Jan Rutta

Jan Rutta continues to adjust well from both sides of the ice for Blackhawks

Jan Rutta continues to adjust well from both sides of the ice for Blackhawks

Jan Rutta’s work on his off side is done. For now, anyway. He was back on his more comfortable and familiar right on Wednesday, partnered with Duncan Keith. But for the Czech defenseman who’s handled everything new well, it was one more adjustment that worked out.

Rutta moved to the left when Gustav Forsling suffered an upper-body injury against the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 28. With Forsling expected to play against Philadelphia on Thursday night, coach Joel Quenneville switched up defensive pair combinations and moved Rutta back to the right.

The defensive changes didn’t end there on Tuesday: Connor Murphy, another guy who’s played on the right his entire career, was the latest to get a shot on the left side (pairing with Cody Franson). With eight defensemen healthy again, Michal Kempny and Jordan Oesterle look to be on the outside right now.

As for Rutta, the switch was fine but he’s happy to be back in his comfort zone.

“It definitely feels more natural for me. I mean, I didn’t mind playing on the left side, it was actually better than I thought,” Rutta said. “But it’s definitely for me to get back on the right side.”

In his short time with the Blackhawks Rutta has adjusted to everything well, from playing on the smaller North American ice to learning the Blackhawks’ system to switching sides. And any time you can show good versatility with a coach Joel Quenneville team, it doesn’t hurt you.

“I think it helps our team, helps our options, getting more familiar with that over the course of a game, a shift,” Quenneville said of Rutta’s switch. “Whether it’s an injury, a million things can happen where you have that option in your back pocket. It looks like it doesn’t change his game how he’s going to play, so that’s always a great sign. He handled it well so it’s a good option for us.”

Rutta has rolled with everything in his time here. He’s learned first-hand that, if necessary, you’ve got to adjust in a hurry. For him it worked and it will help him as long as he’s here. That said, he’s happy to be returning to what works best for him.

“Yeah, it was OK on the left side,” Rutta said “Of course I’m more comfortable on the right but the left was OK.”

Blackhawks adjust quickly to switching sides: 'It’s just a little weird'

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Blackhawks adjust quickly to switching sides: 'It’s just a little weird'

Patrick Sharp got his position-switching indoctrination when he first joined the Blackhawks.

“Going back to when Savy was coaching, he played me at all three positions nightly,” Sharp said of former Blackhawks coach Denis Savard. “So I got used to bouncing around quite a bit.”

The Blackhawks are like any other team: they’d love to play guys at their most comfortable spots at all times. But sometimes you need to be a little creative. Perhaps cap issues have left you with a lack of depth at a position. Maybe your overall game is off and shaking things up may have an effect. Whatever the reasons players have to be ready to switch to their off side – or their comfortable side – depending on needs. Players adjust accordingly.

“The biggest thing is probably taking pucks on different sides and the breakouts. On the off wing you’re more on the backhand and on the strong side you’re getting more pucks on your forehand, so it’s a little easier coming out,” said Nick Schmaltz, who’s back at his familiar center after playing on the wing last season. “But I think it’s a different look coming into the zone as well; when you’re on your off wing you can cut to the middle and it’ll be on your forehand. But everyone on our team’s pretty high skilled player. It’s a quick adjustment, maybe just take one or two shifts to adjust a little bit.”

Alex DeBrincat has played most of his Blackhawks games at right wing but was moved back to the left side for their victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night. DeBrincat played right wing his first season with the Erie Otters but was mainly a left wing his final two years there. He admits the left feels better.

“It’s easier for me entering the zone if I’m on my left side. That’s the biggest change. But that’ll be easier for me and hopefully I can make some more plays,” said DeBrincat, who scored an empty-net goal on Wednesday. “I mean it doesn’t matter that much. But for me, this side’s going to let me get more shots and let me have a quick release. Those are two things I’ve done in the past and I need to find at this level.”

Jan Rutta is on the other side of that equation. The defenseman has played the right side all but a handful of times, but coach Joel Quenneville put Rutta on the left late in the Blackhawks’ loss to Colorado last weekend.

“It’s just a little weird to be on the left side. The angles are a little bit different,” Rutta said prior to Wednesday’s game. “I wasn’t skating on the left very much but after two practices I felt more comfortable there.”

Different? Sure. But Rutta’s ability to adapt quickly, coupled with Gustav Forsling’s upper-body injury, left Quenneville looking for an option. Quenneville said there were a few adjustments defensemen have to make playing their off sides.

“Sometimes there are some blind spots and you get more familiar coming out of your corner coverage to the net: loose pucks off shots, turning and you have to adapt to seeing the play in front of you,” said Quenneville, who’s been happy with Rutta’s work on the left. “Turning into pucks coming down the ice, you’re familiar going to your left or right. The other way, it’s a different turn. But I think his quickness can help alleviate those type of challenges.”

Players would probably prefer to stay where they’re most comfortable. But if necessary, they’re able to figure it out pretty quickly.

“When you’re playing hockey and making plays, it’s out of your mind,” Sharp said. “Sometimes you gotta remind yourself when you’re lining up for a faceoff, you’re just on autopilot sometimes and go to your natural spot. There are positives and advantages to playing either side. You just have to get the experience doing it.”

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.”