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Blackhawks’ Alex DeBrincat learning to hold on to the puck for an ‘extra second’

DeBrincat already has proved himself to be one of the NHL’s elite goal-scorers, but he hopes what he worked on this summer will improve his playmaking.

Alex DeBrincat will look to build on his productive 2021 season.
AP Photos

Any concerns about Blackhawks wing Alex DeBrincat’s scoring ability, stemming from his disappointing 2019-20 season, were dismissed in 2021.

DeBrincat scored 32 goals in 52 games, good for third in the NHL. His shooting percentage, after dipping from 15.5% in 2017-18 and 18.6% in 2018-19 to 8.7% in 2019-20, rocketed up to a career-best 20.6%.

He’s one of 14 players who have scored more than 100 goals with a combined shooting percentage higher than 15% in the last four seasons, and the other 13 represent some elite company.

But where can DeBrincat, who will turn 24 in December, still improve?

One area is his playmaking. He had only 24 assists last season, tied for 82nd in the NHL. He’s one of only three players among the aforementioned 14 with fewer assists than goals in the last four seasons (the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and Jets’ Kyle Connor are the others).

DeBrincat realizes that, but he also realizes addressing it isn’t simply about becoming a better passer; he’s already pretty good at that.

Instead, he worked during the summer to become a stronger, more rooted skater, allowing himself to ‘‘fend off some defenders’’ and ‘‘handle the puck maybe that extra second’’ before making his pass or taking his shot.

‘‘It just allows guys to get in spots, so I’m not always just dishing it to them maybe in a bad spot,’’ he said. ‘‘If I can make that one extra move, hold on to it and then they’re wide-open, that’s really effective.

‘‘You see [Patrick Kane] doing it a lot. It’s not always the first place he sees; he’s waiting for something else to open up. That’s what makes him so effective, and I think I can bring that into my game a little bit.’’

That is easier said than done, however.

‘‘You have to read the ‘D’ [and determine] where the ‘D’ is on you,’’ DeBrincat said. ‘‘There’s a lot of things that go into it, but [primarily] it’s not panicking with the puck. It’s being more patient, trusting your teammates to get open. If you can do that, it makes it a lot easier on everyone.’’

DeBrincat averaged 11.8 shots per 60 minutes during five-on-five play last season, well above the league average of about 9.0, according to data from hockey analyst Corey Sznajder. Yet he averaged only 7.2 primary-shot assists — passes that lead directly to a teammate’s shot — per 60 minutes, below the league average of about 8.0.

If DeBrincat can be slightly more patient with his playmaking this season, it might make a difference in those numbers. And doing so next to Tyler Johnson, a natural finisher for playmaking wings throughout his career, might prove to be especially valuable.

Another area in which DeBrincat started to improve last season but still can get better is his defense. He learned how to use his quick hands to steal the puck from opponents and how to use his speed to backcheck as much as he counterattacks.

DeBrincat tied for second on the Hawks with 31 takeaways and — out of nowhere — became a regular penalty-killer during their last 11 games, a role coach Jeremy Colliton expects him to keep this season. But the Hawks still conceded plenty of scoring chances during his ice time.

DeBrincat’s strengthened skating ideally will help him defend opposing forwards even better this season.

‘‘[Alex is] a fantastic shooter, he’s a fantastic offensive player, [but] you limit your opportunities if that’s all you do,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘One of the reasons why he’s had so much success is his work ethic away from the puck, his skating, his relentless mentality. He forces turnovers for himself and for his linemates. . . . We’re hoping he’s going to pick up where he left off there.’’