Blackhawks

Blackhawks feeling optimistic going into 2019 training camp: 'The confidence is a lot higher'

Blackhawks feeling optimistic going into 2019 training camp: 'The confidence is a lot higher'

There's always a high level of optimism at the beginning of NHL training camp because all 31 teams are starting the season with a clean slate. But the feeling in Chicago, specifically, is certainly different than it has been in years past after missing the playoffs for two straight years.

The Blackhawks missed the postseason by six points in 2018-19 despite everything that went on, which included an early-season firing of the second-winningest coach of all-time in Joel Quenneville and the hiring of 33-year-old Jeremy Colliton and two eight-game losing streaks. It was also a summer full of activity, whether it was trades, free-agent signings or securing the No. 3 overall pick and drafting Kirby Dach.

The roster looks different, and it's created some positive energy throughout the locker room.

"That's a good question," Patrick Kane said, "because I think the confidence is a lot higher than it's been the last couple years just in the roster we have and I think just having Jeremy at the helm now in light of what he did with us last year, the run we had at the end of the season, the way he wants us to play, the communication was great so I think we have a lot of positive things going for us right now. Just have to put it all together."

Jonathan Toews echoed those sentiments.

"Everyone's confident we can get started, moving in the right direction right at the start of the season here," he said. "Everyone's eager to prove themselves coming off another long offseason. Guys put in a lot of work and training camp, just looking at the way it was today, it's going to be tough. We're going to have to work to get ready but I think guys are excited to be back together."

While there is an optimistic feeling around the group, the Blackhawks know the season isn't played on paper. They have their work cut out for them. The Central Division is as deep as ever and most teams in the Western Conference got better, not worse.

"Every year you start out optimistic and this year is no different," Duncan Keith said. "Everyone is excited to be back, get the season going again, but we know the league, every team is good. The parity in the league now is probably as good as it's ever been. We look at other teams and they've improved too, so focusing on ourselves and what we can control, I think we feel we're in a good spot, a good position to have a good start. It's just a matter of playing hard, working hard right now, executing, getting on the same page as quick as we can and carrying that off into a good start into the season."

The Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups in six years from 2010-15 and haven't experienced that same level of success since. They've gone through a couple years of retooling and it resulted in long summers, but the Blackhawks are hoping the roster has been built back up to a point where playoff contention is the benchmark this season, at the very least.

"It seems like a restart for us," Kane said. "We had our little run there, had a couple down years. Now it's like hopefully we can pick it back up."

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Kirby Dach emerging as impact-type player for Blackhawks

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AP

Kirby Dach emerging as impact-type player for Blackhawks

One of the top storylines going into Blackhawks training camp this season was whether Kirby Dach would be ready to make the jump to the NHL full-time. It was a goal of his, too, ever since he got drafted third overall in June.

But after exiting early in the final game of the 2019 Traverse City Prospect Tournament, Dach was placed in concussion protocol at the start of camp and didn't appear in any preseason games for the Blackhawks. It was a challenge to stay positive throughout the recovery process, but Dach knew he would eventually get his chance.

And he's taken full advantage of it.

Dach made his NHL debut on Oct. 20 against the Washington Capitals and was lined up against Alex Ovechkin's line for the majority of the game, logging 13:41 of ice time as the second-line center. He scored his first career NHL goal two days later and registered an assist in his third game. Things were off to a great start.

But now Dach is starting to get more comfortable in the pros and his offense is coming more naturally.

"I’m starting to play good," Dach said. "I have a lot of confidence in myself and the team is playing good so I think that kind of helps out with individual success. When your team is going the right way and you’re winning games and scoring goals and your top players are producing — not saying I’m a top player or anything — but it helps a lot when everybody is going and we’re scoring."

After having only one point in his previous seven games, Dach has four goals and two assists in a four-game point streak. He scored twice in Sunday's 4-1 win over Vegas and joined Eddie Olczyk and Patrick Kane as the only 18-year-olds in franchise history to have a multi-goal game.

"He’s getting confident and he’s playing well," Kane said. "I think the biggest thing with him is he can skate with the puck and he can lug it up the ice. When you do that and you can drive the middle of the rink, there are going to be some opportunities for you and your linemates. You saw on both of his goals tonight, he drives to the middle, gets a pass and all of a sudden he’s in free. So that could be a big part of his game going forward but he’s really starting to feel some confidence."

Dach is up to nine points in 14 games this season, and his points-per-game average of 0.64 ranks fifth among all rookies. Only Cale Makar (1.10), Quinn Hughes (0.70), Martin Necas (0.70) and Victor Olofsson (0.70 rank ahead of him, but Dach is averaging the fewest amount of ice time (11:13) by a significant margin and is the only one on the list from the 2019 draft class.

"He's a tremendous talent," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "For him to step in as he has, he missed basically all of training camp and he's been a factor for us. He's helping us win. Got a lot of fun times ahead of us watching him develop and he's going to be a big-time player for us."

The biggest challenge for teenagers that break into the NHL right away is about staying true to who they are as a player. Most times, young players simply try to survive, and they get away from doing what they do best.

Dach isn’t showing any signs of timidness. He knows he can play at this level and wants to be an impact-type player in Chicago for a long time. 

And while he’s currently in a bottom-six role, expect Dach’s ice time to increase as he continues to prove himself as a high-end player. Because he can handle it.

"I feel kind of comfortable wherever I’m suited in the lineup," Dach said. "I just want to be in the lineup. I know whenever I step on the ice I have to be at my best to stay in the lineup and produce offensively, but at the same time make sure I’m good in my own zone and throughout the neutral zone. The one thing I’ve learned here is to have a good overall game and be a good 200-foot player."

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Four takeaways: Kirby Dach lifts Blackhawks to fourth straight win

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AP

Four takeaways: Kirby Dach lifts Blackhawks to fourth straight win

Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres at the United Center on Sunday:

1. Blackhawks keep rolling

The Blackhawks were coming off their biggest win of the season, a 7-2 rout against the Predators just 24 hours ago in Nashville. And they followed that up with a strong 60-minute effort against the Sabres, who started out the season 8-1-1 but are since 1-6-2.

The Blackhawks have scored the first two goals in five of the past six games, and 21 goals during their four-game winning streak. They also improved to 4-0-0 on the second leg of a back-to-back this season.

"It’s nice to get on a little bit of a run here," Patrick Kane said. "It’s something we’ve been waiting for all season. We play pretty well in these back-to-backs so nice to put a little stretch together and feel good about our game. Obviously we’re getting production from all over the lineup right now and I think that’s key if you’re going to go on some winning stretches."

2. Corey Crawford stays hot

The Blackhawks are getting elite goaltending from Crawford and Lehner this season, especially as of late. Crawford came into the matchup with a 10-0-0 record, 2.04 goals-against average and .924 save percentage against the Sabres.

He improved those numbers on Sunday, turning aside 33 of 34 shots for a save percentage of .971. He is now 3-0-2 in his past five starts after starting the season 1-4-0.

"I thought we played great defensively," Crawford said. "Even after playing last night, we really didn’t give up that much, I thought. And then got a lot more goals, too. That seems to be rolling for us right now."

3. Kirby Dach extends point streak

After recording only one point in his previous seven games, the Blackhawks' top prospect is starting to heat up. He scored twice on Sunday night to tally his fourth goal in as many games and fifth of his NHL career. He also finished with four shots on goal.

With the goal, Dach extended his career-high point streak to four games. He has four goals and two assists over that span, and is up to nine points (five goals, four assists) in 14 games on the season.

Dach is the third 18-year-old in Blackhawks history to record a multi-goal game (regular season or playoffs), joining Eddie Olczyk (two goals vs. Detroit on April 10, 1985) and Patrick Kane (two goals vs. Columbus on Oct. 23, 2007). And he really tried completing the hat trick on his final shift with the help of Kane."

“I obviously wanted it pretty bad," Dach said. "Kaner gave me a couple of nice chances and I might owe him a steak dinner for missing those ones.”

4. Henri Jokiharju returns to Chicago

For the first time since being traded to the Sabres, Jokiharju returned to the United Center and did so as a member of the visitors. In fact, on his way into the arena he briefly got lost trying to find the changing room.

The Jokiharju trade was a controversial one because he was one of the Blackhawks' best defensemen last season, especially at the beginning of the season, and was traded for Alex Nylander, who was viewed as a reclamation project.

Jokiharju led the Blackhawks in even-strength ice time in his first 15 games under Joel Quenneville. But after the coaching change, Jokiharju's ice time averaged slipped and he was eventually sent to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League.

"I think it's a little bit how the coach see you as a player and as a person," Jokiharju said. "I think that was one of the issues in here."

Whether that's true or not, both teams seem to be benefitting from the trade so far. Jokiharju has seven points (two goals, five assists) in 19 games with the Sabres. Nylander has nine points (four goals, five assists) in 18 games.

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