In recent years, coach Joel Quenneville has had to deal with one, maybe two rookies in his lineup. Even then, they were used sparingly until he felt they could be trusted. It helped that said rookies were of the uber talented variety like Brandon Saad and Teuvo Teravainen, or hard-nosed grinders like Andrew Shaw.
This year is a different story altogether as there’s no longer a pair of rookies, instead more of a herd. 2016 is officially the year of the rookie. As a coach who has always been stingy with minutes for players in their ‘formative’ years (or those who find themselves in Q’s deluxe four-story doghouse), this year has tested the limits of his patience. However, this is the price the Blackhawks have to pay to be a Stanley Cup Champion.
The Chicago Blackhawks Cap Purge Predicament
Because of the cap purge, each year after a Stanley Cup win the Blackhawks inevitably have to cut off a limb from the Frankenstein Monster they’ve created and sew on a new one, or four as was the case this year.
Sometimes they add an aging veteran like Michal Handzus or Kimmo Timonen, and others they add a young gun like Trevor van Riemsdyk or Artemi Panarin. Either way, the team has to learn to function with the new limbs and at times it has been downright ugly.
As if the Frankenstein’d team dynamic wasn’t enough, each year adds another burden. A weight if you will. Pressure to win. Pressure to keep filling the holes, and the pressure to carry the weight of the expectations.
For each year of success, the Blackhawks have had, it is another link in the chains around their necks. Chains meant to hinder the Cup winners in the same way that the draft lottery is intended to help the bottom rung teams. Of course, there are always anomalies. The Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings have consistently beaten the system while the Edmonton Oilers have struggled to make use of their numerous top draft picks in years past (the jury is still out on this season, but Connor McDavid looks to be the top pick that rights the ship for the Oil).
Like Jacob Marley, they are forced to carry these chains as the cap structure is designed to keep teams from doing exactly what the Blackhawks have already done.
Win. A lot.
No, they don’t win every night, or even every year like Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers; But, three Stanley Cups in six years is still quite impressive given the amount of players the team has had to sacrifice from one year to the next.
The chains get heavier, but the Blackhawks continue to find ways to get stronger and shoulder the burden. As long as the head and the heart (Joel Quenneville and the core players) remain intact, this team will always find a way.
My thought on Seabs deal: Stan believes he can win with his six core players, regardless of who's around them. #Blackhawks
— Blake (@SoldierFieldBlg) September 26, 2015
From Fairytale Endings To Fire Sales
After their game six stunner in Philadelphia earned the Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup in 2010, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, and Antti Niemi stood out as the pieces that were subtracted from the winning formula.
As it was their first win, the departures came as a complete shock to nearly everyone involved. No one thought the team could rebound from that. But, in 2013 they did just that as they defeated the Boston Bruins in six games. In fact, they started the lock-out shortened season on a historic 24 game streak where they didn’t lose a single game in regulation.
Then, it was Dave Bolland (a game six hero), Viktor Stalberg and Michael Frolik. All gone before the last tears of joy had been shed.
It seemed like a minor adjustment from the previous post-Cup purge, but Frolik was one of the Blackhawks top penalty kill specialists. That departure was the one that left some aftershocks, as the PK struggled in his absence for quite some time.
Those losses felt like the end of the world at the time, but with each win, Chicago has learned to brace for more carnage. However, nothing could prepare them for the bloodletting that would occur last summer.
After the 2015 Cup win, the Blackhawks were faced with making some of the deepest cuts yet. These were no longer limbs being cut off, but vital organs. Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya, Antti Raanta, Brad Richards, and Antoine Vermette were some of the most notable departures.
The general consensus was that the Blackhawks could kiss the 2015-16 season goodbye, but the Blackhawks roll on.
"How will the Blackhawks ever survive the coming cap purge?" – the hockey world in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
— CtA (@CheerTheAnthem) June 16, 2015
Rising From The Ashes
It is a true testament to the Blackhawks Front Office, Scouting, and Organization as a whole. It flows right down to the coaching staff and the players as they have been able to overcome such losses not just once, but three times.
From the ashes, the Blackhawks always seem to rise.
— Dad Bud (@ChicagoMcCamie) April 20, 2012
After losing so many players, everyone was starting to panic. How could they trade Saad for Artem Anisimov? What if Marko Dano isn’t ready? How is Artemi Panarin going to adapt to the North American Game?
There were no guarantees that Stan Bowman’s game of Russian Roulette (no pun intended) with Saad would work in the Blackhawks favor.
Anisimov could have just as easily struggled as he learned the system like so many before him. And Marko Dano, well, he is still in Rockford, but I wouldn’t say that has hurt either party. In fact, when Dano does make a return visit to the Blackhawks, it very well could be permanent. All the pieces are there; They just need a little more refinement.
As for Panarin, it only took one game to see how he would adapt to the North American game. Before the new season was even a few days old, fans had already been treated to Panarin dangling on the soon to be front runners in the Dallas Stars and snap a wrister by Henrik Lundqvist.
If this year doesn’t turn doubters into believers for Stan Bowman, that day will never come.
In addition to the big-name acquisitions, there were also a bunch of young players who have been patiently waiting for their chance to crack the lineup.
In years past, a few might have a real shot at finding their way into the Blackhawks lineup, but this year those numbers have exploded.
Six rookies have scored their first NHL goal this season, with Brandon Mashinter also adding his first tally in his fourth year in the NHL.
Artemi Panarin scored on his first shift, in his first game on Lundqvist. Trevor van Riemsdyk returned from an injury laden year to lift the Stanley Cup last year, but his first goal came this past October. Tanner Kero and Viktor Svedberg each tallied in November while Dennis Rasmussen found the back of the net in December. Then, finally, on Friday night Phillip Danault got his turn.
Erik Gustafsson has yet to score a goal, but his poise on the blue line has been remarkable, and his day will come.
Q said the plan for now is to rotate Scuderi and Rozsival and give Erik Gustafsson a chance to be an everyday player. #Blackhawks
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) December 31, 2015
Of all the IceHogs who have been called up, TVR, Gustafsson, and Danault are the most likely to hang onto long-term spots on the roster, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few more guest spots for a few of the others.
Trevor van Riemsdyk
Though TVR played in the NHL and the playoffs last season, he is still considered a rookie by the NHL’s standards (with fewer than 25 games in his first season). His only time in Rockford was a short-lived rehab stint last year, as van Riemsdyk had impressed the coaching staff enough to make the team out of camp in both of the last two season.
Van Riemsdyk has steadily grown as a defender and has started to find a new level of comfort. The turning point for TVR was when Duncan Keith went out with an injury. The young blueliner was tasked with eating up some of Keith’s minutes and given a bigger role defensively.
He was no longer on the ice with a veteran every shift as there were suddenly as many rookies as there were vets. Of course, he usually had Hjalmarsson or Seabrook by his side. However, as a shift was ending, on occasion he would cross ice with Gustafsson or Svedberg, and suddenly he was the veteran, and they were looking to him.
Van Riemsdyk is a solid skater and is generally responsible with the puck in his own end. While he is certainly not as flashy as some of the young defenseman in the Blackhawks system, TVR’s reliability and work ethic have made him a sure bet on the blue line for coach Q.
This season, TVR has seen his ice time balloon up from 13 minutes all the way up to 20 minutes on average. For Quenneville, minutes are about the highest endorsement you can get. Minutes are his currency.
If you look at Gustafsson and TVR side by side, they look like a matched set, at least until they start to speak as Gustafsson is Swedish and TVR was born in New Jersey.
Each of them will block shots or make a hit in the corner to get a play rolling in the right direction, but Gustafsson is more of a finesse player. He plays in his own end responsibly, but he really excels in the open ice.
Gustafsson is at his best when the Blackhawks have some speed to their game, he can get in on the offense, or he can make a stretch pass through the neutral zone to lead the rush. Those types of open ice passes take a good deal of confidence, even for a seasoned veteran. He can also read the plays as they develop and react accordingly, leading to some prime scoring opportunities for his linemates.
In fact, the level of poise that Gustafsson has shown is yet another reason that faith in Stan Bowman should be at an all-time high.
Bowman has touted Gustafsson as the next Teravainen within the Blackhawks system. In fact, he is the very reason that Michael Paliotta and Stephen Johns became expendable over the summer.
Gustafsson has quickly climbed over his competition on the depth chart, and his play of late has made a strong case towards keeping him around. In just 11 games, Gustafsson has earned roughly 14 minutes of ice time a game. When Quenneville doesn’t believe in a player, they see about five, or the inside of the press box.
— Blackhawks SPORTalk (@SPORTalkBHawks) January 6, 2016
If there were ever a reason that the Blackhawks have not rushed out and grabbed the best defenseman available, Gustafsson and TVR might be it.
That doesn’t mean that Bowman won’t be looking for a veteran defenseman to shore up their blue line depth before the trade deadline; It simply means that he doesn’t have to make any rash decisions. Their play means that he is not bargaining from a position of weakness like a lot of teams who have a gaping hole they are trying to fill.
Of course, no one wants to hand over the piece that will help the Blackhawks keep winning, but that won’t stop Bowman from trying.
We already fell into 3rd place last night with the Blackhawks winning, and they're winning again now. Stop screwing around. #stlblues
— Michael Fisher (@FishSTL) January 7, 2016
Danault came into the Blackhawks with one of the most daunting tasks in front of him. He was called in to replace the injured Marcus Kruger, which means that he would be tasked with working on the penalty kill and taking some of the defensive zone faceoffs.
For a rookie, this is a tremendous burden to bear, and yet, Danault has stepped into the role almost seamlessly. In nine games this season (11 total), Danault is averaging around 13:30 minutes of ice time, which is right around the same number of minutes Kruger would pick up on a nightly basis.
From the start, Danault has been centering the third line with Teravainen and Andrew Desjardins on either side, and the trio was quick to find a rhythm.
On Friday night, they found themselves on the ice for a goal against but bounced back a few shifts later with a break of their own that led to Danault’s first goal of his NHL career. The group could easily have gotten down after letting one slip through, but instead, they put their heads down and went to work trying to take the goal back. Danault’s goal would end up being the game winner.
“I was trying to remember the last time (that line) gave up a goal. Things can happen. But I liked the response,” Quenneville said. “You get a goal like that it really can lift your team and the timing of it. He made a nice play earlier on a comparable play when he went off the rush, but great move on the individual rush off the defense made a quick shot short side. The timing was great. It turned out to be a huge win for us, as well, and congrats to him.”
In a short amount of time, Danault has proven that he can ease the Blackhawks burden without Kruger. He has stepped right into the penalty kill and quickly established himself as one of the guys that Quenneville can rely on.
The one area he will have to work on is the faceoff dot, at just under 45% he leaves a little to be desired there. However, after 11 games at the NHL level, if that is his most glaring flaw the Blackhawks will take it.
What has been even more impressive about the 22-year-old Quebec native is that he came into the lineup cold after a late summer hip surgery, without so much as a rehab start in Rockford.
Making The Most Of The Experience
While TVR is expected to stay with the team, Gustafsson and Danault know that they could be headed back to Rockford at some point. Though that seems unlikely at the moment.
Rather than worry about what could be, the pair will focus on the experience. The great shifts, the shifts they’d like to do over, the goals, and the lessons they’ve learned from the core players.
Nothing gets handed to you in this league, and just about every role player is a couple of shifts away from possibly being sent back down to Rockford. Even a veteran like Bryan Bickell.
If a trip to Rockford is in the cards, then they will make the most of every opportunity they have right now with the hopes that their successes will stick in the minds of the coaching staff the next time the door is opened.
For the Blackhawks, their veteran depth may be at an all-time low, but with the youth movement in full swing, the future is still looking pretty bright.
Kristi is a long time hockey fan who grew up in, and around hockey rinks across the United States and Canada. A native Chicagoan, Loucks has always been an avid Blackhawks fan. Kristi also covers the Chicago Cubs and writes suspense thrillers, when not covering the Chicago Blackhawks. Follow Kristi on twitter @louckske