This year perhaps more than any other, the Blackhawks ambled into opening night with a lot of question marks on their roster. Even the returning players, the core players, have a lot of questions and baggage surrounding them.
What’s the story with Duncan Keith’s knee? Where did Jonathan Toews’ offense go? How does the team manage Marian Hossa? Was last season an anomaly for Brent Seabrook or is that contract going to look ugly sooner than expected? For once, maybe the only player who doesn’t have questions swirling around him is Corey Crawford, who just needs to avoid injury, self-inflicted or otherwise, this year.
But aside from bringing back Brian Campbell and signing Jordin Tootoo (more on him later), Stan Bowman was adamant that the Hawks were going to go with the group that they had and finally let the kids play.
And so it was that the Blackhawks rostered six rookies, four of whom had never played an NHL game. (The other two had a combined 15 games of NHL experience under their belt — grizzled veterans, comparatively.)
For the most part — the kids are alright. They’ll get there.
Tyler Motte led the forward rookies with just over 12 minutes of ice time. (Vinnie Hinostroza brought up the rear with just under 8.) Motte seemed to adapt the easiest, even earning enough trust to play on the penalty kill. Hinostroza, Ryan Hartman, and Nick Schmaltz seemed to struggle more, particularly in the limited ice time that they saw.
But when it came to even strength production, it was the kids who chipped in. In a play that was half comedy of errors, half bullheaded tenacity, Ryan Hartman loses his stick trying to strip a puck, leaving Tyler Motte to continue the play. Motte, meanwhile, gets tangled up in Hartman’s loose stick and falls. He manages to keep the puck in the zone long enough for Hartman to rejoin the play. The two eventually get to the net, with Motte tossing the puck out to Hartman for his first NHL goal.
It wasn’t pretty but it worked, which is really what you want from your depth guys. (Third lines aren’t always all Sharp/Vermette/Teravainen and stuff, you know?)
The rest of the game? Meh.
The Blues severely outshot the Blackhawks to the tune of 34-19. (The Blackhawks only got three shots on goal total in the second.) Five of those Blues shots belonged to Vladimir Tarasenko. I don’t know why goalies don’t just start crying whenever they see Tarasenko barreling down on them.
If some of the Blackhawks’ core penalty killers (Anisimov, Toews, and Keith, plus van Riemsdyk) hadn’t taken four consecutive penalties, leading to two extended 5-on-3 shifts for the Blues, maybe the outcome of this game would be different.
At the end of the day, it was the core players who I expected to step up and make a difference, and they were the guys who couldn’t get it done.
Some final thoughts:
- Trevor van Riemsdyk absolutely needs to be better. When his promising rookie season was derailed by injury, fans were hopeful he’d be able to quickly recapture his old form. But since his return, the cracks are showing, even when he’s placed in a position with less ice time and less responsibility. No, you can’t expect perfection out of your bottom pairing D, but you expect more than we’ve been getting from him. With Niklas Hjalmarsson returning from his suspension, van Riemsdyk will sit the next game out.
- Rookie defensemen Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling were fine. Each showed their inexperience at times. For the most part they were unnoticeable, which is about all you can hope for from a rookie defenseman.
- Richard Panik, looking to shed the “inconsistent player” label, saw time on the power play and scored the first goal of the game. He had moments of being everywhere and appearing highly active, and others of floating and being invisible. It’s a work in progress.
- Let’s talk about Jordin Tootoo. Tootoo has been in the league long enough that he’s a known commodity. He chips in a few goals, mixes it up on the ice as a quasi-enforcer. Tootoo played just over four minutes, was a literal zero in Corsi (0 events for while on the ice, 10 against), and wasn’t seen at all in the third period. Quenneville admitted it was because the team was chasing the lead. Tootoo says he knows his role on the team and is fine with it. Which brings us back to the age old question: why are we even bothering with this role in the first place? In a game where a player like Tootoo is supposed to be relied upon for his physical presence against a bruising team like the Blues, Tootoo was credited with one hit and one blocked shot. Richard Panik had four hits. Tyler Motte had three. What do we need Tootoo for again? He certainly wasn’t scaring any Blues’ players off in the four minutes his skates touched the ice. Dennis Rasmussen, who certainly held his own as a center last year, could easily play with Hinostroza and Schmaltz on his wings and perhaps actually be — if not productive, then at least reliable.
Last night, the Pittsburgh Penguins iced Tom Sestito, a similar borderline player with perhaps even less offensive prowess than Tootoo, in their season opener against the Washington Capitals. Sestito (TOI: 3:52) got in a useless fight with Tom Wilson (TOI: 5:31) and otherwise contributed nothing. His presence certainly didn’t stop the usually chill Justin Williams from tackling superstar Evgeni Malkin to the ice.
The role of enforcer is useless these days, and on a team that needs to get back to its roots of being fast and skilled, there’s no room for a player like that in the roster, no matter how well liked he is.
The Blackhawks take on the Nashville Predators tonight. I hope PK Subban has a good game. I hope the rest of them forget how to play hockey.
(Photo: Sarah Avampato)