Rewind back to training camp in 2017-18.
Alex DeBrincat went into it as a highly-touted prospect after putting up video game numbers in the OHL. But the Blackhawks didn't know exactly how his game would translate to the NHL, as a 5-foot-7 winger. Heck, they weren't even sure he would even make the team right away.
Not only did he make the team out of camp, DeBrincat went on to finish the season as Chicago's leading scorer with 28 goals. But it was going to be tough to top that in his sophomore campaign, right?
DeBrincat has 21 goals through 46 games this season, and is on pace to finish with 37. For comparison's sake, only 12 players hit the 37-goal mark last season.
"I think I've played a little more consistent this year," DeBrincat said. "If anything, last year was pretty streaky and it's just tougher to come in and do that, so this year I feel more comfortable, more confident in my game at this level. There's a lot of things that go into it, just know what works, know what doesn't, consistency is definitely a big thing. When you can get that you're not having those highs and lows and emotions and stuff like that, so I think that's a big thing too."
The numbers back that up. Last season, DeBrincat went through goal droughts of 13 games, eight and seven (twice). This season, his longest is seven games. His next longest? Four.
DeBrincat has scored two or more goals just twice this season, which means he's producing more on a nightly basis rather than getting hot for one night. And that's crucial to the Blackhawks' success.
"The goal scoring is there, but I think his puck handling, his ability to move through traffic and the offensive zone and the neutral zone, he’s doing a really good job just moving his feet out there and having his head up with the puck, so he’s making a lot of plays," Jonathan Toews said. "That’s the biggest improvement I’ve seen. Aside from that he’s, as usual, doing a good job of finding the right spots to get open for shots. He’s been a weapon for us on the power play. Definitely a big part of our offense.
"He’s really committed to playing the game, to being a good player. I think with a lot of guys that come out after their first season and they have a good season, it’s easy for them to expect the same the next year and maybe their work ethic falls to the side or whatever it may be. But I don’t think you’ve seen any of that with Alex. He’s definitely a mature kid and his priorities and his focus are all in the right place."
DeBrincat has scored in 10 of his last 15 games, five of which have come on the power play. He's producing both at even strength, and a big reason for that is his approach going into games.
"The experience has really helped," DeBrincat said. "You've played against all these guys before, you know what they're about. It's just easier to go into the game. You're not thinking about playing against [Sidney] Crosby any more, you're thinking about playing the Pittsburgh Penguins and I think it's just a different thing to have gone through it rather than just coming in and trying to come in the first year and not really know what to expect."
When you're a rookie, your main goal is trying to crack the lineup every night and stay there. DeBrincat admitted that was his mindset, too.
Going into this season, DeBrincat knew he belonged in the NHL because he had proved it in his first year. Now it was about making an impact and proving you can be a top guy.
"I didn’t have a specific number, but I wanted to improve on my numbers from last year," DeBrincat said. "I definitely wanted to be more consistent going into the year. That was a big thing for me. Just improve on the numbers was my stance on that. I know it’d be pretty tough to beat the season I had last year, but I’m just going about it and trying to keep producing.”
The breakout star of Blackhawks development camp in July was undoubtedly Adam Boqvist, who was taken No. 8 overall in 2018. It was evident how much his game has grown over the past year.
Former Blackhawks defenseman — and now player development coach — Brian Campbell worked closely with Boqvist this past season and raved about the steps he took with the London Knights in the OHL. But Campbell is also preaching patience in Boqvist's development. Boqvist just turned 19 on Thursday, and it's important to let him develop at his own pace.
“Yeah, I was impressed," Campbell said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Obviously, he’s come a long way in a year from last development camp. There’s no pressure being put on him. He’ll develop at his time. If he pushes for a spot, great, but I just don’t want people to get away. There’s a lot to keep learning and he wants to learn, which is the greatest thing. His teammates love him: great thing. He wants to do extra and learn the game: great thing. He is preparing himself days before, even in development camp, he’s preparing himself days before. So all great things and he’s on the right path.
"Hopefully that happens and maybe it does happen but if it doesn’t then that’s not the case and he keeps getting better and wants to keep getting better. Definitely, we know his skill level is there and I think he’s taken a huge step in the last year in preparing himself and knowing how to prepare as a pro player now. There’s a lot of great things there, and hopefully he does do that, but for me, I just don’t want to put too much on him right now. He’s turning 19 soon so he’s still a really young kid and it’s a tough position to play at a pro level. Believe me, I’m smiling, but I just don’t want to force the issue too much. Hopefully he can do some great things, but if he doesn’t, then that’s OK too.”
Drake Caggiula had a successful college hockey career. He compiled 127 points (62 goals, 65 assists) in 162 career games across four seasons at North Dakota, and served as an alternate captain during his senior year.
But before committing to college, Caggiula was being recruited by the Erie Otters of the OHL and there could've been a moment where he played with Connor McDavid and current teammates Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome all at the same time.
“I remember telling Sherry Bassin, the GM of Erie, how I was going to go to college," Caggiula said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "He kept reiterating that, 'at 16 years old, we’re not going to be that great. But at 17, we’re going to be a little bit better, but not great. But at 18 and 19, those are going to be your big years and we’re going to have a really good team and we’re going to surround you with good players.’ I mean, that’s two years in the future so it’s hard to really see that.
"Looking back at it now, the players that I could have played with, they had some pretty talented players go through Erie. Even Dylan Larkin was an Erie draft pick and ended up going to Michigan. It could have been a pretty talented team there so it’s kind of funny to see how it all works out. We’re all here today coming from different paths so it’s pretty cool.”
Any chirps from the guys about his decision now?
“Yeah, Connor [McDavid] used to make fun of me all the time, you know? ‘Oh, we would have won the Memorial Cup if you would have joined the team!’ and all that sort of stuff," Caggiula joked. "We talk about it a little bit just here and there saying, ‘what a team we could have had and imagine who we would have been playing with and now we’re all here together. What if we all would have started in Erie together and now we’re here together?’ It just would have been a pretty cool story. It’s obviously something that we can’t control but it’s definitely something that you can look back at and laugh at.”
Check out the interview in the video above.