DETROIT —Three times on Friday night in Pittsburgh, Tyler Motte had the puck on his stick, a clear path, and a golden scoring opportunity in front of him. Three times, he came up empty. That’s frustrating enough for any hockey player. But for an unproven rookie desperately trying to make an impression as he fights for a roster spot — with Joel Quenneville watching from the press box, no less —it’s the stuff of nightmares.
And Motte was indeed kicking himself a bit the next day. But he also tried to look at the bigger picture —at least he was creating scoring opportunities in the first place. That’s more than most Hawks can say this preseason.
“It’s a little bit frustrating,” he said. “But it was a step forward to create a few scoring chances as a group there. Then you’ve just got to take the next step and make those chances count.”
Motte did just that Saturday night at the United Center, scoring two goals and further establishing himself as the prospect most likely to make the Blackhawks’ opening-night roster. He even earned the highest adjective in Quenneville’s arsenal.
“He was special,” the coach said.
The focus at the start of camp was on familiar names such as Ryan Hartman and Vinnie Hinostroza, and higher-profile college product Nick Schmaltz. But Motte has been the clear standout in camp and in the preseason, a sturdy and versatile two-way player who has the finish the Hawks so badly need up front. On Saturday, he bounced around between a scoring line and a checking line, and even killed penalties.
The mere fact that Motte didn’t even travel Sunday to Detroit for the Hawks’ 6-3 loss, while Hartman and Hinostroza prepared for their third game in as many nights (they wound up being healthy scratches) is an encouraging sign, too. The Hawks already know what they have in Motte. And they like it.
“I always find that the guys that generate [chances], eventually they’re going to go in,” Quenneville said. “There’s a reason why they create and get chances. That’s a positive sign. The other part, he’s positionally aware defensively. That’s a good part of his game, and that’s probably why you get chances. The better you check, offensively you’re going to get rewarded.”
Motte hardly has come out of nowhere. He was on the most productive line in the nation last season at Michigan, as Kyle Connor, J.T. Compher and Motte finished first, second, and fourth, respectively, in scoring. Motte had 32 goals and 24 assists in just 38 games. He’s only 5-9, but he’s all muscle at 190 pounds, and has shown the grit to fight for the puck in the offensive zone and the savvy to get it back on the defensive end.
“I try to be versatile,” he said. “I take pride in a 200-foot game and being responsible defensively, as [Marcus Kruger] and a lot of these guys have throughout their careers. I feel comfortable in about any situation I’m put in.”
It doesn’t hurt that he’s a natural wing and a left-handed shot, given the Hawks’ desperate need for productive left wingers. Schmaltz, Hinostroza and Hartman are all right-handed shots, and Hinostroza is a center by trade. Motte knows he’s competing directly with those guys — Quenneville said Sunday that “five or six guys” are fighting for “three or four spots” —but the 21-year-old Michigan native knows he can’t make the team alone.
Not only does he looks the part on the ice, he sounds the part off of it.
“It’s a good group, a lot of character guys,” Motte said. “We all know we’re fighting for a limited number of spots here, but we all wish the best for each other. When you get on the ice, you’re competing against one another, but you’ve also got to compete as a team. If guys go out and play individual hockey, no one’s going to get better or look as good as we would if we competed as a team and as a group. So I think the egos go aside once we step in the locker room there.”
NOTE: Niklas Hjalmarsson will have a hearing with the department of player safety on Monday for his high hit on St. Louis’ Ty Rattie on Saturday night. He earned a match penalty, which carries an automatic one-game suspension (more supplemental discipline is possible), but Hjalmarsson wasn’t scheduled to play Sunday in Detroit, anyway.