Tough stretch run can help young Blackhawks prep for playoffs

Tough stretch run can help young Blackhawks prep for playoffs

Ryan Hartman was on the ice in the waning minutes of the Blackhawks' game against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 4, a rookie thrown into a critical situation after earning the extra responsibility.

Good thing, because Hartman's diving block of a Jamie Benn shot probably saved the Blackhawks two points. It certainly saved them a trip to overtime.

"Situations like that can only improve your game as you're going along, add that depth to our team," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We're going to need these kids to be playing in some crucial situations and applying it now, it's a good learning curve."

As good as this stretch run is for the Blackhawks overall, it's especially good for their young players. The hockey is that much more intense, that much more meaningful. Some teams are looking to improve their postseason seeding. Some teams are still fighting to get into the playoffs. Either way, the tests are plentiful and a good primer for young players for the postseason.

And that's fine with them.

"This time of the year has always been my favorite (since) coming up through juniors," Hartman said. "That's when the real teams show up, and that's when that playoff drive and that desperation comes for some teams that are fighting for playoffs spots. It's a fun time of year, and I think we're all ready for the challenge."

[SHOP BLACKHAWKS: Get your Blackhawks gear right here]

Quenneville has given more responsibility to young players who have earned it. Hartman has gotten more — playing in late-game situations is part of that. Tanner Kero has, too.

"It's good for getting that experience and trying to get confidence in those big, tough games," Kero said. "You know how hard you have to work and the little things are so important, all throughout the game. That one play could cost you or could go in your net. You have to work hard every shift and can't take a shift off."

Dennis Rasmussen has gone from a bubble player to a consistent bottom-six player, be it on the wing or at center. Rasmussen wasn't here for the Blackhawks' postseason in 2016, but he could be here this time around. If so, these games mean a lot.

"If you want to be a team that wins in the end, you have to be a team that gets better every day — team and players, especially the young guys, the rookies," Rasmussen said. "I count myself as a young guy, and I feel I need to get better if we want to win it. That's the focus we have every practice and every game."

Since September, the Blackhawks have said they need everyone to contribute this season. That goes for the postseason, too. Who knows if all of them will be here once the playoffs start. But for those who are, the more they learn, the more responsibility they take on and the more they succeed, the better the overall team will be.

"We need them to improve and to be a part of it, playing in key situations," Quenneville said. "Their enthusiasm is healthy for our team as well. We're putting them in situations where the experience will be necessary."

Blackhawks make another change, fire Rockford coach Ted Dent

Blackhawks make another change, fire Rockford coach Ted Dent

Ted Dent was another longstanding member of the Blackhawks' organization. On Tuesday, he was the latest to be let go.

Dent, head coach of the Rockford IceHogs for the past six seasons, was fired on Tuesday morning. Dent spent a total of 11 years in the organization; he was the IceHogs' assistant coach for five seasons before taking the head coaching job for the 2011-12 season.

Just over a year ago, the Blackhawks gave Dent a three-year contract extension that was set to run through the end of the 2018-19 season.

"The Chicago Blackhawks thank Ted for all of his contributions throughout his tenure with the organization," Blackhawks general Manager Stan Bowman said. "He played a major role in helping a number of players reach the NHL level with the Chicago Blackhawks, many of whom became Stanley Cup champions. We wish Ted and his family the best."

The IceHogs didn't have the depth this season they had in previous years, and they struggled all season en route to a 25-39-9-3 record. The struggles got worse after the March 1 trade deadline, when the Blackhawks sent Spencer Abbott and Sam Carrick to the San Diego Gulls (Anaheim Ducks AHL affiliate). At the time, Abbott led the IceHogs in points with 35 (15 goals, 20 assists) and Carrick was second with 28 points (11 goals 17 assists).

After the two were traded, the IceHogs went 4-12-1.

It's the second consecutive day in which the Blackhawks fired a member of their organization's coaching staff. Mike Kitchen, the Blackhawks' assistant coach since 2010, was fired on Monday. Kitchen and head coach Joel Quenneville have been friends going back to their NHL playing days, when the two were teammates with the Colorado Rockies and the New Jersey Devils. Kitchen was also part of Quenneville's coaching staff in St. Louis.

Blackhawks fire assistant coach Mike Kitchen

Blackhawks fire assistant coach Mike Kitchen

When Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman addressed the media on Saturday, he said that there would be change. That started on Monday when assistant coach Mike Kitchen was fired.

The move came five days after the Blackhawks were swept out of the first round by the Nashville Predators. Bowman said in a statement that, “we believe this decision is best for our organization moving forward. Mike had an impact on two different Stanley Cup championship teams during his tenure in Chicago. We appreciate his many contributions and wish he and his family success in the future.”

Kitchen has been a member of coach Joel Quenneville’s staff since 2010. The two go back to their playing days, however, when they were teammates with the Colorado Rockies and also the New Jersey Devils. Kitchen was Quenneville’s assistant when the two were with the St. Louis Blues and when Quenneville was fired as Blues coach midway through the 2003-04 season, Kitchen was promoted to head coach.

As part of the Blackhawks’ staff Kitchen’s focus on special teams, mainly the penalty kill. That kill finished the regular season 24th overall in the league, although that has to come with an asterisk. The penalty kill started the 2016-17 season so poorly that it was never going to get too far out of the basement. It did get stronger as the season wore on, and it was fourth overall during the Blackhawks’ short stay in the playoffs.