CALGARY, Alberta — Here’s a little secret: Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville doesn’t really trust rookies.
OK, so maybe that’s not much of a secret. For every Brandon Saad or Andrew Shaw who cracks the lineup and becomes a staple almost instantly, there are countless players such as Joakim Nordstrom and Jeremy Morin, who see limited minutes in bottom-six roles and shuttle back and forth to Rockford for years. Or players such as Brandon Pirri and Jimmy Hayes, who wait their turn only to find it in another city. Or players such as Mark McNeill and Klas Dahlbeck, who are still waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
That’s the rub, the “double-edged sword,” as defenseman Adam Clendening put it, of being a prospect in the Hawks organization. A roster spot in Chicago is something to covet, but it’s also awfully hard to come by. If you get one, you’re playing with world-class talent in front of sellout crowds and competing for a Stanley Cup.
But good luck getting one.
“It kind of does suck,” admitted Clendening, who’s making his NHL debut tonight in Calgary after two years at Boston University and two-plus years in Rockford. “But at the same time, hopefully when you get the call, you’ll be ready and you can maybe stay here for a long time.”
Clendening got the call because Trevor van Riemsdyk is out three to four months after having surgery on Thursday to repair a fractured left patella. Nordstrom got the call (for the fourth time in 14 months) because Patrick Sharp is hurt. Morin, whose been with the team all season after being on the Rockford shuttle last year, is back in the lineup because Shaw has an upper-body injury.
Each is hoping to force Quenneville’s hand. But as Morin in particular knows all too well, even when the opportunity is there, it can be limited. Rarely does a rookie get thrown on a line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, as Saad was in 2013. Quenneville wants you to earn it first. He’s looking for “consistency and predictability,” as he puts it — something van Riemsdyk showed right away. Just don’t try to do too much too quickly — one bad turnover, one ill-timed pinch, one foolish penalty can land you in the doghouse. And it can be tough to get out.
“Initially, you get a little,” Quenneville said. “And then if you please the coach you get a little bit more. We need that young, enthusiastic play, and usually give the guy a chance to play. You put him in situations you think they can have some success in, be it offensive-zone faceoffs, or sometimes matchups [where] you don’t want to expose them too much. But sometimes they get that chance where they are out there against top players. If they meet the challenge, [then] you usually give them a little bit more.”
You can’t bury a defenseman as easily as you can bury a forward, so Clendening will get a good look right away. A power-play specialist, the skilled puck-mover will start out on the point on the Hawks’ second unit — a major role for a guy playing in his first game.
“It’s definitely exciting,” he said. “When they told me [Wednesday], I was really shocked. It’s nice. I’ve got some world-class guys on my unit. I don’t know. I’m at a loss for words.”
As for Nordstrom, Quenneville’s a fan of his speed and defensive awareness. The smooth Swede was a surprise last year, making the team out of training camp. This year, he started in Rockford, and was even named captain — an honor, to be sure, but one that could be alarming for someone with his sights set on a regular NHL gig. But the IceHogs staff assured him that the captaincy didn’t mean he was stuck in Rockford. And after posting five goals and three assists in 14 games, he got the call.
“Of course, it was a disappointment not making the team,” Nordstrom said. “But you can’t go around and feel sorry for yourself. You’ve got to get back to work and try to get better and be ready if you get the call. I want to be up here as much as possible, so I have to keep doing that now that I am here.”
As an organization, the Hawks value speed. They value possession. And they value savvy, two-way play. But for a Hawks prospect, perhaps the biggest virtue is patience.
“It’s nice to be here,” Clendening said, beaming. “Finally.”