Hawk Talk: Kris-crossed off

Hawk Talk: Kris-crossed off

Thursday, July 1, 2010
12:01 AM

By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com

This didn't have anything to do with Kris Versteeg's rapping ability. It was about that 3 million cap hit.

The talented 24-year-old winger was one of those young Blackhawks re-signed in a flurry of new contracts after the paperwork snafu in order to keep them off the market at this time last year. And while Hawks GM Stan Bowman said at last weekend's draft he didn't need to make another trade in order to bring just about everyone back, there was still skepticism as Versteeg's name seemed to remain out there. With Wednesday night's trade, the Hawks are now around 8-9 million below the 59.4 million salary cap, not counting wherever Cristobal Huet's future lies.

Antti Niemi, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Andrew Ladd went into Thursday's free agent frenzy as restricted free agents, meaning the Hawks could match any offers they received. Recent history shows that teams rarely go after RFAs, despite a buzz going around the last couple days that Niemi and Hjalmarsson could become exceptions to that trend. Bowman told reporters late Wednesday night he wasn't concerned about anyone blowing the Hawks out of the water with an offer for those two, that they're not going anywhere, and they will remain with the Blackhawks. Whether or not there were (or are) any legs to those rumors, he now has the flexibility to get deals done with them, regardless. Depending on their pricetags, the Hawks GM might now end up making a signing for a "depth guy" or two from the unrestricted pool.

Versteeg will be missed, on and off the ice. His smooth offensive moves and fun personality was another example of talent and temperament so prevalent in that Stanley Cup-winning locker room. Toronto always seemed like a fit, if he had to go. They were desperate for Top-6 scoring and he should continue to blossom there, alongside another guy originally drafted by the Bruins, Phil Kessel.

It would seem like most of the "heavy lifting", roster-wise, for Bowman, is done, as far as clearing sufficient cap space, with the hope of retaining Niemi, Hjalmarsson, and Ladd. He has also re-stocked the farm system, with guys on the cusp - like Viktor Stalberg in this trade, and Jeremy Morin in last week's with Atlanta. He's added depth with the two others in this deal and last week's draft (led by the Hayes brothers). The pipeline's been filled back up with potential teammates down the road for the Toewses, Kanes, Keiths and Hossas. Now it's up to their developmental coaches to draw the best out of those kids and get them NHL-ready.

Three Wednesdays ago: Stanley Cup hysteria. One Wednesday ago: Byfuglien, Sopel, and Eager to Atlanta. This Wednesday: Versteeg to Toronto.

Are we done yet? I'd like to think so.

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling taking advantage of No. 1 reps

Life as a backup goaltender can be difficult. 

The job entails being prepared at all times and performing at a high level when your number is called despite going sometimes weeks without seeing any action.

With Corey Crawford backing up Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey, Scott Darling is getting the No. 1 reps in the crease for the Blackhawks.

And he's taking full advantage of that.

"Yeah, obviously I miss Corey, but it's fun to be the guy right now," Darling said following a 2-0 loss in Wednesday's preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I'll take any starts I can get. I don't care if it's regular season or preseason, I just want to play as much as I can. It was nice to get the first game under my belt."

After facing just three shots in the first period, Darling stayed on his toes by denying all 23 shots he saw in the second period — a handful of them on the penalty kill.

"I definitely don't like sitting there," Darling said of the first period. "I don't think they had a shot for about 12 minutes, but you've got to learn how to play in those situations too. It's nice to get some game feels."

Darling finished with 33 saves overall in the Blackhawks' loss and was sharp in the first dress rehearsal of the year as both goals were out of his control — a redirect on the power play and a rebound tap-in at the doorstep, both by Chris Kunitz.

Credit his strong play to working hard in the offseason and maximizing on the opportunity he's been given.

"Darling certainly was a standout, not only when we got a little bit overwhelmed in the second period, but really throughout the game," Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dineen said. "He was certainly a positive, which we always expect out of him but I think it's a testament to the way he prepared himself this summer and I think it certainly showed tonight." 

Darling doesn't get many chances to anchor the blue paint on a nightly basis.

He started in 24 games last season, 11 of which came during the final portion of the season in March and April when Crawford was dealing with an upper-body injury.

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Darling said that stretch was "probably the best I've ever felt" because you know you're the guy, which eliminates the stress factor of turning in a great performance to earn your next start.

He finished the 2015-16 campaign with a 12-8-4 record, 2.58 goals against average and .915 save percentage, including one shutout.

Not bad, not great. 

This season is a chance to prove he can continue to be a consistent and reliable goaltender in any situation, and when the 27-year-old Lemont native gets the opportunity to represent the team he grew up rooting for — something he never loses sight of — Darling expects to be on top of his game when called upon.

"I'm seriously excited to be on the Chicago Blackhawks still," he said. "I just want to play the best I can when they give me a chance to play."

Nick Schmaltz making good early impression with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz making good early impression with Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz figured it would be different at this level.

Yes, Schmaltz had played against some of college’s best en route to that national title with the University of North Dakota. But the pro level is the pro level for a reason.

“It’s a big transition from the college level. Guys are faster, more skilled, and you have less time and space,” he said. “But as camp’s gone on everyone’s gotten a little more comfortable and making more plays and I think we’ll continue that into tonight.”

Schmaltz looked pretty comfortable on Wednesday night, when the Blackhawks lost their preseason opener to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 2-0. Schmaltz logged 18 minutes, 30 seconds of ice time, including 2:53 on the power play. For the Madison, Wisc., kid who used to come to Blackhawks playoff games, playing that first game at the United Center was “surreal.”

“It was good,” he said after the game. “Obviously we didn’t get the results we wanted, but we had some good opportunities. We can get more pucks on net. We let the goalie off a little easy, but hopefully just keep building and keep getting better every day.”

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Schmaltz has practiced some on the left wing, and that’s where he was in Wednesday night’s scrimmage (with Vinnie Hinostroza centering and Richard Panik on right wing). The Blackhawks always love versatility, but Schmaltz going on the wing is more of a need than an option right now.

“Most of the openings in the organization are on the wing. We’re pretty full down the middle. It’s something we’re trying to see if he can fit in there and play well there,” assistant coach Mike Kitchen said. “And he’s got a nice set of hands, a nice skill set, so hopefully he’ll be comfortable on the wing there.”

Schmaltz has played more right wing than left, but he said the adjustments aren’t so bad.

“Just wall work. Might have to make some backhand plays off the wall but other than that, nothing, really,” Schmaltz said. “Since me and Panik are playing off wing, we’ll get across the blue line, cut across and make plays to each other. It’ll be fun out there.”

Schmaltz held his own in his first game in a Blackhawks uniform. There are high expectations for him entering this season, but he’ll let his game dictate where he ends up.

“If I play my game, play hard, I should put myself in a pretty good spot,” he said. “But I can’t control what decisions they make, so I’ll compete as hard as I can every night and show them what I can do.”