I will leave it to far greater hockey minds than me to determine whether Denis Savard deserved to be fired as head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks after just four games into the NHL season -- although, as Clint Eastwood said in Unforgiven, "deserves got nuthin to do with it" – but the one thing we should all be able to agree on is that it comes as no surprise.
None at all.
The writing was on the wall for this in so many ways they are almost too numerous to mention, but let's try:
1. Expectations. The buzz over Blackhawk hockey in Chicago this off-season has been off the scale. From the fans to the media to ownership and management, the expectation for this exciting young team that just missed the playoffs last season was nothing less than to be a playoff team and perform on the ice to the same level as the marketing department had done off it.
That, and that alone, has been more than enough to derail career coaches with a lot more experience and track record than Savard. So three losses off the hop this season didn't help any. After the third loss, the Chicago papers were full of critical comments saying this Hawk resurgence seemed to be a lot more sizzle than steak.
2. New hierarchy. A lot of this buzz and expectation level has been driven by the front-office team led by new president John McDonough, who amongst other things was instrumental in bringing Scotty Bowman into the fold as a senior advisor.
The mandate of this new group headed by chairman Rocky Wirtz and McDonough is to take the Hawks to another level. They didn't hire Savard per se, the new guys were not fully invested and when they started to wonder if Savard fit the mold of a coach to take them to the next level, it didn't take long for them to act.
3. The relationship with Bowman. He was brought in to be a mentor for Savard and GM Dale Tallon, but it was becoming fairly clear fairly quickly that Savard and Bowman were not engaging in the same positive relationship that, for example, Red Wing coach Mike Babcock enjoyed with Bowman in Detroit. Those close to McDonough say he was miffed that a young, learning coach like Savard wouldn't take greater advantage of a resource such as Bowman.
4. The hiring of Joel Quenneville as a pro scout. The Blackhawks might as well have put up a billboard on the Magnificent Mile saying Quenneville would be the next coach of the Hawks, as soon as Savard stumbled. And he is. Sometimes in this business, appearances are not deceiving.
5. Savard's handling of netminder Cristobal Huet. It didn't get a lot of publicity because it happened in the pre-season, but on Sept. 29, Huet was lit up 7-1 in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets and left in for all seven goals.
What made it even worse is that the Hawks, outside of Huet, were basically going with their B team lineup that night. No Toews, Kane, Sharp, Havlat, Byfuglien, Campbell, Keith or Seabrook in that game. But the No. 1 goalie, the big free-agent signing of the off-season, plays, gets torched for seven and doesn't get any relief. Suffice to say that was not well received in the front office.
6. Savard's handling of forward Marty Havlat: The two were clearly at odds. Now, Havlat's detractors will suggest he's a one-dimensional player with a selfish streak. His supporters will tell you he's a dynamic offensive talent who only needs to be in a primetime role to be an NHL offensive superstar.
Whichever way you slice it, Havlat was, until the summer, the Hawks' highest-paid skater and was struggling mightily to get a few scraps of power-play time. Whatever you think of Havlat, the PP is what he was born to do. Now, the decision to fire Savard was made on Wednesday – before last night's win over the Coyotes – but take a look at the Blackhawks' PP minutes amongst forwards from last night's game. Six forwards – Toews, Kane, Sharp, Byfuglien, Versteeg and Bolland – played more PP minutes than Havlat, who finished with a mere 1:55 of man-advantage minutes.
If you add all of them up, presto, there's your changing of the coach four games into the season.
At the end of the day, the bottom line is that the Blackhawk hierarchy simply decided that they didn't have full confidence in Savard to take them to the next level and that they needed a more polished, experienced hand behind the bench.
Enter Quenneville. Exit Savard.
Deserved? You decide.
Surprised? Not a chance.