Blackhawks’ Adam Boqvist adopts new defensive plan: Play the hands, not the body

In his second season, the undersized 20-year-old defenseman believes his less physical tactics will aid his NHL learning process.

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Adam Boqvist’s two games since returning from COVID-19 have had mixed results.

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On Wednesday, Adam Boqvist was Frans Nielsen’s worst enemy.

In the first period, as the Red Wings forward circled behind the Blackhawks’ net, Boqvist used a perfect combination of stick lifting and body pressure to force the puck free from Nielsen’s control. Alex DeBrincat came in, chipped the loose puck back to Calvin de Haan and ended the Wings’ offensive cycle.

In the second period, with Nielsen protecting the puck along the offensive zone side-boards, Boqvist again used his stick and body positioning to shield and herd Nielsen away from the slot. Instead of rushing in for a hit or initiating a board battle, he kept his distance without losing his man.

Instances such as those demonstrate Boqvist’s evolving defensive strategy, which he and the Hawks have refined as they learn how to make him a successful NHL defenseman.

Defensive ability has always been the knock on Boqvist, whom the Hawks drafted eighth overall in 2018. It was a challenge during Boqvist’s 2019-20 rookie season, and his struggles prevented him from putting his puck-moving, offensive skills on display much. The Hawks simply weren’t gaining enough possession during his ice time.

In his second season — despite missing three weeks recovering from COVID-19 and getting back into shape — Boqvist has accepted his 5-11, 179-pound frame and tried to adapt his tactics to it.

“I’m not the strongest guy and I’m not the biggest guy, so I have to find something else to do to make the read out there,” he said Friday.

He worked during the offseason with Chicago-based hockey development coach and Hawks consultant Brian Keane on a new approach that would allow him to rely less on physicality.

“I’m moving my feet more now and having an active stick and trying to go through hands, instead of just going on [the] body,” Boqvist said. “That’s not me. That’s more like [Nikita] Zadorov, going body-on-body.

“Obviously, last year was a learning process for me, and even this year is going to be. But I’m taking the steps in the right way.”

Boqvist has become a lightning rod for fan criticism — mostly from those expecting the 20-year-old to play like a 26-year-old veteran solely because of his draft status — but the data indicates he has improved substantially.

Boqvist has conceded 0.37 scoring chances and 0.82 shot attempts per minute this season, down from 0.53 chances and 1.05 attempts per minute last season. And he has been credited with just four hits in eight games, versus 33 hits in 41 games last season.

He also closely watched two of the NHL’s best defensemen — Colorado’s Cale Makar and Dallas’ John Klingberg — on television while out with COVID-19, noticing how they move and defend.

Wednesday’s game in Detroit was arguably the best of Boqvist’s young career. The Hawks enjoyed a 12-4 shot-attempt advantage and 6-4 scoring-chance edge during his ice time, and coach Jeremy Colliton raved about him in the postgame news conference.

“Boqvist was excellent,” Colliton said. “He made a lot of plays, [was] very comfortable on the offensive blue line. It looked like he was playing with a lot of confidence. He was unlucky not to produce something. And defensively, he was strong, too. Good job getting stops in the ‘D’ zone and then being clean getting us out.”

But Boqvist isn’t fixed yet. He regressed Friday at Carolina with one of the worst games of his career. The Hawks were dominated in shot attempts (15-8) and scoring chances (7-2) during Boqvist’s minutes, and he looked flustered and lost against the Hurricanes’ aggressive forecheck.

Times like that demonstrate Boqvist’s room to grow, just as other times demonstrate his skill and potential.

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