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Internal competition could fuel Blackhawks’ blue line for years to come

Blackhawks defenseman prospect Chad Krys participates in drills at MB Ice Arena. | Erin Brown/Sun-Times

For Blackhawks fans who are starved for a championship-caliber defense, the idea of Henri Jokiharju, Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell and all the other talented young blue-liners in the system playing together at the United Center in a couple of years is a tantalizing one.

For the players themselves and the Hawks brass, though, it’s not quite so simple. After all, 2017 first-rounder Jokiharju is a right-handed shot. So is 2018 first-rounder Boqvist. So is 2017 second-rounder Mitchell. Oh, and so are Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy, and they’re signed six and four more years, respectively. They can’t all play on the top pairing.

As for the left side, there’s 2018 first-rounder Nicolas Beaudin, 2016 second-rounder Chad Krys, 2016 fourth-rounder Lucas Carlsson and 2016 sixth-rounder Blake Hillman, who had a cup of coffee with the Hawks late last season. Not to mention Duncan Keith, who’s signed through 2022-23, and Gustav Forsling, who’s still viewed as a big part of the Hawks’ future.

But if the bevy of blue-chip blue-liners are sweating the roster math, they’re not saying.

“You can’t worry about that kind of stuff,” Jokiharju said. “You have to work on your own things. If you put too much of your energy on that, you’re losing your own energy. Competition’s big, but you don’t want to hate those guys. You want to have good relationships with those guys, and hopefully, we can all be teammates one day.”

The Hawks, who always seem to be loaded with skilled forwards, have put a heavy emphasis on defensemen in recent drafts. It’s created sudden depth in the system, with Jokiharju and Hillman knocking on the door this season, Mitchell, Krys and Carlsson maybe a year away, and Boqvist and Beaudin likely a couple years out.

But Hawks general manager Stan Bowman wasn’t worried about any overlapping timetables when he picked Boqvist eighth overall and Beaudin 27th overall last month.

“It’s not like they’re all going to make the NHL at the same time,” Bowman said. “So some of them have different time horizons.”

If anything, it creates a healthy internal competition to be the first to break through and stake their claim as a fixture in the lineup. That competition began in earnest on the first day of prospect camp Monday afternoon at MB Ice Arena.

“Every NHL team has a lot of good defensive prospects,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, when you go out there, you want to showcase yourself as best you can. You want to be the best defenseman here, so that’s my goal going into this.”

Boqvist put it more succinctly: “Try to work harder than the other guys.”

Beaudin said the key was to separate yourself with your own unique strengths, to be “different” than everybody else. That might be tougher to do since the Hawks revamped prospect camp last year, taking out the daily game-like scrimmages and replacing them with two 90-minute sessions of development drills and practice each day. The lone scrimmage will take place Friday morning.

But there were nearly a dozen members of the Hawks brass watching the action from high above the rink on Monday, including Joel Quenneville. So every drill, every sprint, every sharp cut, every puck battle is a chance to prove something.

“I think you can show what you have in those drills, in those 1-on-1s, in those battles,” Beaudin said. “If you practice, sometimes it’s even better than a scrimmage.”

Besides, for most of these guys, the real competition is a year or two away. For now, they can just worry about themselves at prospect camp. There’ll be plenty of time for looking over their shoulders at a training camp in the not-too-distant future.

“I’m trying to be better every day,” Boqvist said. “Of course, I will play in the NHL one day and win Stanley Cups. That’s my mind-set.”