Blackhawks

Where does Slater Koekkoek fit into Blackhawks plans?

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USA TODAY

Where does Slater Koekkoek fit into Blackhawks plans?

Slater Koekkoek was a highly-touted prospect once upon a time after getting drafted No. 10 overall in 2012 by Tampa Bay. He was supposed to be part of their long-term plans on the blue line.

For whatever reason, Koekkoek struggled to break through and unlock his full potential. Injuries certainly haven't helped. He's had a few shoulder surgeries that have gotten in the way of his development as a young player. But he didn't mention that or use it as an excuse. 

Koekkoek wanted to make it work in Tampa Bay. He reportedly never requested a trade, even though he continued to slip down the depth chart. It didn't help his cause that the Lightning have won 17 of their past 19 games, so there hasn't been a reason to tweak with a winning formula.

But after getting traded to Chicago on Friday, Koekkoek is excited about a fresh start and proving himself on a new team.

“I felt good," Koekkoek said. "I hadn’t got in a game in a while in Tampa, so I went down on conditioning to Syracuse and got some games in. I’m thankful for that. I got some of the rust off and it got me ready for this opportunity.

“Everybody gets frustrated when they’re not playing. Luckily for me, I have a strong support system. I try and take every day with a positive mindset, so in that way I’m lucky, but it was definitely weighing on me hard.”

Where he fits into the Blackhawks lineup will be determined. They're currently at eight defensemen, something they've been reluctant to do in the past. Gustav Forsling is on injured reserve with an upper-torso injury, and the expectation is he won't be out long-term which adds to the complication.

While Koekkoek won't make his debut on Saturday against the Vegas Golden Knights despite participating in morning skate, it appears the Blackhawks will give him a shot at some point.

"I've watched him a couple games now and [he's] very mobile," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "Skates excellently, loves to jump in the play. He's got a good gap, lots of that has to do with his skating. He's a big body, I would say not overly physical but [Carl] Dahlstrom's not overly physical either and he gets in the way and defends well. I think he can compete for a role. So we'll see how that plays out. We can watch all the tape you want but when you get him here that's when we're going to really evaluate him."

Does Koekkoek see a path for himself?

“In my head, I have some ideas," he admitted. "But ultimately it’s up to the coach and what he thinks. I’m just here to work hard until I get my opportunity and then do what I can out there.”

Koekkek is set to become a restricted free agent this summer for the second straight year. He's a left-handed shot, which helps his case in Chicago because they have a surplus of right-handed shot defensemen on the roster and in the organization.

At 24 years old, there's still room for Koekkoek to grow into the player he wants to become — or at least to the point where he can become an everyday player. And that's all he's focused on now.

“Every day I come to the rink and work hard," Koekkoek said when asked why he hasn't been able to reach his potential yet. "Whether it be opportunity or when I got in I didn’t showcase myself as well as I could’ve, I don’t know. It’s a tough thing. I’m thankful to Tampa for everything they gave me, all the opportunities, but I’m looking forward to this here.”

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Why fixing penalty kill is crucial for Blackhawks in 2019-20

Why fixing penalty kill is crucial for Blackhawks in 2019-20

Just how important is special teams in the NHL?

Of the 16 teams that qualified for the postseason, 14 clubs had at least one special teams unit that was ranked in the top half of the league and 12 teams had at least one unit ranked in the top 10.

The Blackhawks finished the season with the 15th-ranked power play and 31st-ranked penalty kill. The Blackhawks' 72.7 percent kill rate is the lowest the league has seen in 30 years.

“The penalty kill is something that clearly has to be better," GM Stan Bowman said. "That was a big disappointment this year, no question about that. So we have to devote some resources to that. Some of it might be players, if we get some players that have that kind of experience or have a history. Part of it is tactically can we find ways to be better. We have a lot of time now to study it and put a lot of our focus on that.”

Jeremy Colliton did not rule out getting external help to improve the PK.

“We’re going to look at everything, for sure," he said. "We’re going to look at obviously tactically and we’re going to look at the personnel and how we’re using guys and try to put them in the best situation we can. And maybe that’s new, different guys who weren’t getting the opportunity. Or maybe that’s someone from outside.”

The Blackhawks did manage to fix their power play issues this past season. When Colliton became head coach on Nov. 6, the Blackhawks power play was near the bottom of the league. By December, the man advantage was dead last, cashing in on fewer than 12 percent of their power plays.

Colliton made Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and Erik Gustafsson his top power play unit and from Dec. 20 till the end of February they were the league's best unit, converting on 35.2 percent of their power plays.  

Gustafsson’s addition to the power play was a major factor in the unit's improvement.

"A big part of our power play progression and transformation from being at the bottom to being in the top group," Bowman said of Gustafsson. "I was really pleased with that and we're going to need him next year for sure.”

If the Blackhawks penalty kill can make strides like the power play did, Colliton’s crew will likely be playing at this time next season.

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Recapping breakout OHL season for Blackhawks top prospect Adam Boqvist

Recapping breakout OHL season for Blackhawks top prospect Adam Boqvist

The London Knights set high expectations for themselves going into the 2018-19 OHL campaign. They always do. Their roster is usually loaded with top NHL prospects and this season was no different.

After finishing No. 1 in the Western Conference with 99 points, the Knights looked poised to go on a deep run. They got off to a roaring start in the playoffs by sweeping the Windsor Spitfires (4-0) and kicked off the second round by winning three straight against the Guelph Storm. But then, for the first time all season, the Knights lost four in a row to squander a 3-0 series lead and were eliminated just like that. It was a disappointing finish for a team with Memorial Cup aspirations.

One of the bright spots of the postseason was Blackhawks prospect Adam Boqvist. He was tied for first among all skaters with 10 goals through two rounds; no other defenseman had more than six. And he finished with 13 points in 11 games for a points-per-game average of 1.18.

To summarize his season: Boqvist scored one goal in his first 15 games. From that point on, he finished with 29 goals and 60 points in 50 games, including playoffs. He became an offensive driving force.

It's unclear what his future holds, but with Evan Bouchard expected to turn pro and secure a full-time roster spot on the Edmonton Oilers next season, returning to London would put Boqvist in a position where he could be the No. 1 defenseman in all situations.

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