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Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators

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USA TODAY

Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators

Ryan Hartman has been through this before. Back in December of 2012, he sustained a torn labrum in his right shoulder but played through it because the Plymouth Whalers were in the middle of a playoff run. He waited until the offseason to have it surgically repaired and was cleared for contact just in time for him to attend his first training camp with the Blackhawks in September of 2013.

This time was a little different though.

Hartman had been acquired by the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline in exchange for prospect Victor Ejdsell and a 2018 first- and fourth-round pick — a hefty price to pay — in hopes of serving as an additional spark plug for a Predators team looking to load up for a second consecutive Stanley Cup run.

So when Hartman was brushed by Nathan MacKinnon along the boards, lost his footing and fell on his left shoulder late in Game 4 of the first round against Colorado, he immediately knew something was up.

"It didn't feel great at all," said Hartman, who went straight to the dressing room and had team doctors pop it back into place. "I finished the game and was able to finish playoffs in like a modified sling, which sucked to play with, but it's playoffs. It's one of those things where there are many guys playing through injuries and I was one of them."

Hartman, who's been rehabbing and training in Chicago, received the green light to fully participate in hockey-related drills last Monday but was advised to delay his Chicago Pro Hockey League debut for one more week just to err on the side of caution. On Wednesday, he got back into a game-type setting and "felt good" after 50 minutes of action going up against former teammates Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane.

Now he can fully focus on this upcoming season and amp up his on-ice training to a level he couldn't get to while recovering from shoulder surgery with training camp a month away.

Hartman was a restricted free agent this summer and recently re-signed with the Predators on a one-year deal worth $875,000. Clearly, he's betting on himself to bounce back to his rookie year form when he scored 19 goals and cash out on a larger paycheck down the line, even though he had multiple longer-term offers from the Predators.

"Yeah we talked, [GM David Poile] wants me to be there, I want to be there, we have a good relationship," Hartman said. "Obviously, he gave up a lot of stuff to take me and sees me in the future of the team and I see myself there too. There's a lot of little things that go into negotiations — if it's money wise or length — and there was a various amount [of offers] that was thrown out on both sides. With no [arbitration] rights, the best thing for me and my team was to bet on myself, take the year and go from there next year."

With that comes the pressure of having to earn another contract for the second straight year, which is also risky considering he's coming off an injury that sidelined him all summer. But that's just the way he wants it.

"Either way I want to play my best, if I have a contract or not for long-term," Hartman said. "There is the benefit of having security with long-term deals, but you see guys, in history, that sign these deals and maybe have a year or two of, not really being complacent, but just feeling satisfied. I don't like the feeling of being satisfied. I'm not saying that's why I took that contract over another contract, but it was a good month and a half of debating one of the other three [offers]. My family and my agent, we chose this was the best for me and the team as well."

It's easy to see why the Predators are happy with this deal, too. Hartman is better suited to play in a bottom-six role on a really good team but has the ability to play in the top-six if needed. A strong season out of him and they'll be happy to reward him with a longer-term offer next summer. It also means he'd be making an impact while making less than $1 million, and every contending team needs those contributions from their depth players.

Pull up the Predators' CapFriendly page and you'll notice generous contract after generous contract for a majority of their players, particularly their core group. Look no further than Ryan Ellis, who signed an eight-year extension on Tuesday that carries a cap hit of $6.25 million. He certainly left money on the table but elected to take less to follow the lead of everyone else in Nashville because the ultimate goal is to keep the band together.

"You look at Sidney Crosby, one of the best players in the league, isn't even making close to the most money in the league and that's a reason why they've won two Cups," Hartman said. "They have space, maybe not necessarily as much as the Preds do, but Poile's good at that, he's good at stressing winning, the importance of winning, and keeping a team together. Sometimes when you go year to year losing four or five players every summer, it takes a toll having to introduce yourself to new guys all the time. Keeping the same group is really beneficial."

The Predators won't have to do much introducing next month. They're essentially rolling back the same team that arguably would've reached the Stanley Cup Final if they had gotten past the Winnipeg Jets. Hartman will be an important part of that group, only this time he'll be there from the start.

"That's what I'm really excited for," he said. "It's tough coming in [halfway through the season], it kind of feels like ... it's your first time getting called up with the new team. You're adjusting, you're trying not to make a mistake, trying to earn a spot, per se, earn the respect of your peers, so having that and going through a playoff run and a Game 7, if you go through a Game 7 with anybody, it's a bond. The stuff you fight through and you play for each other, to be able to go through a training camp and the ups and downs throughout the whole season, it's going to be exciting. I fell in love with the group for the short time I was there and I'm excited to be there at the start of training camp."

How Blackhawks are taking a page out of Capitals book in new-look power play scheme

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USA TODAY

How Blackhawks are taking a page out of Capitals book in new-look power play scheme

The Blackhawks haven't really been known to be a strong power-play team under Joel Quenneville. During their three Stanley Cup runs, they finished 16th (2010), 19th (2013) and 20th (2015) and often relied more on their 5-on-5 and penalty kill success.

But last season was a disaster with the man advantage in many ways, tied for third-worst with a 16.0 percent success rate. Something needed to change over the summer, whether it was schematically or personnel wise.

The Blackhawks showed on Monday that they have done both. And it looked awfully similar to the structure the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals ran that was so successful in the playoffs: a top-heavy first unit that consists of four forwards and one defenseman with a 1-3-1 setup.

Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Kane, Nick Schmaltz, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith made up the first unit. Victor Ejdsell, Chris Kunitz, Brandon Saad, Dylan Sikura and Erik Gustafsson made up the second.

But let's focus on the first unit and the technical changes.

Here's a general idea of what the Blackhawks power play setup looked like last season: 

As you can see, it's very spread out, essentially using the perimeter to create and cycle the puck. The advantage to this particular setup is the ability to have freedom in the offensive zone. The disadvantage is the lack of structure because you're basically just looking for openings. And trying to find that perfect pass or shot is something the Blackhawks did far too often last year.

"I think just not shooting enough, trying to be too cute, looking for that perfect play," Schmaltz said on what went wrong with the power play in 2017-18. "I think if you get that first shot then you retrieve it you can kind of make sure to get those second and third pucks and that's when they really tire out and then that's where those seam plays develop."

A lot of the times, it was Kane or bust. While your best offensive player should certainly have the puck and drive the possession, it's not the best team recipe for success when you're depending so heavily on one player. 

"Any time you have Kaner with the puck he's going to make things happen," said Kunitz, who was a part of several top-ranked power plays with Pittsburgh playing alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. "But I don't think you can just rely on him to do it for everybody else. There's guys out there with tons of skill and they've shown that's why they're out in those first units to be able to go out there and make those plays, so I think it's something that you have to be a threat, everybody on the ice of making the right play and dictating where the puck can move.

"It doesn't always have to move through one guy. And when you do that it opens up some spaces for everybody else. But it's something that you have to be able to take that initiative to want to score goals, go out and do it and when you make those plays it'll open up the ice for everybody else."

To help do that, assistant coach Kevin Dineen unveiled a new 1-3-1 scheme with the biggest change being Schmaltz setting up shop in the slot, where T.J. Oshie found great success in Washington. It allows Schmaltz to be a hub in the middle of the zone, where he can pass it to four different players while also using his quick release to uncork a snapshot.

How many times did we see this play work for the Capitals last season?

Oshie and Alex Ovechkin finished with six power-play goals last postseason, which led all players. The Capitals as a team ranked seventh in the regular season (22.5 percent) and second in the playoffs, converting on 22 of 75 attempts for a conversation rate of 29.3 percent. Those two were crucial to the success.

Perhaps the thought to put DeBrincat on the left side is that it puts his deceptive shot to good use and, like Ovechkin, keeps penalty killers thinking by not giving him a clear path to tee off a slap shot from the faceoff circle, which could open up something else.

With Schmaltz playing the role of Oshie and DeBrincat playing the role of Ovechkin, that leaves Kane and Toews on the other side to play off each other like Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov (as seen in the GIF above) and allows Keith to play the role of John Carlson at the point. Not bad.

With an emphasis being put more on special teams success, particularly the power play, perhaps the Blackhawks will see more production in all areas if they're successful in the one they struggled in the most last season.

"It's the first day we practiced it, so it's just one day at a time here," Keith said. "I think try to turn the page, just focus on this year and not worry about last year and what happened. A lot of time's power play is about confidence too, 5-on-5, anything, individual players, your confidence is a major factor. It's a new year, let's have fun, move it around and make some plays."

At age 33, Brent Seabrook trying to adapt game while staying true to himself

At age 33, Brent Seabrook trying to adapt game while staying true to himself

At 33 years of age, Brent Seabrook knows he isn't getting any younger. Quite frankly, nobody is. Except for the NHL.

Recognizing this, he had one goal — no pun intended — in mind this offseason.

"As I get older, it's tougher to play [against] all these young water bugs," Seabrook said in April. "My main focus this summer is trying to get in the best shape I can."

He did just that. Seabrook noticeably looks more fit as the Blackhawks reported to training camp this weekend, but there was an injury scare that delayed his start.

Three weeks ago he felt something bothering him in his abdomen and had no choice but to get it checked out.

"To be honest, when doc gave me the news I freaked out," Seabrook said. "I put a lot of effort into this summer and trying to get my body where it needs to be to have a good season and have a good camp. I think that's where it's going to start for us here this season, is right now during camp and I was pretty disappointed that I wasn't able to partake in the first day and first couple days to be on the ice, but it was nice to be out there today that's for sure."

Fortunately for he and the Blackhawks, it only sidelined him for two days of on-ice drills, which is the most important part of developing team chemistry going into a season everybody in the organization is motivated to begin after seeing how last year unfolded.

While he wasn't able to participate in the dreaded fitness testing with his teammates on Thursday, you don't have to look at the test results to know Seabrook is in the best shape of his life.

"He had a good summer," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought he did a real good job of training and pushing to the next level. I think when you're looking at his fitness level ... we know that he's way better than he's ever been and that commitment, it shows that he's doing everything he can to enhance his game and enhance our team game, so that's going to make him quicker out there."

In any profession, evolving with the times is essential to staying relevant. Seabrook understands the league is as young and quick as it's ever been, which is why he spent so much time focusing on that this summer.

But he also has to stay true to himself and what has made him Brent Seabrook.

"I'm me and that's not going to change," he said. "The abilities I have, I can work on making them quicker, faster, better, things like that, but what you see is what you get. I don't think you can really change with the times other than trying to get better. You're always learning out there, learning how different tendencies are, watching players around the league, skating in the summer and trying different things, that's kind of it.

"But the main focus for me this summer was my quickness. Single leg strength, getting that good push, being able to focus on having that quick jump and being able to close gaps quickly. Obviously, the stuff I've done over the years, trying to have a good stick, be physical, that can work in my advantage as well ... I'm me, but you try to get better in certain areas and try to adapt for sure."

Seabrook isn't going to outrace Connor McDavid or Mathew Barzal to a puck; not many people can. Speed is different than quickness.

If his quickness and strong first step can help put himself in a good position on the ice to cut off angles, that's where you will see the results.

"They're fast, they're quick," Seabrook said. "It's as much positioning and knowing where to be on the ice for myself as much as it is to be as fast and as quick as them. I don't think I'm going to catch them as I'm getting older, but I can put myself in good positions and good situations where I'm not getting beat and having to turn around and chase them and having a good gap, really focusing on my quickness and my conditioning this summer and just trying to be the best Brent Seabrook I can be."