In his younger and more vulnerable years, Jordin Tootoo might not have been so gracious about Tanner Kero’s sudden rise up the Blackhawks’ depth chart. Or about Nick Schmaltz’s encouraging return to the lineup. Or about Marcus Kruger’s impending return from a hand injury Thursday.
Each of those things is good for the Hawks, but each might mean the end of Tootoo’s days as a regular in the lineup. The veteran Too-
too is focusing on the former, where the younger Tootoo might have dwelled on the latter.
‘‘I’ve been here before; it’s old news to me,’’ Tootoo said. ‘‘Mentally, you’ve got to be strong. There were times when I let it affect my mind mentally, and it’s not good. It’s not a good thing to be around that as a teammate. You can feel that energy when someone’s like that.’’
Andrew Desjardins is in the same situation. He and Tootoo have had a relatively steady presence in the lineup all season. Desjardins has played in 30 of 37 games since returning from a preseason injury in November. He also played in 77 games last season and played a significant role in the Hawks’ 2015 Stanley Cup run as a shutdown forward and penalty-killer. Tootoo, meanwhile, has played in 35 games this season and has appeared in 40 playoff games in his career.
But if all goes according to plan with Kruger and the Hawks’ young players — let alone a possible trade-deadline acquisition up front — Desjardins and Tootoo might end up on the outside looking in when the games are just starting to matter.
The two have combined for zero goals and zero assists and have the lowest average ice times on the team (Desjardins averages 9:19 per game and Tootoo 6:33). But the Hawks are at their best when they can lean on all 12 forwards, with the fourth line playing 10 to 12 minutes a night. Kero’s emergence, Schmaltz’s renewed confidence and Kruger’s return might give them that kind of depth.
Desjardins never has been a big point-producer, but his pointless season has been frustrating. He had eight goals and five assists last season. He hit a post last week in Colorado and briefly was credited with a goal before it was changed. In fact, his line — with Dennis Rasmussen and Schmaltz — was terrific in that game. Desjardins knows he’ll need more games like that to keep his spot in the lineup.
‘‘Obviously, it’s in the back of my head; it’s always there,’’ Desjardins said. ‘‘I’ve just got to do the right things and help the team win, and sometimes that’s not scoring. I would love to [score], but I’ve just got to play the right way and let it happen.’’
It’s not hard to see Tootoo, a popular guy in the dressing room who was recruited to the Hawks by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, taking on the kind of role Jamal Mayers did in the 2013 season, when he was rarely in the lineup but always in everyone’s ear.
It might not be glamorous, but it’s invaluable.
‘‘For me, it’s just being a positive influence in the dressing room because every team needs those guys,’’ Tootoo said. ‘‘Not every character guy is going to be in the lineup every night. It’s just part of the job.’’
Coach Joel Quenneville has made it clear Kero isn’t going anywhere, and Schmaltz is a big part of the Hawks’ future. So Desjardins and Tootoo will have to make the most of every opportunity they get because there might not be too many going forward.
‘‘To me, it’s [about] performance and what gives you the best chance of winning,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘We don’t mind having to make a tough decision.’’
NOTE: Goalie Scott Darling will start Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets. Forward Dennis Rasmussen (ill) is questionable.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.