After getting drafted eighth overall by the Blackhawks this past summer, Adam Boqvist admitted he still feels 2-3 years away from playing in the NHL on a full-time basis. After all, he was only 17 years old then.
So going into training camp, there weren't any immediate expectations of Boqvist. It was more about getting him acclimated to the organization, coaching staff and absorbing as much as he can from the veteran players who have won three Stanley Cups.
And then he made things interesting.
Boqvist was turning heads. He was making the Blackhawks think hard about keeping him in the NHL for a nine-game tryout to get a taste of the action. But then they decided to stay the course and sent him to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, where he is growing into his own and becoming a driving force for one of the most high-powered offenses in juniors.
After scoring only once in his first 15 games, Boqvist is on an absolute tear with eight goals in his past seven games and 11 points over that stretch. It was only a matter of time before he broke through.
"I'm trying to shoot faster," Boqvist told NBC Sports Chicago on why he believes the floodgates have opened in the goal scoring department. "Get the puck to the net. I worked on it a lot with my D coach. That's the biggest reason, I think. ... It's harder to play on the smaller ice. They do everything quicker. I feel more comfortable now and that's biggest thing."
His 24 points and 62 shots on goal in 22 games ranks first among London defensemen. Six of his points (three goals, three assists) have come on the power play. The chances were always there, and he was mostly creating them. Now he's found the finishing touch.
"It takes a little bit of time when you're coming from playing on an international ice surface to a North American rink," Knights GM Rob Simpson said. "Just how you play the game, how you create offense. Obviously plays happen a lot faster and a lot quicker, and I think it took Adam a little bit more time to adjust to that and get back to playing his style of game, which is an offensive game where he can jump into the rush and create offense from the blue line by being able to get a shot off, by moving attackers with his skating.
"He has a good ability to pull pucks and over the last three or four weeks he's really gotten used to how quick everything happens on the smaller ice surface. Now he's more comfortable and he's making his moves and his deceptive moves a little more quicker, which has opened up more offense and got him back to what you saw him doing last season."
The one part of his game they're really trying to work with Boqvist on is his defense, especially at his size of 5-foot-11, 168 pounds where being strong on the puck and in your own end is crucial. Former Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell has made several trips to London to help work with him on the ice and break down film together. It's been a good learning experience for Boqvist.
"He's helped me a lot," Boqvist said. "He's played in 1,000 games in the NHL, so he shows me video of games, clips, of what I can do better. It's everything. If I need to have a tighter gap or play the puck quicker, more give and go, all that stuff. He's been a good guy to help me."
There have been conversations between London and Chicago about whether Boqvist may be better suited as a forward, according to a source, because of his forward-like instincts and defensive inefficiencies, but the Blackhawks view him as a defenseman and believe he can be a franchise-changer on the blue line because of the way he drives possession.
Erik Karlsson, who Boqvist hasn’t been afraid to say is his favorite player and somebody he tries modeling his game after, went through the same thing as a teenager. He was drafted 15th overall in 2008 by the Ottawa Senators, and there were real concerns about his size (5-foot-11, 157 pounds) and whether he can turn into an all-around reliable defenseman. Karlsson has heard the criticism about his defensive play throughout his career, but two Norris Trophy’s later and he’s considered arguably the top player at his position. He's still not the best defender by any stretch, but it doesn't matter if you're controlling 55 percent of the shot attempts when you're on the ice.
The Blackhawks are hoping Boqvist can follow that same path. He’ll certainly need to shore up his defensive game in the long run to do so, but he's slowly making strides.
"When you're not 6-3, 6-2, you're an offensive defenseman that skates extremely well, you're going to have to be strong on your skates," Simpson said. "You're going to have to have that strength there to be able to box out men at the NHL level more to be able to win those 50/50 battles and the corner on pucks. He's going to be a player that uses his speed and brain and his skill to defend than anything, but the more you can complement that with strength is going to help him. So he's going to have to continue to work on that.
"And I think it's just repetition too, and playing games and getting practices in the North American style game. He's actually shown to be a quick learner and picking things up extremely fast for, even other imports that we've had here that have taken a little bit of time. But his strength is the big thing and then obviously just learning how to defend as a smaller offensive defenseman is a big thing as well."
Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman has taken a couple visits to London himself and is encouraged by Boqvist's progress, seeing it first-hand.
"He didn't score a goal for a while," Bowman said. "I know we was sort of frustrated. He had so many opportunities. I had seen him play a couple games, and he had great chances. He gets a lot of shots every game. Now it's like he broke through and is scoring quite a bit now.
"The biggest thing with Adam is just getting acclimated to the game in North America: the rink, the lifestyle, the culture, speaking English every day. All that stuff were things we were looking forward to him experiencing. Hockey-wise, his talent level is so noticeable. If you go watch a game and didn't know who is a good player and you were just a casual fan, you would say 'that guy there, watch him.' He does something every shift. He stands out. You don't have to go looking for him. So, very happy with his progress. I think he's going to continue to get better when he's in an environment like that."
Boqvist's OHL campaign will soon come to a pause. But for good reason. He was selected to Team Sweden's preliminary roster for the World Junior Championship, which consists of the best players around the world under 20 years of age — it runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2019 in British Columbia.
It's difficult to see him not making the roster, and it would be his first appearance. He was named the top defender at the under-18 World Juniors a year ago after leading all blue liners with three goals and six points. This will be a good measuring stick on where he's at against the best players at his own age and on a bright stage.
"Any time you go to a specialty tournament like the World Juniors, you're going to play against the elite at your own age," Simpson said. "And it takes the pace to another level. Obviously there's a ton of pressure there, so learning how to deal with that in key moments and being one of the key factors for your team winning and losing is all development opportunities. And if you're lucky enough to be able to do well in the tournament and your team win, you can't take that away from somebody. Once they have winning behind their name, it just carries with you and there's a certain level of confidence that comes with that.
"So any time you can play against the best and give yourself a gauge of where you're at, it's going to help in your development because you walk away going 'OK, I maybe did really well in these areas but I know there's my next point in my development that I saw in my game when I was playing against the best, maybe I need to work in this spot more.' It's just an added level of understanding of where your game is at, but also confidence in yourself that you've been in those tough situations."
After that, Boqvist will return to London, where he will help lead the Knights down the stretch and into the postseason. It's up to them how far they go — that's how loaded they are.
And when that run comes to a close, all eyes will be on what lies ahead for next season and whether he did enough to speed up his NHL timeline. But Boqvist isn't looking that far ahead, even though it's motivating to see 2017 first-round pick Henri Jokiharju step in after a year in juniors and solidify a top-pairing role on the Blackhawks.
"I try to watch every Blackhawks game," Boqvist said. "It's fun to see Jokiharju play well and play big minutes too. I'm taking it day by day though, I'm not thinking about next year yet. We'll see what happens."
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