Familiarity could lead to success

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Familiarity could lead to success

When the Chicago Blackhawks look around the room, they see something thats been a bit foreign to them: familiar faces.

Sure, those teams leading up to the 2010 Stanley Cup were full of them. But since then, its been a turnstile of players joining and leaving the organization. Until now. Because after two seasons of much turnover and many personnel changes, the Blackhawks made very few moves this offseason. That has led to familiarity in the locker room.

Considering how short training camp was and how little time teams will have to adjust during this 48-game season, that familiarity could be a good thing.

We know its mainly the same team from last year but were a year older with a year of experience under our belt, Patrick Kane said after Fridays practice. Last year we still had a good season; we had over 100 points. We didnt have a good (postseason) but we felt we had a team that could make a good run. Its the same group, but a little more experienced.

Marian Hossa agreed.

There are just a couple of new names, not many, he said. Guys are more familiar with the system, and in a short season that should help us be on the same page.

Indeed, outside of adding Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival on the back end, the Blackhawks should know each other well. Its a far cry from two seasons ago, when the post-Cup dismantling gave the Blackhawks a very different look. The 2011-12 season featured its share of new faces, too, with Andrew Brunette, Sean ODonnell, Steve Montador and Jamal Mayers among the new acquisitions.

In the second half of last season several Rockford players started to emerge, namely Andrew Shaw and Brandon Bollig. Theyre back. So is just about everyone else, save ODonnell and Brunette. So the Blackhawks havent had to introduce as many new bodies to their system.

It helps, system-wise, coach Joel Quenneville said. Weve always changed the lines and the new look gives you a little excitement. But as far as knowing where we have to be, predictability with or without the puck, you have a lot of freedom to do what you feel whats right. But the one area we all should be excited about is improving on our special teams as well.

Yes, the forward lines will likely change a few times this season these are the Blackhawks, after all. But no one is a stranger to each others game anymore, so even when combinations are switched, they wont be completely foreign.

When you dont make as many changes, you dont have to make new friends or get to know how other guys play, Dave Bolland said. These guys were all here last year. Were all pretty comfortable here and I think its going to be a great year.

The Blackhawks are on the same hectic schedule as every other team in the NHL. But theyre on the same wavelength. And with little time to adjust and prepare for this season, the few changes could be beneficial.

We were disappointed at the end of last year, Quenneville said. Lets rectify that. We have something to prove.

Blackhawks acquire Tomas Jurco from Red Wings

Blackhawks acquire Tomas Jurco from Red Wings

General manager Stan Bowman saw the potential in Tomas Jurco several years ago.

For the 24-year-old forward, it wasn’t working out with the Detroit Red Wings. Perhaps a change of scenery, an opportunity on a team that could vie for another Stanley Cup, makes a difference. The Blackhawks are about to find out.

The Blackhawks acquired Jurco for a third-round pick in this year’s draft on Friday afternoon. The 24-year-old Jurco has played in 16 games with the Red Wings this season but has yet to collect a point. In four seasons with the Wings, Jurco had 15 goals and 24 assists in 159 games. Red Wings general manager Ken Holland told Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press that, “things haven’t worked out” for Jurco there and that he wanted to go elsewhere.

Jurco was on a bye as a member of the Red Wings but, now that he’s with the Blackhawks, the bye ends. Bowman was hopeful Jurco would join the Blackhawks at practice on Saturday. Also, to clear a roster spot for Jurco, the Blackhawks reassigned Vinnie Hinostroza to the Rockford IceHogs.

[RELATED: Nick Schmaltz gaining confidence, effectiveness with Blackhawks]

Bowman said he’s been watching Jurco for a few seasons now.

“We’ll be patient with him but we really think there’s a good fit there, looking at his skills and the style of hockey we play,” Bowman said. “He’s been an accomplished player at a lot of different levels. He’s shown flashes in the NHL, not as consistently as he or the Wings would like, but you can see the talent and potential. You have to have some patience with these guys. It doesn’t always come together right away. I’m not expecting him to carry our team but I think he can contribute.”

It was an under-the-radar trade for Bowman but that’s not surprising. In late January, Bowman said he probably wouldn’t do much at the trade deadline; he liked how the Blackhawks’ young players were progressing and figured, if that continued, the team would be in good shape. Since then the Blackhawks have won eight of their last nine and are just three points behind the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Wild. As the Blackhawks kept winning it looked like, if they did anything, it would be a depth move.

So will there be any more moves? At this point it doesn’t seem likely, be it on forward or defense – Bowman didn’t have an update on Niklas Hjalmarsson (upper body) but said he’s happy with the depth in Chicago and Rockford on defense. Bowman said he’ll keep talking but, “but it’s a little bit different than in previous years when I thought we definitely needed something and were lacking in an area.”

“I’ve had a feeling about our team, not just recently but even a month ago. I liked the way this group was starting to come together,” Bowman said. “We’ve seen that enhanced over the last couple of week here. We’ve seen players step up, [Nick] Schmaltz in particular. [Ryan] Hartman’s been good all year. We’ve seen Jonathan [Toews] become a dominant player again. It gives your team a confidence that you have balance, scoring in different lines. We just added a young player to help us now as well as in the future. There’s a lot to be excited about. I’m not expecting more trades. I can’t predict more will happen but I have a good feeling about this group right now.”

 

Nick Schmaltz gaining confidence, effectiveness with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz gaining confidence, effectiveness with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz's game has made tremendous strides since he came back from Rockford. He's has the puck more. He's playing with more confidence. He's recognizing when to hold onto the puck and when to give it up. 

Now to improve in one other category.

"I've been telling myself that for years now to shoot the puck and I still don't do it enough," Schmaltz said with a little smile. "Definitely shoot more and just play my game."

That, like everything else, will come with confidence more play but there's no doubt Schmaltz is making a bigger impact these past few weeks. Schmaltz celebrated his 21st birthday on Thursday with another multi-point night, this time a goal and an assist in the Blackhawks' 6-3 victory over the Arizona Coyotes. The rookie is brimming with confidence as part of the Blackhawks' surging top line with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik and has nine points over his last seven games.

For Schmaltz, every lessoned learned this season, including the ones from Rockford, has been put to good use the past few weeks.

"We're just having the puck more. That's my game. I like to have the puck, hold onto it and make plays," Schmaltz said. "I'm making more plays off the rush, in the zone. I'm definitely more accustomed to playing this style and hopefully we can keep it going because I know that's how the Blackhawks have played in the past. And it only helps our team game when every line is playing well."

The Blackhawks have developed a better four-line rotation and a big part of that is the chemistry Schmaltz, Toews and Panik have formed on that top line. Panik said he's seen the change in Schmaltz lately.

"I think he just holds onto the puck more," Panik said. "He doesn't give it up quickly and that's what he's good at, just possession with the puck and making a space for him and he finds me or Toews."

[RELATED: Nick Schmaltz shines on 21st birthday]

Coach Joel Quenneville was particularly complimentary of Schmaltz's game in Minnesota, which featured a "spectacular" pass to Toews on what was the captain's second goal of the night. 

"The one thing we want him to do is play with the puck, play to his strengths and have it. Now he wants it," Quenneville said. "He had the puck a lot [on Thursday], like he did in Minnesota. I just think he's improved his pace and his strength in the puck area is coming along. For young guys, that's always an area where you get better over your first few years. But the quickness and confidence with the puck is definitely more noticeable."

Sure, Schmaltz should shoot more. In his time with the Blackhawks Schmaltz has had two or fewer shots in all but one game (Nov. 23 vs. the San Jose Sharks). When he has shot lately it's led to good results. Sometimes the decision to shoot is easy — please see the 2-on-1 with him and Toews to start Thursday's game — but the Blackhawks want to see him take a few more chances.

"You're a young guy and sometimes you feel the need to move the puck a little bit but he rolled that half wall early in the Minnesota game and we kept saying, ‘Shoot the puck, think shot, think shot,'" Quenneville said. "I think that will open up his other options and all of a sudden they're going to have to respect him coming out of those tight areas with a quick snap shot in that area. He can work and get better in that area knowing, get a little more comfortable with it, snapping it."

The Blackhawks have shown steady improvement this season. The same goes for Schmaltz. The start of the season was a little rough and not surprisingly so; the transition from college to pro isn't easy. But Schmaltz is now looking like he belongs here, and he wants to keep building.

"I feel I'm playing at a high level, where I need to be. But I can't get happy or complacent in my game," Schmaltz said. "I have to keep working and keep that level as high as possible."