Chicago Blackhawks

Kelly hoping to deploy Atkinson more out of crowded backfield

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Kelly hoping to deploy Atkinson more out of crowded backfield

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- George Atkinson III isn't getting challenged to many races anymore.

Everett Golson -- who thinks he's the fastest player on the team, according to running back Cierre Wood -- didn't finish a footrace with Atkinson. And Wood, who has as much bravado as anyone, admitted Atkinson would burn him after about 20 yards.

"After the Miami game they figured that I have the crown," Atkinson laughed.

Speed has always been Atkinson's strong suit. He runs indoor and outdoor track for Notre Dame, and his 100-meter time of 10.36 seconds was the second-fastest every by an Irish track runner. The only guy ahead of him: Rocket Ismail.

Atkinson has racked up 290 yards on 32 carries, good for an average of 9.1 yards per attempt -- the fifth-highest rate among FBS rushers.

But Atkinson's working to be more than just a speed guy. He's focused on improving into a complete back, one who can be counted on to hang on to the football and be a reliable passing target. It was Atkinson's shortcomings in both those areas that led to coach Brian Kelly lumping him in with Everett Golson as "heart attack" guys during spring ball.

"He was not fun to watch in preseason camp when you threw the ball to him," Kelly recalled.

"I realize that I want to expand my role," Atkinson said. "I just dont want to be carrying the ball, I want to be out there running routes and stuff. Yesterday, I wanted to go one-on-ones, so I got a couple routes in. So I just want to be more dimensional, less one-dimensional and have more dimensions about my game."

But with a crowded backfield featuring upperclassmen in Wood and Theo Riddick, Atkinson has often been the odd man out. That, however, may begin to change.

"We still have to continue to get more touches for George Atkinson," Kelly said Tuesday. "It's less about Cierre and Theo, because they know their role, they have accepted their role. George has, as well. We just think that from a coaching standpoint, if there is anything amongst the three backs, we have to get George some more touches."

More plays for Atkinson likely means fewer for Riddick and Wood. While Wood has begun to accept his diminished role compared to last year, he's still someone who maintains he's at his best when he's carrying the ball three, four, five times in a row.

"I dont have the luxury of going in there for a long series or a long drive," Wood said. "So I gotta make do with what I have and make it the best that I can make it.

Wood, who was suspended for the first two games of the season, has rushed 47 times for 279 yards, an average of 5.9 yards per carry. Compare that to Riddick, who's only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, and the difference is stark. While Riddick said stats aren't his thing and Kelly downplayed the importance of YPC, the same isn't necessarily true for Wood.

"I believe there isnt nobody out there that can tackle me, there isnt nobody out there that I havent faced that Im not better than," Wood said. "So with that being said, I go into every run that I get or every play, period, thinking that Im the baddest. And it shows as far as yards per carry goes."

Juggling a crowded backfield may seem like a headache, but taking a step back, it may be more of a good problem to have than anything else.

"Its hard for any defense because they dont know what theyre going to get, we all run in different styles and whatnot," Wood said. "George is just pure speed, Theo, hes really, really elusive and is hard to tackle and stuff like that, and me, a combination of all two, really. Its just really hard for a defense to key one thing."

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

Five Things from Blackhawks-Blue Jackets: Shots and slashes

It’s preseason: you don’t need a lot of build-up. Let’s just delve right in, shall we?

1. Lots of shots, but…

The same Joonas Korpisalo that the Blackhawks’ youngsters scored five goals against on Tuesday was on top of his game on Saturday. The Blackhawks peppered him with 54 shots but only two got through, and the second was a 6-on-4 power-play goal in the final two minutes.

“I thought we could have gotten a little more traffic in front of him," Nick Schmaltz said. "I thought we were playing along the outside. I mean we had some great looks. He made some big saves. Some nights you get the bounces and some nights you don’t.”

2. Bérubé’s Blackhawks debut.

Jean-François Bérubé had a tough sequence early in the second period, when he gave up two goals in a 28-second span. This was against a Columbus team that didn’t send many of their top players. He also didn’t see a ton of action in this one; the Blue Jackets fired just 21 shots his way.

3. Growing pains.

Alex DeBrincat had his up and down moments on Saturday night. His turnover led to Columbus’ first goal, he took a slashing penalty and he fought the puck quite a bit. You still saw glimpses of that skill, though, especially with his quick release. Hey, he’s a 19-year-old guy getting his first taste of the NHL. Nights like this are going to happen.

“We all make mistakes,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “You gotta be safe in certain areas and you learn from that.”

4. Slash-o-meter.

Four more were called on Saturday night. Don’t be surprised if that number starts dwindling sooner rather than later, though, because the edict has apparently changed already. Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported earlier on Saturday that the league told officials to ease up on slashing and faceoff violations. But we all figure that’s going to happen once the regular season begins anyway, right?

5. Notre Dame bound.

The destination is familiar but the Blackhawks threw it into their second week of camp this season. It’ll be bonding time for the Blackhawks, who will send a smaller group for several practices there this week. Quenneville figures it’ll be a productive time. “We’ll get some bonding in, play golf together, have a nice outing, couple of road games and a nice campus.”

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

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USA TODAY

Nick Schmaltz's confidence, hold on second-line center, continues to grow

Nick Schmaltz seemed to be everywhere the puck was on Saturday night. Great pursuit of the puck, great passes to Patrick Kane or Alex DeBrincat and an all-around confidence that’s becoming more apparent by the game.

So has coach Joel Quenneville seen what he’s needed to from Schmaltz at second-line center?

“And more.”

It’s been a pretty impressive showing for Schmaltz this month. The 21-year-old has played in all three of the Blackhawks’ preseason games and keeps getting better in each one. The uncertainty Schmaltz understandably showed as a rookie is gone; the NHL game no longer feels uncomfortable.

“I feel like the game’s slowing down for me, just seeing plays,” Schmaltz said. “I know what I’m doing with the puck before I get it. It feels good and just trying to get better every day.”

Schmaltz and his fellow second liners didn’t connect for goals in the Blackhawks 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The three combined for 12 of the Blackhawks’ 54 shots on goal – Kane and DeBrincat each had five – and the chemistry continues to build between the three.

Jonathan Toews talked on Saturday morning of how much more relaxed Schmaltz looks with the puck now, and that was evident again later that night.

“He’s really starting to get comfortable physically at this level,” Toews said. “He thinks the game so well, puts himself in good spots, much like Kaner where he can skate with the puck and use his speed. He has his head up so he backs guys off. Those two were making great plays tonight and Brinksy was fitting in well. They couldn’t buy a goal but Schmaltzy’s getting better and better, and you’re’ seeing that calm poise that he has really come out the more he gets comfortable.”

Schmaltz was likely getting a second-line audition in some capacity this fall; the original thought was at left wing in the wake of Artemi Panarin’s trade. But Schmaltz has always felt at his best at center. He’s showing that. And more.

“It’s always fun to play no matter if it’s preseason or regular season," he said. "I’m always happy to play, especially when you’re playing with great players. I feel like I’m more comfortable in the middle, able to use my speed a little bit more, create more offense that way.

"I think it’s going well. Wherever I end up, I’ll be happy.”