Drake Caggiula’s in-season training camp making him a better player after his concussion

Caggiula fine-tuned his skills during five weeks of practice in December and early January, allowing him to return to the Blackhawks’ lineup and make an immediate impact.

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Drake Caggiula tallied two points Wednesday in Montreal, but has been fantastic in all four games since returning from a concussion.

Drake Caggiula tallied two points Wednesday in Montreal, but has been fantastic in all four games since returning from a concussion.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

MONTREAL — Drake Caggiula gathered a loose puck along the boards, fended off a defender, made a slick move through two more, cut to the high slot and hit the post on a blazing wrist shot.

As soon as his shift ended, Caggiula sat on the bench Tuesday in Ottawa and thought back to his two months out with a concussion, much of which he spent practicing while waiting for his symptoms to fully fade.

“[That play] reminded me exactly of a drill that we did in practice,” Caggiula said Wednesday. “It’s funny how it works out like that.”

Indeed, the concussion that earlier nearly ended Caggiula’s season has now indirectly made its remaining three months even better.

The many weeks of practice throughout December turned into what was essentially a midseason training camp for the 25-year-old winger.

“In the offseason, there’s some things you may not necessarily think of that you need to work on,” he said. “As the season comes around, you start to recognize, ‘OK, this is where I need some work.’ It’s hard to get that time and that practice in during the season.”

“But being injured, I was able to watch a lot of individual film and find areas of the game that I can work on and improve on, and practice that for about five, six weeks. Now that I’m in those scenarios and those situations on the ice, I feel way more confident.”

And what did he work on?

“Puck protection’s probably the biggest thing,” he said. “Anywhere on the rink, finding ways to control the puck and protect the puck from other guys’ sticks. And then I worked on a lot of skills around the net — just getting pucks on the net from tight areas, bad angles — and creating opportunities off the boards.”

Caggiula’s never been a star scorer in the NHL, but he has two attributes that make him important to the Hawks.

First, he’s versatile enough to function well in any role. He and Andrew Shaw were supposed to be the Hawks’ two Swiss Army knives this year; with Shaw still concussed, Caggiula’s return has made coach Jeremy Colliton’s job a lot easier. 

Caggiula has started on the first line with Jonathan Toews and Dominik Kubalik, but also filled in on the Alex Nylander-Ryan Carpenter second line and Matthew Highmore-Zack Smith fourth line when Patrick Kane has doubled-shifted with Toews.

“[Caggiula] just gives us a little different look,” Colliton said Wednesday. “When we flip those two guys, Kaner and Jules, all of a sudden the Carpenter line looks a little different.”

And second, he has enough athleticism and sneaky creativity to create his own shot — and others’ shots — in the offensive zone, rather than exclusively off the rush. 

He demonstrated that ability during the aforementioned play against the Senators, and he did so again twice Wednesday in Montreal — he forced a behind-the-net turnover by Canadiens goalie Charlie Lindgren and set up Smith for the opening goal, then ripped a shot past Lindgren on a solo counterattack later on.

His advanced stats have been off the charts in his four games since returning from injury. 

He has been on the ice for 64 of the Hawks’ shot attempts, versus just 37 by opponents. His scoring-chance ratio was a lowly 42.1 percent before his concussion, but since then it has improved to 64.6 percent.

And Caggiula traces all this success back to his several patient days of practice while the rest of the team played every other night.

“I’m not feeling passive out there,” he said. “I feel like I’m taking control and making plays.”

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