Gustav Forsling

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

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Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

For Jordan Oesterle, the wait really wasn’t a terrible thing.

Sure, he was used to playing more consistently in the past. But he knew with the Blackhawks carrying eight defensemen that several players, including him, would need to practice patience and understanding.

“It hasn’t been too long. It’s only been a week and a half so it’s not terrible,” said Oesterle on Thursday morning, a few hours before he made his Blackhawks debut against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers.

For the second consecutive season the Blackhawks are going with eight defensemen to start the season. In one way, it’s good: if anything goes awry, be it someone’s game or someone’s health, the depth is readily there.

But so are the challenges. It’s a juggling act, a delicate balance between making the right decisions and making sure a player understands that a scratch may be more about the rotation and not his individual game.

Communication, above all, is key.

“It’s not easy being the guys who are in or out, right on that bubble situation where you come in not knowing if you’re going to play. But as a staff we want to keep everyone involved,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We know the depth of your defense is going to get challenged at some point during the year. We feel the eight guys who are here can play but that’s how we’ve always done it: We’ve always let guys know whether you’re in or out. Sometimes you have to be more patient than you’d like but handling it the right way, whether you’re a good pro or teammate, that can be healthy around the environment of your team.”

Based on all outward appearances, everyone has handled it well. Connor Murphy has been a healthy scratch twice – “I mean I just want to see the team win really...if we're winning and guys are playing well that's all that matter,” Murphy said after his first scratch.

Oesterle was a healthy scratch the first seven games. Michal Kempny, who Oesterle replaced, has been scratched the last two games. Cody Franson has also sat seven games. Franson, whose patience has been in place while awaiting contracts in his career, is practicing it again. But he’s appreciated the Blackhawks’ communication on it.

“This situation gets tough when they don’t say anything to you; you don’t know if it’s because of the way you’re playing, you don’t know if it’s something you did or what the situation is. The coaching staff has done a great job of being in our ear, letting us leave our work at the rink and not take it home with us,” Franson said. “That goes a long way in being able to stay positive and in the right mindset through it.”

After starting with eight defensemen last season the Blackhawks eventually went back to seven. Will they do that again this season? Maybe, but whoever gets sent down would most likely have to go through waivers. The Blackhawks reassigned Gustav Forsling last season to get back to seven defensemen and get Forsling more playing time. But this season Forsling and Jan Rutta have been dependable and have pretty much become the Blackhawks’ second pairing.

So for now, eight defensemen it shall be. Being part of the rotation isn’t always easy but so far players seem to get that it’s for the greater good.

“It’s one of those things where we’ve got eight quality guys. I think no matter who’s sitting on any given night, it might not necessary be due to how they’re playing or how they’re doing individually,” Franson said. “I think Q’s done a great job of managing that situation. That’s one of those things where it’s a great problem to have but it’s not an easy one to handle. So we’re all aware of what’s taking place right now and you just try to be as professional about it as you can.”

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 4-3 overtime loss to Maple Leafs

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Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 4-3 overtime loss to Maple Leafs

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night:

1. Anton Forsberg stands on his head.

Due to Corey Crawford's remarkable numbers against Montreal, Joel Quenneville elected to go with Forsberg between the pipes in Toronto and it turned out to be a solid decision despite the overall result.

He stopped 39 of 43 shots (.906 save percentage) in his official team debut, and essentially stole a point for the Blackhawks, who were outshot 43-21. The only blemish was a soft goal he allowed on Toronto's first goal of the game, when Nikita Zaitsev slipped a shot past Forsberg's five-hole.

Other than that, he picked up exactly where he left off in preseason.

2. Saad-Toews-Panik line continues to impress.

We're already running out of things to say about this trio. They've been one of the best lines in hockey to open the season, and they were far and away the best line for the Blackhawks in this one again.

Jonathan Toews scored his second goal in as many games, which was assisted by linemates Richard Panik and Brandon Saad, that gave the Blackhawks a 2-0 lead in the first period. Panik added a power play goal in the third, giving the three of them a combined nine goals and six assists through three games.

They were also the only three players on the Blackhawks to finish with positive even-strength possession numbers against a Maple Leafs club that absolutely dominated in that area.

3. Nick Schmaltz's absence felt.

The Blackhawks got away with not having their second-line center in Saturday's game against Columbus, but they couldn't overcome it Monday.

Patrick Kane (minus-25 Corsi), Ryan Hartman (minus-20) and Artem Anisimov (minus-18) had the worst even-strength possession numbers among all skaters, and were all held pointless.

Schmaltz is a huge part of this Blackhawks team. His speed changes the way that line plays, and his absence is magnified when he's not in there because it puts more offensive responsibility on the bottom six centers who have a defense-first mentality and are pushed up into the lineup.

4. Forsling-Rutta pairing strong again.

The Blackhawks spent a lot of time in their own end, but Gustav Forsling and Jan Rutta had to be the best pairing in the loss.

Rutta scored a goal for the second straight game, and added an assist later on for his first multi-point game in the NHL. He now has two goals and two assists during his three-game point streak.

Forsling has also recorded a point in three consecutive games, all of which have been assists. He slapshotted a perfect pass off the end boards that ricocheted right to Panik, who buried home Chicago's third goal. Forsling finished with five shot attempts, tied for the team lead with a pair of blocked shots and logged 16:23 of ice time, 3:26 of which came on the penalty kill.

5. Busy evening for special teams.

There were 13 penalties committed between the two teams, leading to plenty of whistles and man advantages.

The Blackhawks had six power-play opportunities and cashed in on one of them, while the Maple Leafs also converted on one of their eight chances. Toronto has scored a power play goal in each of its first three games, and lead the league with a 37.5 percent success rate.

And it probably could've added one or two more if it weren't for Forsberg's strong play in net.

In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

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In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

Jan Rutta was taking in every moment of his first NHL game on Thursday night, from the introductions to the Bryan Bickell ceremony to the raucous United Center crowd, which had plenty of reasons to be boisterous. That may sound like Rutta was distracted but it was actually the opposite.

“I mean, the fans are amazing and they fill us with so much energy,” Rutta said. “So it’s really good.”

For Rutta, it was the crowd. For Gustav Forsling, his partner in the Blackhawks’ season opener, it was offseason reading on mental skills. Be it Rutta’s transition from Europe to North America or Forsling’s need to improve in a sophomore season, whatever helps a young defenseman feel more comfortable you go with it. It worked for Game 1, anyway, when the duo came away with a combined outing that coach Joel Quenneville appreciated.

“Both of them were strong defensively,” Quenneville said. “They went to people quickly, I thought they had a really good gap and the involvement in our rush game and their patience with the puck on the point was great. Our defense as a group of six were really good as far as defense to offense and more involvement with our defense on the attack.”

[MORE: Showtime, baby: Blackhawks' second line was off-the-charts good in blowout win

The Blackhawks’ big question this season is defense, so nights like Thursday for Rutta and Forsling are encouraging. They’ll likely be playing again on Saturday when the Blackhawks face the Columbus Blue Jackets – why the heck would you change anything out of a 10-1 victory? For Rutta, the move across the pond has been smooth. Same goes for the transition from preseason to Game 1 of the regular season.

“I played four preseason games and those teams, they played one, two, sometimes three lines of their normal teams. Getting to know the players – not that I didn’t know them. I know them from TV – but once you’re on the ice with them, it’s a little different,” Rutta said with a laugh. “It’s good to get to know the guys you play.”

Forsling, meanwhile has to jump off the levels he set last training camp. It was an excellent start but the Blackhawks needed more from him. That goes double this season but Forsling is feeling more confident about himself and his game – again, mental skills reading this summer.

“I just trust myself. I trust my abilities and I keep working every day,” Forsling said. “I learned a lot [last season] but I wasn’t really happy. I wanted more. So I’ll try to get that out of me this season.”

Quenneville likes Forsling’s approach.

“When you have confidence as a young defenseman, you seem to have way more patience of things developing and opening up and then you have confidence going into the puck area and trying to influence it and not that hesitation in your game,” he said. “When [Forsling] plays with more poise he gets to another level. He’s had a good camp and some really good days. And definitely his partner helps and does a lot of nice things with him.”

Who knows how long the Blackhawks’ defense is going to be a work in progress. There will probably be switches – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were together on Thursday but that likely won’t be long term. For Rutta and Forsling, getting as many opportunities as possible and utilizing whatever helps them feel better out there will help their development