ANAHEIM, Calif. – The younger players on the Chicago Blackhawks believe they have learned from the team’s veterans in preparation for the upcoming playoffs.
They’ve seen the collective dogged dedication of Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith up close. They now understand how Patrick Kane seems to elevate his game to find the back of the net when Chicago needs to score a goal.
Overall, they’re hopeful the experiences of this season have showed them how to step up their games as the team prepares for another Stanley Cup run.
“Obviously it’s a lot of history here,” forward Nick Schmaltz said. “This organization has been really successful in this last decade. You have to come in here with the mindset that you want to win and you can just tell right when you walk into the locker room that these guys are winners. They know what it takes. They take care of themselves off the ice as well as on the ice so it’s fun to learn from such great players and guys I’ve looked up to for a while now and it’s pretty cool to be in the same locker room as them.”
Though a lot of the Blackhawks’ bigger names drive the bus on the team, the depth the younger players have provided has solidified Chicago’s status as the top team in the Western Conference this season.
Chicago’s decision to give their kids bigger roles this year came out of necessity in some respects. Because the Blackhawks have so many star players, their salary cap number tends to be high and younger players on entry-level contracts are cheaper.
So they made the conscious decision to make sure guys like 22-year-old forward Ryan Hartman – the team’s 2013 first-round pick – and the 21-year-old Schmaltz – their 2014 first-rounder – got an opportunity to earn regular offensive playing time. Chicago also looked to others like 24-year-old forward Tanner Kero to solidify the lower lines.
All those players are on their entry-level contracts and make under $1 million each.
While they have experienced a learning curve to some degree and all except Hartman have spent time in the minors this season, each has shown he now belongs in the NHL. Hartman has 19 goals in 75 games and Schmaltz has picked up 23 points in his last 34 NHL games following his first recall from the AHL. Kero has picked up 16 points in 46 games and averaged 1:25 per-game on the penalty kill.
“Nobody has really surprised me. I think they’ve worked hard and demanded a lot and I think that’s kind of the culture we’ve tried to have in here,” Keith said. “Kind of better be ready to play or there’s no other option.”
Said Toews, “There’s no doubt we’ve had a lot of good young players over the last number of years, especially this year. All these guys have had the chance to show what they can do and get more ice-time and assume more responsibility and a more substantial role. I think the biggest thing is you’re always going to see flashes of skill and ability but the consistency is the number one thing that I think a lot of these guys have brought that to the table and that’s what has made our team good because we have that depth and guys we can rely on.”
One of the biggest reasons why the Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups in the last decade is because in the playoffs they seem to just find a way to win during the postseason. Though the youngsters haven’t seen this first-hand yet in the playoffs they understand why Chicago has this attitude by just being around the veterans throughout the course of the year.
“You know coming in what this team has done in the past and the winning atmosphere that’s around here,” Hartman said. “You’re down goals and just have that feeling in the locker room and everyone is still positive and knows that even though we might be down a few goals in the third that it’s only two shots away from being a tie game.”
Though the younger players can say they’re prepared for the playoffs, they have to show they’re ready by actually performing in the postseason. Overall they say they don’t see this as pressure and want to embrace the challenge ahead.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Schmaltz said. “There are a lot of great guys in here to look up to and I’m sure they’ll help us out through the playoffs and kind of just follow their lead. They know what to do to win and what it takes to win. They have a good core in here and I think a lot of the younger guys are stepping up and helping out the team.”
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