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MacKenzie Entwistle standing out among Blackhawks’ mass of bottom-6 forwards

Entwistle sneakily has produced a decent four goals and three assists in 19 games this season, but he must prove he can sustain that rate.

MacKenzie Entwistle has quietly become an NHL regular for the Blackhawks this season.
AP Photos

LAS VEGAS — As the Blackhawks searched for a last-minute tying goal Thursday against the Coyotes, having pulled Marc-Andre Fleury for an extra attacker, five of the players on the ice were predictable: Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach and Seth Jones.

The sixth player, however, was an eyebrow-raiser: MacKenzie Entwistle.

The Hawks’ late push fell short; the Coyotes sealed their win. But interim coach Derek King’s choice to send out Entwistle, who’d scored just his fifth career NHL goal earlier that game, was nonetheless notable.

“It’s better when he’s that middle-lane-drive guy, net-front guy,” King said the next day. “We had him on the six-on-five because he picks up loose pucks and he’s a big body. If he continues to do those little things, he’ll score some goals for us.”

Entwistle generated some buzz as the Cinderella of training camp, unexpectedly making the Hawks’ opening day roster.

Since then, the 22-year-old forward hasn’t received nearly as much public attention — but under the radar, he has continued to grow in relevance. With four goals and three assists for seven points in 19 games, averaging 11:26 ice time, he actually ranks third on the team — behind only Brandon Hagel and Kane — in even strength points per minute.

As interim general manager Kyle Davidson begins to determine which of the Hawks’ many bottom-six forwards are worth keeping, Entwistle’s ability to both score and grind might help set him apart. (So will his affordable $800,000 salary cap hit on a two-year contract extension that kicks in next summer.)

“He plays the right way, that north-south game, [and] he hangs around the net a little more,” King said. “That skill level of his, his hands around the net, they’re going to pay off for him.”

On one hand, there are some indications Entwistle’s sneaky-significant production rate might not be sustainable.

He’s scored his four goals on just 13 shots on goal — a ridiculous 30.8% shooting percentage. In fact, he has zero shots on goal in 12 of his 19 appearances, which is concerning. His advanced possession stats are rather awful, too: he ranks last on the team in both shot-attempt ratio (38.0%) and scoring-chance ratio (39.1%) at even strength.

On the other hand, Entwistle has the combination of size, soft hands and magnetism toward the net that seemingly make him an ideal third- or fourth-line winger. His skating previously seemed like the big obstacle that could prevent him from reaching that ceiling, but he has tremendously improved in that regard over the past two years.

“This league is so fast, the guys are big and strong, everyone can skate, everyone can move, so working on that in the summer was definitely good,” Entwistle said. “It’s definitely nice to get rewarded and see [how] my skating is definitely better than last year.”

One factor was reducing his weight — on his 6-3, broad-shouldered frame — from 205 pounds a year ago to 190-195 pounds now.

“My game is a power forward game, playing down low, so I wanted to put on weight, but I just put on the wrong weight,” he said. “I changed my diet [to have] less carbs and lighter lunches — that was the key for me.”

This season’s remaining 47 games, while largely irrelevant for the Hawks organizationally, will be crucial for certain players, and Entwistle sits near the top of that list. He’ll have to prove he can maintain this level of impact over a much larger sample size.

But considering where he was 12 — or even six — months ago, he has put himself in an interesting position.

“[In] this league, especially as a young guy, you can’t be comfortable, and I know that,” he said. “I just want to keep playing how I’m playing and having confidence and taking advantage of being in the lineup every single night.”