Erik Gustafsson looked around the Blackhawks’ room at where fellow defensemen stalls would probably be as the season approached.
“You have Brian (Campbell) back, (Michal) Kempny here, obviously and all the other guys,” Gustafsson said. “It’s going to be tough, but I like it.”
The Blackhawks’ biggest Achilles heel last season was defense, especially after Trevor Daley was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins. That opened the door for young players, including Gustafsson, to get bigger opportunities. This year the defense should be stronger with Campbell’s return. So for guys like Gustafsson, cracking this lineup just got that much tougher.
During the summer, assistant coach Mike Kitchen talked potential pairings as Duncan Keith-Niklas Hjalmarsson, Campbell-Brent Seabrook, Kempny-Trevor van Riemsdyk. As of now, the team is expecting Keith to be ready for the season opener. Keith has been participating in a practice a day but whether or not he plays in any preseason games is uncertain right now.
If it starts out that way, Gustafsson would be on the outside looking in.
But first things first: Gustafsson is focused on building off experience gained last season — he played 41 games, recording 14 assists — and cleaning up a few errors committed in training camp practices.
“You know all the guys on the team, you know how they want to play over here and in the NHL. Just go out and show them. I didn’t do that [Saturday] but this was the first game,” Gustafsson said. “I felt good with the puck but I have to play more defense in my own zone. Just a couple of small things I have to be better.”
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Nothing comes easy when you’re trying to make an NHL roster but it got that much tougher for a young defenseman with the Blackhawks this season. Hey, that’s the way it is, and players know it.
“Of course it’ll be tougher,” Gustafsson said. “It won’t be easy to take a spot. You just have to go out there, do your best and see what happens.”
- Patrick Kane could play in the Blackhawks’ game against St. Louis on Saturday. Assistant coach Kevin Dineen said, “don’t be surprised to see 88 politicking to get in the lineup. Pretty good chance we’ll see him on Saturday."
- The Blackhawks were off on Thursday. Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, Marcus Kruger and Hjalmarsson were expected to join the team at Friday’s practice
- Alexandre Fortin, who signed a three-year contract on Sunday, played 12 1/2 minutes in Wednesday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. That included about two minutes of power-play time. Dineen wouldn’t mind seeing Fortin in another game. “He showed himself well all camp and I think [Wednesday] we saw some good spurts out there, and we’ll find that consistency in a young player as we move forward.”
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."