Drake Caggiula has been with the Blackhawks for only three weeks. But he's quickly worked his way up the lineup.
On Sunday in a nationally-televised game against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, Caggiula found himself in a dream scenario. He was promoted to the top line with Jonathan Toews, which happened to be the same game the Blackhawks captain was reunited with Patrick Kane.
Why was it so special for Caggiula? Because these are two players he looked up to as a kid.
"You come to the rink and you see your number next to two Blackhawks legends, it's a pretty cool thing," Caggiula said. "It's a little extra special for me because I grew up idolizing those two players. The biggest reason why I went to North Dakota was because of Jonny Toews. And I used to watch Patty Kane's highlights on YouTube and then go in my basement and try to copy them. It's pretty special to come in the room and see your name is beside theirs."
Most young players would be starstruck. Maybe Caggiula was. But he knew he needed to get past that phase quickly in order to be effective on their line.
"It was a pretty special thing for me to play with them," Caggiula said. "But at the same time you just got to remember you're playing hockey, you're on the same team and you have a job to do. You can't get caught up in that starstruck moment. You've got to make sure you're doing what you're capable of doing. That's just playing the game the right way and try not to get caught up in who you're playing with."
It's safe to say Caggiula didn't get too caught up in it. He turned in his best performance in a Blackhawks sweater in that 8-5 win over the Capitals, and did so while logging 16:40 of ice time. Oddly, he didn't make it on the score sheet despite linemates Kane and Toews combining for 10 points (five goals, five assists).
But he deserved to be.
"He played a perfect game," Kane said of Caggiula. "Won a lot of battles, did a lot of good things. It's unfortunate that he didn't show up on the score sheet more than he did, but he played a great game for us. It takes commitment and courage to try for those 50-50 battles, to go to the net to screen the goalie and I'm coming in there and I'm just shooting it on net trying to pick a corner and he did a great job to screen."
Toews concurred, and envisioned Caggiula's style of play working well with his going forward.
"He's got a lot of skill and he's not afraid for his size to be strong with the puck in the lane and traffic," Toews said. "I told him he needs to be a little more selfish when he has a chance to score. Don't hesitate to shoot the puck. I thought he was a good complement for myself. He's one of those types of guys I enjoy playing with."
Caggiula isn't a stranger when it comes to playing with star players. He played in Edmonton with Connor McDavid, who became a close friend of his. And the two produced together.
In the 141:31 minutes they spent at 5-on-5 together, the Oilers controlled 57.7 percent of the shot attempts and had a plus-2 goal differential, according to naturalstattrick.com. When Caggiula was away from McDavid, that percentage dipped to 46.3 and a minus-7 goal differential.
Playing with McDavid is a little different than playing with Kane and Toews as a linemate, but the main goal is the same for Caggiula: get them the puck.
"Connor plays with a lot of speed," Caggiula said. "And his passing ability is so high end that for the most part I would just try to play a fast game with him and create space for him, and win loose pucks for him as well. But he's such a good passer that I just tried to put myself in good shooting opportunities and I ended up on that line with him being a shooter more than anything. The biggest part of my game is creating good forechecks, creating second opportunities and trying to have the puck a little more on my stick. And if we do turn it over, just find a way to get it back."
That's what Caggiula brings on a line with Kane and Toews. While those two work their magic with the puck, Caggiula's job is to make sure they keep it. And when they don't have it, be aggressive in getting it back. Then go straight for the dirty areas to make life difficult on their opponents.
"I wouldn't say I'm necessarily a driver of the line, but I can definitely complement them and find ways to create open ice for them, create space for them, create time, create second opportunities by winning loose puck battles," Caggiula said. "They're obviously extremely skilled and extremely smart players, and if I have to go out there and do some of the dirty work and get in front of the net and take a few checks or whatever, I'm more than happy to do that. You're playing with some of the greatest players in the world right now, and you want to do whatever you can to stay there."
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