ST. LOUIS — Four minutes into the second game of the Rockford IceHogs’ season last October, Ryan Hartman took a roughing penalty. Six minutes after that, he ran over the opposing goalie and went back to the penalty box. Two minutes into the second period, he slashed a guy and took a seat. Early in the third, he boarded an opponent, then earned yet another penalty on his way back to the box.
“The fifth one was me mouthing off to the ref,” Hartman said with a grin. “I was ready to get out of that game. That was an over-the-line moment for sure.”
That line — the border between aggressive and reckless, between ferocious and foolish — is where Hartman lives. His game is predicated on irritating opponents, on throwing himself into hits with abandon, on energizing both himself and his teammates.
And if you squinted hard enough during Saturday night’s game in Dallas, you could have seen Andrew Shaw in Hartman’s No. 38 sweater. In just 11 adventurous minutes, Hartman goaded Stars captain Jamie Benn into a skirmish near the benches, made three big hits, and scored the game-tying goal with a blast from the top of the right circle. Hartman feeds off his big hits and getting under his opponents’ skin. And perhaps just as significant, so do his teammates.
“I love it, I love it, it’s great,” Patrick Kane said. “You saw in Dallas there, he was special. He was doing something every shift. He was running guys over, he was creating chances, scored a big goal for us, had a lot of time in the offensive end, as well. You need that. I don’t want to say that he’s like Shaw or anything, but he was playing like that the other night, like when Shaw first came up to Chicago.”
It’s a fine line, though, and one that Hartman — a West Dundee native who was a first-round pick by his hometown Hawks in 2013 — has been learning to toe since turning professional near the end of the 2013-14 season. In his two full seasons in Rockford, he had 28 goals and 44 assists. He also had 249 penalty minutes. The IceHogs coaching staff and the Blackhawks development staff helped him learn just how far he should go — and how to stay there.
“There were times in Rockford when I went over the line, and there were times where I wasn’t going close enough to the line,” Hartman said. “Those two years in Rockford helped me to find that line. I think I finally found it.”
The numbers back that up. Through nine games this season, Hartman hasn’t taken a single penalty. Meanwhile, he’s second among Hawks in penalties drawn per game, averaging 2.07 minors drawn per 60 minutes of ice time. Only Dennis Rasmussen, at 2.44 per 60, is setting up Hawks power plays with such frequency.
Hartman hasn’t had enough games like he had in Dallas, but he’s shown that ability to make a massive impact on a game in a variety of ways. A strong start — a goal and an assist in his first two games — was derailed by an injury. After returning with little impact, he was a healthy scratch for two straight games on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1. But if he can keep playing the way he did against Dallas — no easy task — he could earn major minutes and a more prominent role for Joel Quenneville, who adored Shaw and deemed him “irreplaceable.”
Quenneville raved about Hartman’s performance over the weekend, but said “consistency is what we need with him.”
“It was definitely noticeable, the intangibles of getting in people’s faces when you get there, you arrive at the right time, you come up with loose pucks, you’re disruptive in ways where you’re still playing your own team game and you have the puck a little bit more,” Quenneville said.
Hartman played five NHL games in 2014-15, and three more last year. Nine games into his first full NHL season, he said it’s all starting to feel normal, that this is where he belongs. But to stay in the NHL, he knows he has to find that edge of controlled chaos, and stay right up against it, night in and night out.
“It’s that gritty game that has gotten me to this point,” Hartman said. “It definitely gets me fired up when you can get under the skin of a captain of the other team, or any of their top guys. It gets them off their game a little bit and helps us. Whether it’s drawing a penalty or making a hit or scoring a goal — any way I can help the team out, I’ll do it.”
NOTE: Tyler Motte, who left Sunday’s game with a lower-body injury, will miss 2-3 weeks, according to Quenneville. Andrew Desjardins will make his season debut Wednesday in St. Louis.