One by one, Jeremy Morin saw his contemporaries leave and find permanent jobs in the NHL.
Happily, he saw Brandon Bollig establish himself as an every-day player. Bittersweetly, he saw Ryan Stanton, Jimmy Hayes, Dylan Olsen and, finally, Brandon Pirri find permanent NHL homes in other cities. Morin was left behind, toiling away in Rockford for the fourth consecutive season.
‘‘That part was getting weird,’’ Morin said. ‘‘We all kind of came in together. Obviously, it’s great to see those guys in the NHL. At the same time, I want to be in the NHL, as well.’’
Well, Morin’s getting his chance — again. With injured Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane out until the playoffs, Morin — a restricted free agent after this season — has his best chance yet to make his case for a long-term spot on the Hawks’ roster. And he’s making the most of it this time.
On Thursday against the Minnesota Wild, Morin intercepted a pass deep in the offensive zone to set up Bryan Bickell’s go-ahead goal. Morin also was the first to go after the Wild’s Matt Cooke after he laid out Andrew Shaw in open ice. Then Friday against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Morin scored the Hawks’ first goal on a wrist shot and later had one of the better scoring chances in a tense third period with a one-handed shovel shot while falling to the ice.
It’s that combination of skill, grit and physical play that makes Morin, who turns 23 this month, so tantalizing as a player. It just has taken him time to become that player.
‘‘Not everything happens exactly when you want it to happen,’’ Morin said. ‘‘In a perfect world, I’d have been up for the last four years. But that’s not how it happened, and I needed to work on some things in my game. I’ve tried to develop into a two-way player. That way, if you’re not producing offensively, you can still bring something to the table — energy, defense, playing physical, things like that. It’s really helped take my game to the next level.’’
That’s not to say Morin wasn’t frustrated. After tearing up the American Hockey League with 30 goals and 28 assists in 67 games last season, he thought he was ready to make the jump. But he has had three all-too-brief stints with the Hawks so far. Naturally, there were times when Morin wondered whether he would get a chance to crack a loaded Hawks roster. But he kept his head down and kept getting better, dominating the AHL in the later stages of the season.
There’s nothing left for Morin to prove at the AHL level, but that hardly guarantees him a spot in the NHL.
‘‘You keep getting better and you keep trying to find your niche,’’ Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. ‘‘You’ve got to be patient for the opportunity. Then, when you get it, you’ve got to take advantage of it. That’s just about where he’s at right now, and he’s trying to nail it.’’
Quenneville liked what he saw from the line of Bickell, Peter Regin and Morin; the trio was aggressive, physical and buzzing around the net. Whether there will be a spot in the lineup for Morin when Toews and Kane return for the playoffs remains to be seen. But Morin, the last man standing from a generation of IceHogs, is doing everything he can to force Quenneville’s hand.
‘‘All I can control is how I perform when I’m on the ice,’’ Morin said. ‘‘In Rockford, that’s really what I did. Every time I came to the rink, I was just trying to prove that I can play in the NHL. Now that I’m up here, I’m taking it pretty seriously. It’s time to show that I can play at this level.’’