Ben Smith didn’t have to ponder the question long.
The forward has been part of this training-camp “audition” before: the 20-something days (or less) that a player who hasn’t already secured a roster spot has to possibly grab one. What is it like to go through the process? Exciting? Frightening? Stressful? Exhilarating?
“It’s everything. All of the above,” Smith said with a smile. “It’s stressful, it’s exciting and it’s competitive. But that’s just the way it is.”
Welcome to “the bubble,” where some players are precariously perched in the hopes of finding a spot on a Blackhawks roster that has few to give. It’s a time of separating yourself from the pack, putting your best game forward. Sometimes it ends with that nod from the big club. Other times, it ends with the hope of a call-up later in the season.
“A lot of those guys, it seems like they’re on the cusp of being a top American League player, and trying to get to the NHL level has always been a challenge,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “For some guys, it’s back and forth for a career. Getting that consistency and getting the opportunity where they’ve finally made it and finally at that NHL level ... it’s a privilege to get there but it’s not an easy road.”
Brandon Saad has been on the positive end of this experience. The forward was 19 when he impressed coaches so much in the 2011-12 camp that he made the opening day roster. He spent two days in Chicago before heading back to his junior team, the Saginaw Spirit. But when he made the roster in last season’s abbreviated training camp, it stuck. Saad took over for an injured Daniel Carcillo on the top line and ran with it, earning a Calder Trophy nomination.
Saad didn’t have the years’ worth of auditions that some players face, but making the team at 20 was daunting nonetheless.
“It’s a little less comfortable, but that’s what hockey players look forward to is a challenge,” he said. “It’s tough. But it’s a lot of fun at the same time. You want to be in that position to make the team and be in that spot.”
Even when he got that spot, Saad knew it was no guarantee he’d keep it. He did, obviously, but that was because his work ethic didn’t diminish once he got it. It can’t: the Blackhawks have too many other players ready to take that spot.
“Even when I got here, you knew how tough the ‘Hawks were,” he said. “But once you make it, it’s great. It’s a tough challenge but it’s a fun process.”
Just a taste
When the Blackhawks have had injuries or aren’t finding the necessary performances on the current roster, they’ve had the depth to fill the holes. Smith and Jimmy Hayes got their first opportunities with the Blackhawks this way, Smith in the 2010-11 postseason and Hayes in the 2011-12 regular season.
Getting that taste of play, life and travel with the big club is exhilarating, and one no player wants to have curtailed by a reassignment.
“It’s tough,” Hayes said. “Obviously you want to be playing here in Chicago. So you make sure your game is high end at all times.”
Of the two, Hayes is having the more standout camp thus far. The big forward would be happy to be another Bryan Bickell for the Blackhawks, and he’s impressed the brass through the first week of camp. His work will likely earn him a spot on this roster, but Hayes isn’t taking it for granted. He is, however, enjoying every bit of the experience.
“It’s exciting to have an opportunity to make the team,” he said. “You just have to give yourself the best opportunity and see where it goes from there.”
How to play
“I just have to play my game.”
It’s a phrase that every player who’s ever competed for a roster spot has uttered. Some are faster. Some have quicker hands or can read the ice better. Whatever it is, the hopeful player uses it to get the coaches’ attention.
Still, the Blackhawks may be looking for something that isn’t a natural fit in a potential player’s repertoire. For example: the Blackhawks are looking to see who’s their next penalty killer to replace the traded Michael Frolik. As a roster candidate with no penalty-killing background, do you cut your game to fit your team’s needs, or do you stay with what you know? Well, it’s a little of both.
“You always want to be versatile, to show you can do multiple things,” Smith said. “But at the same time, you have to play to your strengths, be it offensively or defensively. What gives you the best chance to make the team is playing within yourself, and doing that as well as you can.”
Saad can attest to that. He’s gotten here because of his work as a left wing. Now, his work there is earning him a chance at second-line center.
“I think you see a lot of guys who try to push the limit a little bit,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you do just want to play your game. It’s just something you’ve got to do.”
And above all make your own game, not the competition’s, your top priority.
“To earn a spot you have to bring your best every day, not worry about what everyone else is doing,” Smith said. “To bring the best possible you that day, that’s all any of us are trying to do. You can’t get mad at a guy for working hard and playing his heart out. He’s trying to earn a spot, too.
The “auditions” will continue for a while longer. When Oct. 1 hits, some hopefuls will be wearing a Blackhawks uniform. Other hopefuls will keep working where they’re reassigned, working for that call-up in the season.
May the best men win
“For some guys, they have to be content that that’s where they’re at and keep persevering that they do get that call (to the NHL team) and they do get that opportunity again,” Quenneville said. “But we have some guys that are in that position now where they have that chance. And hopefully they can nail it.”