Kurtis Gabriel will get ‘every opportunity’ to earn steady role with Blackhawks

The recently acquired grinder played briefly in his Hawks debut Friday, but Derek King envisions a steadier role for him in the future.

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Kurtis Gabriel made his Blackhawks debut against the Predators on Friday.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Blackhawks acquired Kurtis Gabriel on Dec. 9 to give the journeyman grinder a steady NHL opportunity.

For a variety of reasons, that hasn’t happened.

Gabriel, 28, was a healthy scratch Dec. 11 against the Maple Leafs, his former team, because he had just joined the Hawks that day. Then the Dec. 13 game was postponed. And he missed the Dec. 15 game against the Capitals because of U.S. immigration paperwork delays.

He finally debuted Friday against the Predators but played only 5:24 over seven shifts — four in the first period, two in the second and one in the third. Gabriel was a healthy scratch again Saturday against the Stars to let Brett Connolly back in the lineup.

But interim coach Derek King still envisions giving Gabriel that opportunity soon.

“I know it was only five [minutes Friday], and I recognized that after the game — I probably should’ve added a few more minutes in there,” King said. “But when you start killing penalties and you have power plays, it’s hard to get a guy like that on the ice.

“He’s going to get every opportunity to play. That’s why we brought him in. It’s more just getting him acclimated to our team [and] our systems and me getting to trust him.”

It was King, after all, who asked interim general manager Kyle Davidson to add a player like Gabriel to the group. Although the price to acquire him — struggling AHL defenseman Chad Krys — was low, the trade was made for a reason.

“I talked, when I first came in here, about maybe trying to get some guys in here that can protect our star players and protect themselves,” King said last week. “He’s going to finish his checks. He’s going to play a nice fourth-line role for us. [And] if guys are going to start taking liberties on our players, he’s the type of guy I know is going to defend them.”

Indeed, Gabriel’s most notable activity in his pro career to date has been fighting.

In his 49 previous NHL appearances with the Wild, Devils, Sharks and Leafs, he had five points, 156 hits and 153 penalty minutes. In 332 career AHL games, Gabriel had 68 points and 555 penalty minutes — including two points and 36 penalty minutes in 13 appearances this season for the Toronto Marlies.

“[I’m] physical,” Gabriel said Friday. “[I’m] going to play a north-south simple game. I try to be extremely detailed and play a really team-oriented game. And whenever the rough stuff gets going, that’s when I get going — I’d love to play that game; it’s no secret.”

While his playing style has become firmly established, his playing time, however, has not. The 2013 third-round pick has bounced around year to year, operating as more of a depth fill-in and fighting mercenary than regular NHL player.

Gabriel is hopeful — just as the Hawks are — that he can finally earn and maintain a consistent role in Chicago.

“It makes sense,” he said. “The [Hawks’] old regime never had any interest in me, so when there was a change, it’s pretty cool that they thought I fit the bill for this role. That’s what I’ve been working my whole life toward. I’m 28. This is my eighth year as a pro. I’ve had stints and never been able to stick. So I’m really trying to find a home here.”

Despite his limited ice time in his Hawks debut, he did play well. Gabriel was on the ice for six Hawks shots and only four Predators attempts, making him one of only four Hawks to finish above 50% in that regard.

The challenge will be keeping that up as his opportunities increase.

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