Perhaps no team in the NHL has received larger contributions from their current rookie class than the Chicago Blackhawks. Artemi Panarin and Trevor van Riemsdyk have become household names on the strength of their excellent early-season play, while youngster Marko Dano has gradually improved since earning a call-up from AHL Rockford. And with those three attracting most of the headlines so far, it’s easy to see how Tanner Kero’s name hasn’t generated the same kind of hype. In spite of his lack of widespread recognition, Kero has actually played very well in a limited role for the Blackhawks in his 16 games, and is another reason for the optimism surrounding the organization’s young talent.
Kero – like both Panarin and van Riemsdyk – was brought into the Blackhawks organization after signing as a free agent. This came following a stellar senior season with Michigan Tech where he was a Hobey Baker finalist. He began his pro career in the AHL where he displayed his scoring ability by sniping 11 goals in his first 13 regular season games for the Icehogs. His strong play and the general ineffectiveness of fellow college-signee Kyle Baun earned him a call-up after just seven minor-league games.
Since then, Kero has embraced his role as a bottom-6 forward with Chicago and has become a trusted mainstay in Joel Quenneville’s lineup. And it isn’t hard to see why Quenneville has taken a liking to the center’s game when watching him compete with NHL players. Despite not being the biggest player (he’s listed at only 6 feet and 185 pounds on NHL.com), Kero has taken on a defensive role that sees him log plenty of minutes on the penalty kill where his fore-checking and positioning have stood out. This has allowed him to average the second most shorthanded ice time of any Hawks forward this season.
But his responsible play on defense isn’t the only reason Kero has been able to secure a regular position with Chicago as his offensive game has also been respectable. Although he isn’t scoring at anywhere near the same rate in the NHL as he was in the AHL, he has still proven to be a valuable bottom-6 player thanks to his playmaking and awareness. He also displayed good hands on his sole NHL goal to date, a nifty backhander that beat Cory Schneider in a loss to New Jersey.
Even before scoring on that play, Kero showed the awareness and position of a veteran by going to the front of the net in a must-score situation and effectively screening Schneider while Panarin handled the puck along the boards. Not all rookies are as skilled at identifying plays like Kero did on that sequence in New Jersey, and his hockey intelligence should continue to pay dividends over time.
Tanner Kero Belongs with the Hawks
Even still, most Blackhawks fans would probably struggle to name #67 unless they have been following the team very closely this season. He doesn’t standout, but as a rookie role-player on a championship-caliber team, blending in is exactly what Chicago wants to see from Kero.
Overall, Kero’s strong two-way play and offensive potential remind me of another player who used to wear #67 for the Blackhawks: Michael Frolik. Frolik was acquired from Florida for Jack Skille near the end of the 2010-11 season and, while he never reached his offensive potential with Chicago, he was a terrific bottom-6 contributor and playoff hero in his parts of three seasons. He represents a great role model for Kero to develop his game after, as he was always a valuable player for Quenneville.
All told, the deepest teams in the NHL are the ones that make it far into the postseason, and having Kero around certainly makes the Hawks a deeper team. In a league where every player on the roster is important, he might not be Chicago’s ‘other’ impressive rookie for much longer.