Blackhawks

Players, coaches adapt to NHL's new condensed schedule

Players, coaches adapt to NHL's new condensed schedule

These days, Brian Campbell doesn’t do much on his off nights.

If he’s not playing hockey, he’s spending as much time as possible with family. And whatever spare time he has after that, well, he’s resting.

“I’ll have friends and neighbors say, ‘Hey you want to go for dinner?’ Not a chance,” Campbell said to laughs. “I don’t want to do anything right now. I want to be at home, whether we cook or order in. It has been, at times, exhausting. It’s not much of a life outside of what’s going on.”

The Blackhawks are currently enjoying their bye week after playing 57 games through Feb. 11. Thanks to World Cup and a bye week for each team, the NHL schedule has been condensed this season. That’s offered its challenges, its various effects on players and coaches and differing opinions.

Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau admitted he’s had to adjust. The usual way he does things just aren’t going to fly this season. Looking at the Wild’s record, the changes apparently haven’t hurt them.

“There are a lot of tired players and we’ve had fewer practices than any time I’ve ever been a coach in this league,” Boudreau said at the All-Star weekend. “We finished nine games in 15 days [before the break] and we never practiced the other six days because you can’t kill the guys, especially your better players. If you’re asking them to practice for 30 minutes and then asking them to play for 25 minutes, it’s a pretty daunting task.”

As for players on other teams, some love the schedule and some don’t.

“There aren’t too many guys in this league who are big practice guys. We want to play,” said Dallas defenseman Jordie Benn, who added he hasn’t changed his daily routine much. “We want to be out there on the ice. For me, personally, it’s not that big of a deal.”

Fellow Stars defenseman John Klingberg talked of the Stars’ early hectic schedule, in which the team wasn’t playing well and dealt with a lot of injuries. He thought a few on-ice sessions may have been beneficial at that time.

“We didn’t practice almost at all and at that time, when we struggled, we really needed to practice,” Klingberg said. “It was tough because we wanted to keep the energy going for the games. At the same time, you want to get practices in so you have the feeling with hands and feet. That’s something I felt earlier in the year that I needed more of. I was trying to skate as much as I could but there weren’t a lot of scheduled practices.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

With that, let’s look at the Blackhawks.

Considering how coach Joel Quenneville runs a practice schedule, it seems like the Blackhawks have been prepping for a season like this since the 2012-13 lockout. That year, when teams were playing roughly every other day in that 48-game schedule, Quenneville started eliminating a lot of practices. Part of that was the Blackhawks’ success: they got off to a 21-0-3 start, so why practice? But it was also about conserving energy. Even now he keeps his practices to about 35 minutes.

“Through the history of being around this team, it’s proven that rest is important and practices can be overrated,” Quenneville said with a laugh. “Our guys have played a lot of games, our older guys, for sure, and meaningful games. And we find we’re at our best when we’re rested and come ready to play the games and use time away from the rink to get re-energized, freshened up. Sometimes I think playing games is the right time to let it all out there.”

Still, it’s ultimately about the individual. Marian Hossa will take some practices and skates off, saving his energy for games. He’s having a great season, sharing the team’s goal lead with Artem Anisimov (20 for each). This is also coming off World Cup, in which Hossa played plenty of minutes for tournament runner-up Team Europe.

“It’s good to practice here or there but when you have so many games, I think the most important thing toward the end of the year is rest,” Hossa said. “We’re pretty lucky we have that, and I think we also have had good results off that. It seems like it works.”

Patrick Kane doesn’t take many skates or practices off but he has added something new to his repertoire: cryotherapy. In the therapy, be it whole-body or localized, a person is exposed to subzero temperatures for a few minutes.

“I think it has helped me, especially to do that in Chicago every off day, so it’s been good. I feel like fresh on the ice, which is good,” Kane said. “I think you try out different things to help your body or get yourself to recover a little bit faster than other times if you have more days off.”

So has the schedule had an effect on game outcomes, from the lopsided scores to those with double-digit goal totals? Boudreau believes it has.

“I’m sure everyone has theories,” Boudreau continued, “but my thought is, this is why there are so many discrepancies in so many of the games, be it 7-1, 5-1, 6-5 or 8-7.”

It could be debated. Some of the most lopsided scores (Columbus’ 10-0 victory over Montreal, Los Angeles’ 7-0 decision over Toronto and Winnipeg’s 8-2 victory over Dallas) came within the first month of the regular season. Seems that would be too early to blame a schedule. But there have been some outlandish outcomes recently. The Penguins 8-7 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals on Jan. 16 comes to mind. The next night, the Stars beat the New York Rangers 7-6. The Toronto beat the Islanders 7-1 on Tuesday.

“You look at the schedule this year, a tougher schedule. You see a few more blow outs, you wonder if that has anything to do with it,” Kane said. “Who knows?”

As coaches and players love to say, the schedule is what it is. But there’s no doubt it’s been busier this season, and everyone is doing what they can to adjust.

“Sometimes you have long road trips that might catch up to you with the travel or things like that. But even then, you’re not really thinking about it too much. You’re just trying to do what you can to get yourself ready for the next game,” Kane said. “I don’t think anyone thinks about it too much. It’s just we’re hockey players, we like playing games, so it’s a good thing.”

Alex Nylander on healthy scratch, feedback from Jeremy Colliton and role with Blackhawks

Alex Nylander on healthy scratch, feedback from Jeremy Colliton and role with Blackhawks

Alex Nylander's first couple weeks of the 2019-20 season have been interesting. He started on the top line and scored a goal in the season opener but by the third game found himself on the outside looking in.

Nylander sat out for one game before drawing back into the lineup on Monday, where he was placed on the fourth line with Ryan Carpenter and Zack Smith. He logged a team-low 8:20 of ice time, but scored the second goal of the game that turned out to be the game-winner.

While he was disappointed about being a healthy scratch against Winnipeg on Saturday, Nylander took the positives out of observing the action from afar and taking a step back to collect himself.

"Of course you always want to be in the lineup but that could've been good for me to watch the game and learn from that game and take what I learned from that game into my game," Nylander said. "It was obviously something you don't want to do, you want to be in the lineup as much as possible and obviously stay there. I played a good game last game so I'm just going to build off that and keep doing what I've done all training camp, be confident and make my plays."

Nylander and head coach Jeremy Colliton sat down on Wednesday and watched every shift the 21-year-old took in Monday's 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. And the review was positive.

"I thought he was very good," Colliton said. "Eleven shifts, he was probably good for five, great for five and he had one tough one. He helped us win. He was a big part of our win the other night. It can be a little easier for him when he's playing less to really focus on the quality when he's out there. It may not be a bad thing for him as he grows into an everyday NHLer."

Nylander said he appreciated having that kind of line of communication with his head coach. He was drafted No. 8 overall in 2016 but hasn't been able to break through at the NHL level, so he's been open to any kind of constructive criticism.

"It's been really great," Nylander said. "Obviously I want to have a positive mindset every day here and get better. Getting feedback from my linemates as well as the coaches has been really good, just taking everything in and applying it to my game."  

The Blackhawks are trying to being patient with Nylander, but they're also trying to find a balance between giving him a long leash and holding him accountable. That goes with any young player.

"It's a combination of giving a guy enough room to make some mistakes and that's how he's going to grow but it's also accountability," Colliton said. "Sometimes you got to get a guy's attention. But he's responded great. Got no issues with his work ethic. He came out of the lineup for one game and I think he did everything right after that. Just how he approached practice, how he approached the media, being asked about it and how he approached his chance when he came back to make a difference for us."  

For now, Nylander will remain on the fourth line because the four-line rotation worked so well in their previous game. But it's clear he wants to have a large role on the team. He's just got to earn it on a consistent basis.

"Just focus on every shift I get here and obviously want to be good every shift and show that I want to be back on the top line or get more ice time," Nylander said. "But I've just got to play good here, work hard every shift and take advantage of who's out there and use my skill out there and just try to make plays and be good defensively as well."

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How Blackhawks physicality is adding new dimension to style of play

How Blackhawks physicality is adding new dimension to style of play

The Blackhawks turned in their best 60-minute effort of the young season in Monday’s 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. They controlled the pace of play, got terrific goaltending from Corey Crawford and tightened up defensively.

But they also showed that they added a new layer to their team game this season.

The Blackhawks registered 36 hits against the Oilers, one of which was thunderously delivered by Andrew Shaw, sparking a scrum. Brent Seabrook led the team with six hits, Calvin de Haan had five and Drake Caggiula and Olli Maatta each had four. Heck, even Alex DeBrincat (three) and Patrick Kane (one) got in on the action.

It’s an element of their game that’s been missing the last few seasons and something they feel is important to their overall team success because it keeps other teams honest.

"I don't know if it's because of the personnel we have or the way we want to be strong and competitive and win battles, but obviously the other night we had a lot of finished hits and a lot of physicality that brings up the morale on the bench, which is a good thing," Kane said. "You look at Shawzy's hit, the stuff he's been doing early in the season — whether it's scoring big goals or sticking up for guys after they get hit — it's been awesome for the team. That's something that can really help us. We also need to play a little bit more with the puck, but it's a way we can get the puck back."

The Blackhawks don’t necessarily want to lead the NHL in the hits category, but they do want to establish an identity centered around being a difficult team to play against and adding that dimension is part of it. So is team unity.

"I don't think it's going to be our go-to in the way we're going to beat teams," Jonathan Toews said. "There's no doubt we've got guys that can mix it in. We saw last game with Shawzy and Murph, and [Ryan Carpenter] and [Zack Smith] and go down the list of guys. Even [Caggiula] and [DeBrincat] were throwing the weight around a couple days ago. It's definitely part of our game — we can play with energy and I think it's going to be there when we're ready to go. But our game is puck possession and keeping teams in their end and outplaying them in that sense.”

Through four games this season, the Blackhawks are averaging 33.0 hits per game. The previous two seasons they averaged 16.5 and 16.8, respectively, which ranked 30th.

While it's still early, there's clearly an uptick in the physicality department and it's exactly what the organization was hoping for after bringing in players like Shaw and Smith to add some bite to the roster. The Blackhawks are focused on becoming a team that can win in several different ways and play any kind of style.

"There’s a difference between running around just trying to get a tick on the stat sheet," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "But we definitely want to be physical when we have the chance and force the opposition to make plays before they're ready, and we can create turnovers and transition and offense and get out of D zone. We have some guys who like to play that way and I think it helps our team." 

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