Blackhawks

Tough stretch run can help young Blackhawks prep for playoffs

Tough stretch run can help young Blackhawks prep for playoffs

Ryan Hartman was on the ice in the waning minutes of the Blackhawks' game against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 4, a rookie thrown into a critical situation after earning the extra responsibility.

Good thing, because Hartman's diving block of a Jamie Benn shot probably saved the Blackhawks two points. It certainly saved them a trip to overtime.

"Situations like that can only improve your game as you're going along, add that depth to our team," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're going to need these kids to be playing in some crucial situations and applying it now, it's a good learning curve."

As good as this stretch run is for the Blackhawks overall, it's especially good for their young players. The hockey is that much more intense, that much more meaningful. Some teams are looking to improve their postseason seeding. Some teams are still fighting to get into the playoffs. Either way, the tests are plentiful and a good primer for young players for the postseason.

And that's fine with them.

"This time of the year has always been my favorite (since) coming up through juniors," Hartman said. "That's when the real teams show up, and that's when that playoff drive and that desperation comes for some teams that are fighting for playoffs spots. It's a fun time of year, and I think we're all ready for the challenge."

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Quenneville has given more responsibility to young players who have earned it. Hartman has gotten more — playing in late-game situations is part of that. Tanner Kero has, too.

"It's good for getting that experience and trying to get confidence in those big, tough games," Kero said. "You know how hard you have to work and the little things are so important, all throughout the game. That one play could cost you or could go in your net. You have to work hard every shift and can't take a shift off."

Dennis Rasmussen has gone from a bubble player to a consistent bottom-six player, be it on the wing or at center. Rasmussen wasn't here for the Blackhawks' postseason in 2016, but he could be here this time around. If so, these games mean a lot.

"If you want to be a team that wins in the end, you have to be a team that gets better every day — team and players, especially the young guys, the rookies," Rasmussen said. "I count myself as a young guy, and I feel I need to get better if we want to win it. That's the focus we have every practice and every game."

Since September, the Blackhawks have said they need everyone to contribute this season. That goes for the postseason, too. Who knows if all of them will be here once the playoffs start. But for those who are, the more they learn, the more responsibility they take on and the more they succeed, the better the overall team will be.

"We need them to improve and to be a part of it, playing in key situations," Quenneville said. "Their enthusiasm is healthy for our team as well. We're putting them in situations where the experience will be necessary."

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

The Blackhawks had cap space to use this summer but elected to shore up their depth rather than make a splash when free agency opened up on July 1. Perhaps a large reason for that was because Marian Hossa's $5.275 million cap hit over the next three years complicated what they could do exactly in the short term without jeopardizing the long term.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted Tuesday that they had had discussions about moving Hossa's contract for a year now. But it finally reached a point where they simply needed to get it off their hands, even if it meant giving up Vinnie Hinostroza as a sweetener.

"We tried to make that deal work in every other way possible but they obviously said he had to be in it," Bowman said of including Hinostroza.

That's how important it was to free up even more cap space. By trading Hossa's contract in a nine-piece trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it created more options for the Blackhawks and financial flexibility going forward.

"It was a difficult trade from a sentimental perspective, because we'd love to not have to do that," Bowman said. "But on the practical matter, it was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here. It necessitated us trying to make the move that we did make. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come to try and make that type of a move. ... When this presented itself, we talked it through and got to the point where we thought it was something we had to take advantage of."

The problem for the short term is, it's mid-July and the big-name free agents are off the market. There's not much the Blackhawks can do to improve their roster externally unless they make a trade, which would require dipping into the pipeline.

And it's unfair to put a grade on the Hossa trade as a whole without seeing how they utilize that extra cap space. Could that be before the 2018-19 season starts?

"It's an option if we can find the right player or the right situation," Bowman said. "We certainly have more options now than we did before. I wouldn't say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along maybe in the summer or maybe in the beginning part of the year where teams have a couple players that make their team unexpectedly and that makes some other players more expendable. In the past we probably haven't really been a good match for those types of situations because we didn't have the cap room at that time, so now we're going to be in the mix for those types of things.

"Whether we use it right away or whether we use it during the season, I think the nice thing is we have the flexibility now going in to the coming years where we're going to need cap room, all that and more, to sign the young players."

It doesn't sound like there's much urgency to pull something off between now and when training camp rolls around in September. At least for now.

That doesn't mean there won't be once the market picks back up again. 

"Each year teams have surprises, good and bad, in camp," Bowman said. "Our team’s the same way. You have ideas on how your lines are going to look or how your players are going to be ready. Sometimes guys surprise you in a good way, sometimes it’s not what you think. There’ll be some adjustments around the league, but probably not a lot of activity.

"If you look back the last couple of seasons, late July and August are quieter as far as transactions. But there are some arbitration cases coming up around the league; those may get settled ahead of time. But if they do go to arbitration, if the number's not the way the team likes it, they may look to do something. There’s the possibility of moves, but probably closer to training camp is more when changes may happen."

All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens

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AP

All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens

The second wave of Blackhawks defensemen is on the way. That's exactly where all the attention was when prospect camp opened up Monday at MB Ice Arena.

Nicolas Beaudin. Adam Boqvist. Henri Jokiharju. Ian Mitchell. Call it the Big Four. Where are they all at in their development? When will they be ready to make an NHL impact? Who's the most pro ready? 

Lots of questions. Those will slowly start to get answered and it begins now.

While there may not necessarily be an open competition among the group right away, there's certainly a desire to make a strong first impression in front of the upper brass that included Stan Bowman, John McDonough and Joel Quenneville watching on Day 1.

"Every NHL team has a lot of good defensemen prospects, so I mean obviously when you want to go out there you want to showcase yourself as best as you can," Mitchell said. "Obviously you want to be the best defenseman here so that's my goal going into this, I want to prove to everyone that I'm a good defenseman, I deserve to play at the next level. Obviously there's lots of good players here, but you're trying to all succeed."

Said Beaudin: "There's a lot of competition. There's a lot of good, young defensemen. I think you just need to be different when you play when you show what you can do."

Said Boqvist: "I'm trying to be better every day. Of course I will play in the NHL one day and win Stanley Cups, so that's my mindset."

The theme? Focus on your own game, take what you learn out of this week and apply those tools in your game when advancing your development next season. The rest will take care of itself.

Mitchell will go back to Denver for his sophomore campaign to continue his development. Beaudin is expected to return to the QMJHL with the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Boqvist signed with the OHL's London Knights, where he will look to get accustomed to the North American style of play.

For Jokiharju, the goal is different. This is his second development camp. He signed an entry-level contract in June. Making the big club is a real goal and a legitimate possibility for a Blackhawks team looking for young, impact defensemen immediately.

"I think if Henri has a really good summer of training, comes into camp, I certainly thinks he gets a good look," Blackhawks vice president of amateur scouting Mark Kelley told NBC Sports Chicago last month.

Jokiharju showed poise and confidence with and without the puck during drills, like someone who knows this is only the first step towards that ultimate goal.

"Yeah," Jokiharju responded when asked if the expectation is to make it to the NHL this season. "You want to set the bar high, you don't want to set the bar too low. I want to dream big and that's the dream."

That's the dream for everyone. When that happens, it's up to them. This week is a chance to set an early tone.