By Mark Lazerus
Barely a week ago, Marko Dano was skating on a line with Tanner Kero and Ryan Hartman for the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. On Monday night, Dano skated on a line with Kero and Hartman for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.
Things change quickly around here this season.
“It’s definitely weird to see us three back together in a matter of a week,” Hartman said.
A lot of things are weird about the Hawks right now. Following the morning skate before Monday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings, there were at one point 12 players in the dressing room. Only one of them, Marcus Kruger, was with the team at this stage last year. And only Kruger, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrew Desjardins were with the Hawks when they won the Stanley Cup less than four months ago.
Joel Quenneville has repeatedly said that the offseason exodus of 2010 was far more decimating than the 2015 version. But it’s sure starting to feel like 2010 all over again these days. The difference is, Quenneville feels a lot better about the newcomers this season than he did five years ago.
“We don’t mind the way we’re playing, but we’re not as consistent as we would’ve liked,” Quenneville said. “Or as predictable. Obviously, losing [Duncan Keith] on the back end, the change is more significant. And growing some new guys back there is always a work in progress. We brought three new [forwards] up in one week. Based on how well they’re playing down there and where we’re at, we thought it was a good opportunity for us and for them to be given a chance.”
The sudden youth movement is staggering, particularly for a franchise that has enjoyed such stability the past few years. The average age of the players who played in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final was 29. With Marian Hossa out with a lower-body injury (he’s “hopeful” for Wednesday’s game), the average age of the players who played Monday night was 25.6. There were six players 31 or older in the Game 6 lineup; there were none in Monday’s lineup. Three Hawks on Monday were a relatively ancient 30 —Ryan Garbutt, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford.
In fact, in Monday’s game, there was a rookie or a second-year player on three of the four lines, and a rookie on all three defensive pairings.
“It’s a lot of fun to see the young guys come in and be a big part of our team,” Kruger said. “We still have a lot of core guys around that can help those young guys. We have a good system down there in Rockford, too, that’s been great for several years. We have all the confidence in the young guys.”
The newest addition was Dano, The 20-year-old shined during training camp at Notre Dame, but struggled during the preseason and was sent back to Rockford to shore up his defensive game and his understanding of the Hawks’ system. He thinks it was for the best.
“I understand it,” Dano said of being cut from camp. “I felt like I hadn’t done that well to make the team. There were better guys who played better than me. … I needed more consistency and to bring my game every night, and just try to move my legs more than I was moving them in the preseason games. I think the time in Rockford helped me a lot. I got a lot more comfortable with the system there, and hopefully I’m ready to go.”
While the Hawks are leaning heavily on unproven players to help them snap out of their middling play of late, the new guys don’t feel too much pressure to perform. There’s safety in numbers, after all. Hartman remembers coming up last season and being a bit starry-eyed at first.
Now, he’s practically a veteran.
“It’s a big change, for sure, compared to the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s a lot younger team than it was last year. But I think a lot of the young guys bring pretty positive things to the team. We’ll see what we can do.”