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Tanner Kero has a goal and an assist in his last two games. (AP Photo)

Tanner Kero looking more like a standout than a stopgap

SHARE Tanner Kero looking more like a standout than a stopgap
SHARE Tanner Kero looking more like a standout than a stopgap

In the first three months of the 2015-16 season, the Blackhawks recalled a player from the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs 11 times, giving nearly every prominent prospect they had a chance to play at the NHL level. Leashes were short, but opportunities were plentiful.

This season, the Rockford shuttle never got out of the garage. That was great for the six rookies who started the season with the Blackhawks, all of whom got time and trust to figure things out and entrench themselves in the NHL. But it was utterly demoralizing for the next tier of Hawks prospects, who seemed all but forgotten some 90 miles down I-90.

“It was a little different,” said Tanner Kero, one of those forgotten future Hawks. “Especially after last year, when there were guys coming up and down a lot early on. You just try not to read too much into it, and just work on what they told you after training camp to work on. All you can do is try to get better every day, and hope that you get the chance. You never know if there’s an injury, or what might happen. You always need to be ready.”

Kero finally got his chance — the first chance for any Rockford forward or defenseman —on Dec. 22, when Artem Anisimov and Marian Hossa were both dealing with injuries. Even Kero figured it could be a short stay, a stopgap center until Anisimov returned a game later. But as Joel Quenneville is fond of saying, things change quickly in this business.

And it looks like Kero is starting to make a name for himself with the Hawks. Well, sort of.

“Is it Care-oh or Kee-ro?” Brian Campbell said Tuesday night, stopping mid-praise to make sure he had his new teammate’s name correctly (it’s Care-oh). “I feel like he’s really stepped in and played well for us. He’s good on draws. He’s reliable. He kind of makes that line go.”

That line is the Hawks’ third line. With Marcus Kruger out with a hand injury, Kero has slid into the third-line center spot between Ryan Hartman and Richard Panik. And the results have been impressive. They were together throughout the Hawks’ 4-0 homestand, and were arguably the most consistent line on the team. Hartman had four goals and two assists in those games, including a hat trick on Sunday against Nashville. Panik had a goal and two assists. And Kero got in on the offensive action, too, with an assist Sunday and his first goal of the season (and second of his career) Tuesday night against Detroit.

Kero is the rare young player whose strengths are defense and penalty-killing. That’s a good way to get on Quenneville’s good side, but Kero’s offensive game wasn’t quite NHL-ready in training camp, which is why he got sent to Rockford while Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz made the team.

“They just wanted me to be a little more confident with the puck in the offensive zone — try to hold on to it, make more pays not just be satisfied with playing defensively,” Kero said. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to get away from the defensive game. Once you’re solid defensively, you can work on the offense and get more confidence. Then the offense seems to come more than when you solely focus on getting points and goals.”

While defense is Kero’s forté, the 24-year-old Michigan Tech grad can score, too. He had five goals in six games with the IceHogs — playing on a line with Hartman — after turning pro following his senior season. He had 20 goals in 60 games last season with Rockford. And he had seven goals in 28 games before getting the call last month.

“Defense is his game, right?” Hartman said. “That’s the role he played even in Rockford. He’s that defensive center who can win draws. But he’s got an offensive side, too. He knows how to score and has a sneaky good shot. If you’re good in your own end, it’s going to translate into offensive-zone time. He’s fun to play with.”

And even with Kruger only a week or two away from returning, and with Motte (three goals in four games) and Schmaltz (six goals in 11 games) both tearing it up in Rockford, Kero is looking less like an injury stopgap, and more like a much-needed piece to the bottom-six puzzle.

“We’re always open-minded,” Quenneville said. “We give them the opportunity to play, and they usually make the decisions for us based on performance. … We’ll see how it all sorts out, but he’s certainly helping himself.”

NOTE: Ken Wharram, a member of the Hawks’ 1961 Stanley Cup team who had seven consecutive 20-goal seasons between 1962-63 and 1968-69, died Tuesday at age 83. Wharram had 252 goals and 281 assists in a career that spanned 14 seasons, all with the Hawks.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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