Wyatt Kalynuk, Caleb Jones and Blackhawks’ other depth defensemen entering important time
The Hawks hope a few of their many young depth defensemen will separate themselves from the pack before this season ends.
Before the All-Star break, Blackhawks interim coach Derek King frequently mentioned how he wanted a few of his many depth defensemen to differentiate themselves from the pack.
As the Hawks return from the break — practicing Tuesday before playing Wednesday at the Oilers — this season’s stretch run should prove to be an important window for each of those defensemen to try to do so.
So far, the seven guys in the logjam — Caleb Jones, Wyatt Kalynuk, Ian Mitchell, Jakub Galvas, Nicolas Beaudin, Alec Regula and Isaak Phillips — have combined for just 43 NHL appearances this season, with Jones responsible for more than half (22 games) of that total.
But that likely will change soon. Calvin de Haan is a strong candidate to be dealt before the trade deadline March 21, opening up a top-six role. Erik Gustafsson might be, too, if there’s any interest. And as the Hawks accept their non-playoff fate, they’ll presumably work harder to cycle their young players into the lineup.
Management will be motivated to see what it has in Mitchell and Beaudin as former highly touted prospects. Galvas’ impressive three-game audition in January almost certainly will earn him another shot. The Hawks probably can afford to be more patient with Regula and Phillips.
Jones and Kalynuk, however, face the most urgency as the two with expiring contracts.
Jones, who has produced mixed results as the Hawks’ usual seventh defenseman this season, hopes a new way of thinking he came up with Jan. 22 — before the Hawks’ road game at Minnesota — will lead to a stronger second half.
“I just told myself, ‘Look, you just really need to go out there, play free and just do your thing,’ ” he said. “I feel confident that if I’m giving 100% effort [and] I’m working hard every day, my game is going to take care of itself. That’s what has been going on lately.”
Jones’ first three games after were his best in a while: The Hawks outscored their opponents 4-0 and outshot them 25-12 during his even-strength ice time. Then he started slipping again the last two games before the break.
“[He needs] to separate himself from that bottom, and that comes with consistency,” King said. “He really [does] some real good things, and then all of a sudden, there’s some of those hiccups that we’ve seen earlier on.”
Kalynuk, meanwhile, has learned patience out of necessity. Because of his “rough start” and the crowded cast around him, he played just his fifth NHL game of the season last Wednesday and remains without a point after appearing in 21 games with nine points last season.
This season also has taught the Wisconsin product how to improve his defensive positioning and reads, two areas he has worked on intensely in the AHL.
“In the ‘D’-zone, when the puck goes from behind the net to the slot, you’re always keeping your head on a swivel,” he said. “It just happens a little quicker [in the pros], and if you’re in the wrong spot or you’re late making a decision, it can cost you a lot more than it would in college.”
The Hawks have received “good reports” on Kalynuk’s progress in Rockford.
“He’s trusting his instincts instead of overthinking it,” King said. “Like, ‘Oh, should I make that play? Oh, there’s a better one here.’ By that time, it gets closed on him. And that goes for all our ‘D.’ They’ve all improved in that category.”
But Kalynuk meets the same challenge as everyone else. He needs to not only improve but improve faster than the others. Hopefully, this spring will bring more clarity on that front.
NOTE: The Hawks interviewed Cubs assistant general manager Jeff Greenberg for their GM position, fulfilling a promise to consider outside-of-hockey candidates. Greenberg is the fifth candidate interviewed.