Blackhawks rookies ready for the bigger Stanley Cup playoff stage

Blackhawks rookies ready for the bigger Stanley Cup playoff stage

It was just over a year ago that Nick Schmaltz was part of the North Dakota men’s hockey team that won the Frozen Four, the school’s first NCAA title in 16 seasons. On Thursday the quest for another championship begins, as Schmaltz get his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.


“Not yet. Maybe a little bit on Thursday,” Schmaltz said with a grin. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot different pace, a lot different atmosphere and a lot more intense. But I’m excited for the challenge.”

The Blackhawks rookies have played their parts well during the team’s regular season, from handling top-line duties (Schmaltz) to filling Artem Anisimov’s void at second-line center (Tanner Kero) to moving up and down the lineup and still scoring 19 goals (Ryan Hartman). Still, the big test awaits them Thursday when the Blackhawks open their first-round series against the Nashville Predators. It’s as pressured a situation as they’ll feel, but they say they’re ready for it.

“It has that feeling of that first game of the year when you’ve been off for a bit and you’re ready to get going again,” Hartman said. “There’s a really positive vibe in here and we’re all really excited.”

Outside of John Hayden, most of the Blackhawks’ rookies have had a full season to adjust to the NHL: The schedule, the travel and most importantly, what was asked of them on the ice. They’ve been put in pressure situations often and have handled it all. Considering that, coach Joel Quenneville has confidence in them come Thursday’s puck drop.

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“I think they’ve seen in all their growing up and in different leagues they know there’s a different level each and every year when you get to the playoffs. You’re trying to win a Cup, you’re trying to win a championship and there’s always another level that everyone tries to get to,” Quenneville said. “There are different ways you can get them that message but individually, these guys are aware you have to ratchet it up a little bit. Young guys or old guys, we’re going to need everybody.”

As for that Frozen Four title, Schmaltz said he can definitely glean some things out of that run to help him now. Still, it’s not the same.

“That’ll help with the experience but this is different. It’s seven games and a lot more intensity. In college it’s just one and done. It’s going to be a long series and a hard battle,” Schmaltz said. “Every game’s going to be different so we have to be ready for whatever’s ahead of us.”

If the rookies have any questions or concerns, there are certainly enough veteran ears to bend in the Blackhawks’ locker room. Patrick Kane said while playoffs are a grander stage, considering how the rookies have handled everything else this season they should be fine now.

“There’s definitely another level, no doubt. But I think you saw that, whether it was from coming in at the beginning of the season, from wherever they were playing, colleges, CHL… from preseason games into the regular season, they made that jump pretty quickly.  So I’m kind of hoping for them to do it again at the next level,” Kane said. “I think everyone knows how intense it is and how fast the game is, so sometimes these players that are young and come in have a little extra boost. So, kind of hoping to get that from them as well.”

The Blackhawks’ rookies have learned a lot this season. They’ve also contributed a lot. If the Blackhawks want to go far this postseason, they’ll need them to do both at the next level, too.

Wyatt Kalynuk scouting report and what signing means for Blackhawks

Wyatt Kalynuk scouting report and what signing means for Blackhawks

The Blackhawks have officially agreed to terms with defenseman Wyatt Kalynuk on a two-year, entry-level contract that runs through the 2021-22 season and carries an average annual value of $925,000, the team announced Thursday.

Kalynuk spent the past three seasons at Wisconsin, where he served as the team captain during his junior season and ranked second among all Big Ten skaters with 28 points (seven goals, 21 assists) in 36 games. He played in all situations for the Badgers and led the team in assists (21), unassisted goals (3) and shots on goal (112).

“He was our go-to offensive defenseman," Wisconsin head coach Tony Granato told NBC Sports Philadelphia in March. "He got the most minutes on the power play; he was the guy we wanted the puck to go through. He’s an elite offensive defenseman that has the ability to run a power play. We asked a lot of him."

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Kalynuk was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the seventh round (No. 196 overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft. He decided to forgo his senior year at Wisconsin but chose not to sign with the Flyers during the 30-day exclusive negotiating window, which made him an unrestricted free agent.

Kalynuk gives the Blackhawks another intriguing blue line prospect, joining a list that includes 2018 first-round picks Nicolas Beaudin and Adam Boqvist, 2017 second-round selection Ian Mitchell and 2018 third-round pick Alec Regula, who was acquired from Detroit in October and led all OHL defensemen this season with 27 goals.

The 6-foot-1, 189-pound left-handed shot defenseman isn't a slam-dunk to solidify an everyday roster position, but his path appears to be more favorable in Chicago than Philadelphia. The challenge is, the Blackhawks have five defensemen — Calvin de Haan, Duncan Keith, Connor Murphy, Olli Maatta and Brent Seabrook — under contract through at least the 2021-22 campaign, so he'll certainly have to earn his spot in the lineup.

At 23 years old, Kalynuk is ahead of the curve in his development compared to some of the other younger defensemen in the pipeline. And his game is rounding out nicely.

"The good thing about him is he knows his responsibilities defensively to take care of that end," Granato said. "So you don’t like saying offensive defenseman because a lot of times you say that and you think players that don’t take pride in the defensive part of the game. That’s certainly not the case with him.

"Defensively, his game was very solid, very responsible. He’s not an overpowering defenseman that’s going to run people over, but positionally, he’s going to be in great position, he’s smart, he makes a great first pass and I think he’s got great potential for a real high-exciting NHL career.”

Like Mitchell, Kalynuk will not be eligible for the 2019-20 resumption of play, meaning his entry-level contract will kick in next season. That benefits a team like the Blackhawks, who will be in a salary cap crunch for years to come.

Why Blackhawks' Alex Nylander is standing out in Phase 3 training camp

Why Blackhawks' Alex Nylander is standing out in Phase 3 training camp

When forward Alex Nylander came to the Blackhawks last offseason in a trade that sent Henri Jokiharju — a young and promising defenseman for Chicago — to the Buffalo Sabres, Blackhawks fans and media were left scratching their heads.

Then, Nylander scored the Hawks' first goal of the season in their first game of the 2019-20 campaign against the Philadelphia Flyers in Prague. 

Throughout the season the winger would show flashes of offensive brilliance that occasionally earned him ice time among the Blackhawks' top forwards like Patrick Kane. 

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But as soon as we would feel remorse for doubting the trade and his abilities, Nylander would cough up the puck or hesitate in the midst of a quality scoring chance immediately after. 

The 22-year-old is using the NHL's Return To Play program as an opportunity to show growth and dependability in his game.

Nylander was one of few Hawks that regularly participated in Phase 2's small group voluntary workouts. Teammates are already noticing his game in Phase 3's training camp, which began on Monday.

Related: Why Blackhawks' Phase 3 training camp has had an extra intensity

"Nylander, I thought, looked really good. He’s quick, he’s firing the puck and he’s a lot of fun to play with," Hawks forward Dylan Strome said after Day 2's practice.

When asked about Strome's comments on Wednesday, Alex said he's confident in how he's performed in camp, but wants to reach another level for the Blackhawks' big postseason opportunity. 

"I feel pretty good right now, been getting those skates in before in Phase 2 which was huge. I feel really good here in camp, but I want to be prepared because this is obviously going to be my first playoffs," Nylander said. "Like Stromer said, I started playing really well at the end of the season, especially with Stromer and Kane, good chemistry and stuff like that and kind of building on that and keep it going for the playoffs, it's going to be huge."

The Blackhawks will be playing the Oilers in a best-of-five play-in series for this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs on Aug. 1 in Edmonton. Before the qualifying round starts, the Hawks will take on the St. Louis Blues July 29 in an exhibition game.

"We have huge games there obviously and we just need to be as ready as possible," Nylander said. "It was nice to get to know (teammates) and play with them in Phase 2, so we got to know each other better off the ice and on the ice, so just keep carrying it on every day in training camp and working hard and we'll be ready for the playoffs."

Nylander had 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) in 65 games with the Hawks before the NHL paused on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.