Vinnie Hinostroza

Blackhawks' young players brimming with confidence

ryan_hartman_young_hawks_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

Blackhawks' young players brimming with confidence

Ryan Hartman is entering this training camp with a much higher level of confidence. Having a spot on this roster, something he wasn’t sure he’d have entering last fall, helps. But the confidence is a byproduct of his entire rookie season and every experience it brought with it.

“You get a full season under your belt and you’re able to feel out the game, adjust your speed and your quickness to the pace of the NHL game,” he said. “Last year was a big step for all of us, coming in here this year knowing what to expect, knowing how to play their game right and thinking of what to do on the ice.”

As several of the Blackhawks embark on their second season in the NHL there’s more certainty in their approach, whether they’re already part of this roster (Hartman and Nick Schmaltz) or trying to get one of the few coveted spots remaining (John Hayden and Vinnie Hinostroza).

When Schmaltz entered camp last fall he was fresh out of college and admittedly apprehensive – “I was nervous coming in, didn’t know if it was going to work,” he said at the team’s convention in July. There has been none of that this past week. A stronger, more confident Schmaltz has emerged, one that’s approached coach Joel Quenneville enough to give him a shot at the second-line center role.

“Yeah, it’s just familiarity with the coaching and the players,” he said. “You just know what to expect, you kind of come in with a good mindset and start off on the right track right away.”

Much like 2016, Hinostroza is on the bubble again this fall. But unlike last September he’s not sweating what may or may not happen out of camp.

“This year I feel like I’m more mentally stronger, more mature,” he said. “I don’t feel pressure at all. Maybe a year ago I did, thinking, ‘what are these guys going to do?’ But this year… I’m trying to focus on myself and I’m confident where I’m at. I made some improvements. I’m just going to believe in myself and the rest will play out.”

Hayden, on the same bubble as Hinostroza, got a taste of the NHL late last spring following his senior season at Yale. It was a small sample size but Hayden nevertheless got a good idea of what to work on entering the fall – improving his speed was a big focus – and what to expect overall.

“It’s so fast at this level. So yeah, it definitely helped playing games at the end of the year. If anything, told myself I belong at this level. There are familiar faces at camp, and it’s my job to prove I deserve to be on the team,” he said. “No [pressure]; you just control what you can and that’s my play. I put the work in for the offseason and now I have to play my game.”

Hartman’s biggest adjustment came with the speed, too – “it’s a completely different level from Rockford to here, the pace of play and how quickly everything happens,” he said. That, and being confident enough to know when to hold the puck and when to give it up.

“Right away I was getting the puck and wanting to get it to someone else just so I didn’t make a mistake. Now I’m trying to make plays and trying to better the team,” Hartman said. “I definitely feel pretty good this year.”

For the Blackhawks who got their first taste here last season, the wide-eyed part of the NHL indoctrination is over. Now to keep building on the experience. And the confidence.

Why Nick Schmaltz could be Blackhawks' second-line center

nickschmaltzblackhawks.jpg
USA TODAY

Why Nick Schmaltz could be Blackhawks' second-line center

Nick Schmaltz centered Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane at Saturday’s scrimmage, scoring the team’s first goal and earning the approval of coach Joel Quenneville.

So is there a possibility Schmaltz’s shot at center comes on that second line?

“Could happen,” Quenneville said with a grin.

Whether you’re fluent in Q-speak or not, that one’s pretty clear. Schmaltz is off to a good start, has some experience under his belt at that spot from last season and may get more of a chance there now.

All of this is relative, of course. There’s a lot of time between now and October but Quenneville has liked what he’s seen with Kane and Schmaltz for two consecutive days. Schmaltz, who was also considered a left-wing option on that second line — at least before the Blackhawks traded to get Sharp back — skated with Kane some this summer.

“I think it’s just getting our timing down. We built some chemistry over the summer and I think our games match each other pretty well,” Schmaltz said. “We both like to find each other and make plays, so just getting that chemistry and that timing down, I think will lead to more success.”

Again, a concern at center with Schmaltz — actually, overall with this team past Jonathan Toews — is faceoffs. It’s something Schmaltz will continue to work on but if this combo gets any time together, Sharp could always be an option in the circle, too.

Quenneville said Schmaltz’s improved strength around the puck is noticeable, “but one of his abilities is coming up with loose pucks and getting it out there and making a neat play, which is good for us.

“Having the puck cleanly exiting our zone is a good thing. Offensively, that’s his strength and that’s where his natural ability is, but he’ll add to that part of his game, like faceoffs, and getting stronger is something that’s noticeable last year to this year,” Quenneville continued. “It seems like he’s stronger around the puck and in and around those tight areas.”

Schmaltz got his first chance at second-line center when Artem Anisimov was injured last season. Even if Anisimov starts as the third-line center, nothing is set in stone; nothing ever is with the Blackhawks lines. But Schmaltz has shown enough improvement in the offseason is building chemistry with Kane and appears to be getting the second-line opportunity first.

“Arty’s proven he can play in his own end, around the net, in the offensive zone as well. Schmaltzy has the puck a lot more which is nice as well. It’s a good situation on a need basis or on performance basis,” Quenneville said. “That’ll sort itself out.”

LEGENDARY FINISH

Denis Savard and Steve Larmer joined current Blackhawks to wrap up Saturday’s scrimmage. Players enjoyed the opportunity to skate with the team’s legends.

“Yeah it’s really special,” Vinnie Hinostroza said. “Growing up in Chicago, you know who those guys are. Growing up you hear your parents, grandparents talking about them, and the last few years I’ve gotten to know Savvy pretty well. So skating with them was really special. It was awesome to see those guys come out.”

Vinnie Hinostroza training with Patrick Kane to help elevate game going into 'prove-it' year with Blackhawks

kane_hinostroza.jpg
AP

Vinnie Hinostroza training with Patrick Kane to help elevate game going into 'prove-it' year with Blackhawks

Six rookies cracked the Blackhawks' Opening Day lineup last year as part of a transition to infuse more youth into a roster with an aging core, and Vinnie Hinostroza was one of them.

But it was a roller coaster campaign for the Bartlett native.

He was an every day player during the first half of the season, appearing in 48 games and compiling six goals and eight assists, before getting assigned to the AHL's Rockford IceHogs for the rest of the year — aside from the regular season finale — to fine-tune his game and gain more confidence.

To help advanced that and search for consistency, Hinostroza has been training with Patrick Kane — and Ryan Hartman — this summer in Chicago, working on edge work and skating drills.

"Skating with Kaner every day, it's unbelievable to watch what he does," Hinostroza said Saturday at the Chicago Hockey Charity Classic in Geneva. "We skate with [Prodigy Hockey skills coach] Brian Keane, and he really works on the small details. Going into the season, not only are we working on strength — that was my main focus last year — but also the little tiny on-ice thing like the edges and stuff like that.

"I think I'm getting a lot stronger, trying to do the right things, working out with Kaner and working out with these older guys. It's nice to be in the gym and on the ice every day."

There's an extra motivation for Hinostroza as well this offseason with the way the Blackhawks' playoff run ended in a four-game sweep to the Nashville Predators. The 23-year-old winger played in only one of those four tilts, logging just 6:48 of ice time in a 5-0 Game 2 home loss.

Does that sort of exit sit with a player and team all summer or does it get tossed in the trash can as quickly as possible?

"It's definitely motivating," Hinostroza said. "Who wants to lose that early when you've got such a great group? I think everyone was really focused going into the summer. Once workouts started I think everyone forgot it, but in the back of their mind it's still there cause you don't want to happen again."

The 2017-18 season is an important one for Hinostroza. He's set to become a restricted free agent at the end of it, and he is not only looking to secure a full-time roster spot but prove to management that he's worth keeping around beyond that.

It won't get any easier with the Blackhawks adding Lance Bouma and Tommy Wingels into an already crowded mix to compete for a bottom-six role.

But that's a challenge Hinostroza is looking to tackle head-on.

"I obviously just want to come in with confidence and try to prove myself," he said. "I feel like I wasn't always myself last year, I was up and down there. I just want to come in and play my game as hard as I can every day."