Tanner Kero didn’t get a morning skate to feel out two new linemates. He didn’t get a briefing during the first intermission, either. He didn’t even get a heads-up a minute or two in advance. Instead, about four minutes into the second period of Game 1 of his first Stanley Cup playoffs, Kero got a tap on the shoulder and was told to get out there with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik.
Just like that, fourth-line center Tanner Kero became top-line left wing Tanner Kero.
In the playoffs, especially under Joel Quenneville, you’ve always got to be ready.
“It was just, ‘Go out there,’” Kero said. “So I just went out there and played.”
Kero acquitted himself well on the first line after Nick Schmaltz was bumped down following a poor first period. Kero, who finished the game with three shots on goal and six hits, will be back in his usual spot on the fourth line to start Saturday night’s Game 2, with fellow rookie Ryan Hartman on the top line. But Kero knows as well as anybody how quickly things can change.
In the past couple of months, he has played on all four lines, centering checking lines with the likes of Dennis Rasmussen and Jordin Tootoo, and centering a scoring line with the likes of Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane.
“You want to be able to be as versatile as possible and be able to play whatever role they want you to play in,” Kero said. “To get a few opportunities on different lines and different looks, it’s only going to help going forward, if they need you to pop in a different spot during a game or at the start of a game, whenever it may be.”
Earning Quenneville’s trust is no small feat, but Kero has done it.
“He played center with two pretty good players before that [top line stint], as well,” Quenneville said. “He’s been very useful in a lot of ways, been very reliable. … Offensively, he has more game than we’ve seen, and he’s showing signs of improvement in that area. But the defensive part of his game and that predictability has been very good.”
Kero and Hartman are both well aware that their role on the team can only be increased by being as versatile as possible. Quenneville has used both of them in nearly every position and situation, quite a vote of confidence for two rookies, especially in their first playoffs.
“Yeah, but even if you have his trust, you still need to keep it,” Hartman said. “You’ve got to still play good hockey, you’ve got to be responsible in your own end, you’ve got to make good plays and be desperate.”
But neither player is looking over his shoulder, wondering if every shift in a coveted top-line position is his last. Moving around the lineup just comes with the job.
“It’s that time of the year, we’re not playing timid hockey,” Hartman said. “We’re playing hockey to make plays and get things done. We’re not going out there trying not to make a mistake.”