After what felt like forever, the Chicago Blackhawks have finally found their permanent head coach – and, fortunately for Hawks fans, they chose a good one in longtime NHL defenseman and current Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Luke Richardson.
The 53-year-old has paid his dues in the coaching business, and he’s earned the opportunity he’s being given in the Windy City.
Prior to his time behind the bench. Richardson played 21 years as a dependable, if-unspectacular blueliner. He had the hype that accompanied being a seventh-overall NHL draft pick, and although he didn’t become a star, he gained respect for an honest, defensively-responsible game He’s been the same way since he moved into the coaching ranks in 2009: there’s no pretense to him. He’s a straightforward, unassuming guy who understood he’d have to work hard at coaching before he was given the reins at the NHL level.
Indeed, after starting out as an assistant coach with Ottawa for three seasons, Richardson chose to bet on himself and accept his first head coaching gig with Binghamton of the American League in 2012, lasting for four years before he was hired as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders.
One year later, he made a lateral move, joining Claude Julien’s assistant staff with the Montreal Canadiens, and that’s where he’s been ever since. But he never lost the desire to ascend one notch higher in the coaching food chain, and new Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson was impressed enough to put him in charge of Chicago’s mixed bag of a lineup.
Richardson’s new challenge will be to make the Hawks into a playoff contender. That’s much easier said than done. Davidson likely will be taking a scalpel to the roster, with rumors swirling he’s willing to listen to offers for star forward Alex DeBrincat. However, there’s no sense out there that Chicago’s makeover will include the trading of cornerstone forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, so there’s going to be an expectation Richardson will have a high bar to clear in terms of the Hawks’ overall competitiveness.
The biggest challenge for Richardson, however, will be making the Blackhawks into an above-average defensive unit. It’s true the Canadiens had the worst goals-against average in the entire league this past year at a bloated 3.87 number, but Chicago wasn’t much better at 3.52. Their defense corps is led by 27-year-old Seth Jones, but it isn’t particularly deep. And Chicago’s need for two new goalies is probably going to lead to Davidson spending a notable amount on, say, a younger-but-with-a-decent-resume type like Toronto’s Jack Campbell. Davidson has more than $20.1 million in salary cap space, and while he’ll need a good deal of that to pay restricted free agent forwards Kirby Dach and Dylan Strome, he’s got enough to make a splash on the goalie market.
All this is to say the team Richardson has right now likely won’t be the same as the team that starts the season for Chicago. There are going to be new faces, new chemistry, and a new voice behind the bench. Richardson has a fresh start, but he's also going to face immediate and considerable pressure to improve the Hawks'results and get them in a legitimate race for a playoff berth in the Central Division. Considering Chicago only was better than the abysmal Arizona Coyotes in the Central last season, this is going to require a major leap under Richardson's tenure.
Nobody is saying it can't be done, but Davidson and Richardson are now squarely in the spotlight in a way neither has been prior to today. Richardson is a hockey lifer and has put in the work to get this chance, but as we see more and more, the coaching business is fickle in the extreme, and you never know how much landing strip he’ll be given in Chicago. He’s got to strike while the iron is hot, or restless Hawks fans will be crowing for more changes sooner than later.