Rookie defensemen learning on the fly for Blackhawks

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Erik Gustafsson had the puck deep behind his own goal line, with two Minnesota Wild players converging on him. The smart play — the safe play —was to make a quick outlet pass and make sure the Blackhawks exited the zone. The exciting play — the risky play —was to fire a 120-foot pass to the opposing blue line, where Artem Anisimov was backpedaling between two Wild defenders.

Gustafsson, in his NHL debut no less, had a fraction of a second to decide. He went for it. Anisimov corralled the pass and walked in on Devan Dubnyk for a breakaway and a goal. The pass earned raves from Joel Quenneville after the game. Of course, had Gustafsson blown the play, Quenneville might have had an entirely different reaction.

“You usually try to see where the forwards are and make the simple play,” Gustafsson said. “But sometimes you can create a pass so they can score. I’m offensive. I’m good with the puck. So when I can, I try to do that.”

It’s a fine line to walk for any Hawks defenseman. Quenneville’s system is predicated on quick-thinking defensemen making immediate, hard, clean stretch passes out of their own zone to allow the team’s highly skilled forwards to create offense in transition. Those passes are borne out of confidence and experience, so it’s no surprise that players such as Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith have perfected them over the years.

But this season, Quenneville is working with a rookie on each defensive pairing — Trevor van Riemsdyk, Viktor Svedberg and now Gustafsson. As a result, the famously fiery coach has had to give his young players a longer leash, and use a lighter touch to help them build that confidence. It’s a kindler, gentler, more patient Quenneville.

“You’re going to get exposed to different situations like when should you go, when should you not go, stick positioning, coverage, rebounds off the shot — there are a million plays and situations they’ll be exposed to in time,” Quenneville said. “But right now, you want to provide them with confidence and support. But the three young guys have played pretty well, so we’re happy with them.”

There have been bumps in the road, of course. The Hawks have given up 20 goals in their last five games (losing four of them), but that’s more an indictment on the entire team defense and goaltending as a whole than a mark against the three rookie defensemen.

In fact, the new guys have been among the Hawks’ better players at times. Svedberg has been steady as Seabrook’s partner, and has been unleashing his big shot more often lately (he had five shots on goal against St. Louis on Wednesday). Van Riemsdyk has been more aggressive offensively, pinching and pouncing on rebounds near the net, and has been logging upwards of 23 minutes a night. And Gustafsson was buzzing around the net in the third period Friday night in New Jersey, creating several scoring chances.

That’s what Quenneville wants to see. The trick is picking your spots. And Svedberg said Quenneville has been hands-on in helping the new guys figure out when to go for it, and when to play it safe.

“We watch video and he teaches a lot of stuff,” Svedberg said. “So does [assistant coach Mike Kitchen]. They’re trying to help us out there and he gives us tips all the time. He’s [fiery] but in a good way. It’s more like a teaching point [than a scolding]. He’s helping.”

It’s a little easier for Svedberg, who’s more of a stay-at-home guy. For van Riemsdyk and Gustafsson, who fancy themselves a little more Duncan Keith than Niklas Hjalmarsson, they’ll keep walking that fine line — eager to make the big play, please Quenneville and earn more playing time, but wary of making the big mistake, infuriating him and ending up on the bench.

“There are some plays that we don’t mind you trying to make, and there are some that you might not think of trying again,” Quenneville said. “It’s all part of the growth in that position. … That position, we all know how important it is, and how challenging it is. And we feel as a team we have a way of playing, and we need these guys to be a big part of it.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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