Kevin Dean hoping to mold Blackhawks’ next defensive generation just like he did with Bruins

Dean, as the Hawks assistant coach overseeing defense, will be tasked in the years ahead with building a stellar NHL defense out of an influx of prospects. His success doing so with Charlie McAvoy and others in Boston is an encouraging sign.

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New Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dean talks to Jarred Tinordi.

New Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dean oversees the defensemen.

Chicago Blackhawks photo

During the course of 11 seasons in the Bruins’ organization, Kevin Dean built one of the NHL’s strongest defensive corps.

Now Dean has the opportunity to do the same for the Blackhawks, having settled in as one of the team’s new assistant coaches. And for a man who enjoys the journey almost as much as the destination, that task — challenging as it will be — excites him.

“You’re going to have some growing pains, but I’m pretty patient and Luke is patient,” Dean said. “It’s nice to see the light bulb go on when they get it. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’ It’s fun to see when it clicks on and then to watch the slow growth.”

The 53-year-old former defenseman is indeed far more patient, warm and friendly than his gruff appearance suggests — traits that fit right in alongside Derek King and Derek Plante on Luke Richardson’s staff. The group has instilled a sense of in-it-together unity between the coaches, players and staff that has made this season much less miserable than it otherwise could have been.

Dean is already accustomed to Chicago, having grown up in Madison, Wisconsin, and having appeared in 96 games for the Hawks in 2000 and 2001 at the end of his playing career.

Boston, however, is unquestionably where Dean established his current reputation. Over five seasons as an assistant for Providence (the Bruins’ AHL affiliate), one season as Providence’s head coach and five seasons as a Bruins assistant, Dean helped mold Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Connor Clifton and Matt Grzelcyk, among many other defensemen who passed through.

That foursome has formed two-thirds of the Bruins’ defense each of the last two seasons and played a big role in their dominance this season in particular.

“They were great players, and they were going to be great no matter what,” Dean said. “But even now, when I watch them, they’re doing things that you talked about when they were young. It’s fun to watch.”

Kevin Dean places a heavy emphasis on defensive-zone breakouts for the Blackhawks.

Kevin Dean places a heavy emphasis on defensive-zone breakouts for the Blackhawks.

Chicago Blackhawks photo

With his contract expiring last summer, Dean was nonetheless released by the Bruins during the messy fracas that ended in coach Bruce Cassidy’s firing.

Now with the Hawks, Dean anticipates doing the same with the organization’s robust young generation of defensemen — including Kevin Korchinski, Nolan Allan, Alex Vlasic, Isaak Phillips, Ethan Del Mastro, Wyatt Kaiser and Sam Rinzel — as they gradually graduate into the NHL.

“When you get a kid at 20 or 21, they’re a little bit more malleable than when you get them at 28 or 30,” Dean said. “It’ll be fun to try to ingrain some of these habits in them about stick position and angles and stuff like that.

“Quite honestly, I don’t do a lot of that with Jack Johnson and some of the older guys, because they’re either pretty good at it or it’s probably not changing. But with Phillips and [Ian] Mitchell, you talk about it a little bit more, and it’ll be even more when these next guys start rolling in here in the next couple years.”

Even this season, working with a defensive lineup that was never intended to measure up to competitive standards, Dean’s efforts have begun yielding fruit.

“The things we’ve been harping on since Day One — like making good, clean passes to your partner, giving your partner a good puck [and] supporting your partner — I’m just starting to see [progress with],” he said. “It’s no fault of their own. I don’t know if that was valued where they were playing before or last year here. But you can see it now, that they’re starting to understand.”

Defensive-zone exits and breakouts with possession are major priorities under Dean, and they’re among the areas the Hawks have finally improved in recent months.

When the Hawks are passing ‘D’-to-‘D’ below the goal line, he stresses the importance of keeping the puck “off the yellow” — as in, sending it directly from stick to stick rather than rimming it around the boards — so the other defenseman can gather it quickly. That half-second often decides whether the opposing forecheck is successful or not.

When passing ‘D’-to-‘D’ higher in the zone, he wants his defensemen to try to evade one forechecker before doing so in order to avoid that forechecker immediately switching directions and hounding the other defenseman as soon as he receives the pass.

Meanwhile, the Hawks’ adherence to their new system of defensive coverage — the zone-based “box-plus-one” — has also generally improved, even if the rocky past three games haven’t exactly fit that overarching pattern.

“You can see these guys trying to do the right thing,” Dean said. “They get a little bit glitchy sometimes, but . . . they’re trying to do what we tell them. It’ll probably take a little more time, but we’ll get there and we are getting there.”

“It’s important to have that foundation this year so that next year you’re not starting from square one. You can start having a little more fun with it and dial it in a little more.”

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