Vinnie Hinostroza did all the usual things a hockey player does during the summer. He worked on his skating, fine-tuned his skills and spent countless hours in the weight room.
He also did some reading.
“This summer, I did a lot of mental focus — read some books and stuff,” Hinostroza said. “Over half the game is mental. If you have that intact, now you’re just going to be able to go out there and play. I think last year, mentally, I was all over the place as a younger player. I just want to stay in a good place now and let my skill and speed take over.”
You can hear the confidence, bordering on defiance, in Hinostroza’s voice. No longer a timid rookie, Hinostroza has spent the last two months quietly seething that he started the season in Rockford rather than Chicago, displaced by veteran acquisitions. Hinostroza channeled his frustration into the best stretch of hockey in his career, posting nine goals and 13 assists in 23 games with the IceHogs.
Hinostroza always has been an intriguing prospect. The speedster can skate with anyone in the league, but his lack of size and his lack of finish around the net have made him a tweener — too good for the AHL, not quite good enough for the NHL. In his 49 games with the Hawks last season, Hinostroza leaned heavily on his speed, always moving as fast as possible, sometimes to his own detriment — over-pursuing pucks and getting out of position or flying at the net so fast he couldn’t corral the puck.
“[My] first year in the NHL, last year was a shock,” Hinostroza said. “The adrenaline was always pumping, and you’d always want to go, go, go. Thinking back, this summer I did a lot of reflection on the year, and it’s not always great if you do that. If you watch some of these great, fast players, they’re picking their spots.”
The new and improved Hinostroza is harnessing his speed and deploying it more strategically. During his season debut Friday against the Sabres, Hinostroza was one of the Hawks’ most effective and active players, frequently finding himself around the puck and around the net.
Coach Joel Quenneville was pleased with his performance, saying he played with “purpose.”
“Both with and without the puck, I was able to work on [mixing up speeds] a lot,” Hinostroza said of his time in Rockford. “It’s just hard for the defenders, hard for everyone. If you’re changing up your speeds, then they have to change speed when they’re skating backward.”
Indeed, speed is everything in the modern-day NHL, which makes someone like Hinostroza so valuable.
“It seems like it’s faster every year,” Duncan Keith said. “It seems like the teams that are hardest to play against are the teams that are the quickest throughout their lineup. As a defenseman, no matter who you’re playing against, if you’ve got a guy who can skate, he can be effective in a lot of different areas. Whether that’s just getting in on the forecheck, creating havoc, getting to the net, backchecking — it’s huge.”
If Hinostroza can work on his hands and become a more well-rounded player, he could be in Chicago to stay — just as he thought he should have been all along.
“It’s just self-belief,” Hinostroza said. “You’ve got to be confident in yourself, and I was confident in myself and came to the rink every day, and it drove me to work harder in the weight room and on the ice. I did that. If you go to the rink when you get sent down, and every day you’re kind of a bum and don’t work hard, nothing good is going to come out of it. You’re not going to come back up. I just wanted to get back here.”
NOTE: Cody Franson is doubtful for the game Sunday against the Coyotes. Jordan Oesterle is likely to draw in.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.