight some nights with nothing but a knife in his hands when it came to his opposition behind the bench in the Central Division.

"That's a thing with this division that some people don't realize," Scotty Bowman, a senior adviser of hockey operations for the Hawks, told ESPN.com. "Here's what you got: there's Mike Babcock, you've got Barry Trotz -- and this guy under the radar has been a heck of a coach, he's just a terrific coach -- and then you've got Ken Hitchcock and Andy Murray.

"There's probably not a division that has as much experience behind the bench. So it's a heck of a division to match wits with night in and night out."

Enter Quenneville (who signed a three-year deal), with a résumé that includes 839 regular-season games and a Jack Adams Award.

"He's an experienced coach," said Bowman. "He's had teams with great players like Sakic and Forsberg and these kinds of guys. And he also did a good job last year [in Colorado] with a team that was really banged up and he was able to get them in the playoffs. He's 155 games over .500. That's a confident level that's pretty high."

Of course, a naysayer might point out Quenneville has never reached the Stanley Cup finals, let alone won an NHL championship. But you can't argue with what he brings to the table: His teams play solid, two-way hockey and, except for one season in his coaching career, always make the playoffs.

And the Hawks desperately want to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001-02.

"The expectations are real high here," said Bowman.

"They promised to bring a Stanley Cup here, and they felt maybe I wasn't their guy. It's very well understood," Savard told ESPN.com on Thursday. "The only thing I can say is that last year, I thought I did a heck of a job with our young kids. Eight to 10 rookies in our lineup.

"We had a bit of a slow start this year, but I thought the team was on the right track. I guess it goes with the territory," Savard added. "As a coach, you're judged on wins and losses."

How does this affect the young players on this team? Star forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane still aren't at the legal drinking age, but already have a second NHL coach.

"There is going to be an adjustment when dealing with young players. It's like a shock," former NHL GM and scout Craig Button told ESPN.com's Scott Burnside.

It's the worse thing I've had to do in my life. It was a tough decision and you have to make tough decisions to get to where you want to go. We feel that Joel is the answer for our young team.

--Hawks GM Dave Tallon on the team's decision to fire Denis Savard

Savard was the only pro coach both Kane and Toews had known.

"This is your coach. This is the guy who's been with you. And now, he's not there anymore," Button said.

Kane, especially, had a certain shared past with Savard, being the No. 1 overall draft pick and a young player portrayed as the one who would lead the team out of the wilderness.

"There's a certain bond, a relationship built because of that. I don't think that can be dismissed," Button said.

Tallon is cognizant of that and made sure he had both young stars in his office Thursday for a heart to heart after also addressing the team as a whole.

"I have a good relationship with them," Tallon said of Kane and Toews. "It was very candid and open. We had a very light-hearted and also serious conversation. I told them how tough a day this was. They empathized with me, as well.

"We had a real good chat about their expectations and our expectations, etc. It was really good."

So it appears the GM and his two young stars are on the same page, which may have not been the case when it came to Tallon and Savard. A source close to the situation told ESPN.com that Savard had planned to start Nikolai Khabibulin (who is on the trade block) in net for the home opener Monday night, but Tallon wanted newly acquired Cristobal Huet to go back in.

"We had a meeting about the goaltending situation," said Tallon. "I made a suggestion. I know that's a tough decision for coaches as to who to play. I made a suggestion and left it at that. I never tell a coach who to play; I would never do that. It's none of my business."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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