Ryan Hartman used the term “learning experience” five times Wednesday while describing his rookie season. He learned how to be a productive player on the ice. He learned how to be a professional off the ice. And he learned lots of little things that only experience can teach, like what you can and can’t get away with in a game, how to work within the confines of Joel Quenneville’s system and not to punch Dan Hamhuis in the head repeatedly in late March.
“Another learning experience,” Hartman said with a sheepish laugh. “Don’t fight that close to the playoffs, I guess, right?”
Hartman injured his wrist in that fight March 23 in Dallas, and it clearly affected him during the Blackhawks’ all-too-brief playoff series against the Nashville Predators. Hartman had just two shots on goal over the first three games of the four-game sweep and played a measly 8:36 in Game 3 as his play deteriorated.
Hartman’s rookie season was a microcosm of the Hawks’ entire campaign. He far exceeded any reasonable expectations going into the season, yet was banged up for the playoffs and came up empty when it mattered most. Hartman, expected to be a bottom-six grinder with a penchant for penalties, scored 19 goals and showed versatility and restraint. The Hawks, expected to deal with growing pains with six or seven rookies in the lineup most nights, won 50 games.
But everyone has something to prove after the first-round flameout.
“No one was happy with it,” Hartman said. “We come in [to the new season] with a little anger and a little motivation to know that we’ve got a lot to prove. We want to come into the first half of the season and make everyone forget about that.”
That motivation prompted Hartman to get back on the ice earlier than usual this summer, even sacrificing his annual vacation to his native Hilton Head, South Carolina. One wrinkle he added to his offseason program was attending Darryl Belfry’s skills camp with players such as Patrick Kane, Nick Schmaltz, Auston Matthews, Claude Giroux and Jack Eichel in an attempt to nurture his burgeoning offensive skills.
Hartman never topped 15 goals in the AHL and maxed out at 25 in two seasons in the high-scoring Ontario Hockey League. So his 19-goal rookie season was an eye-opener, for both the Hawks and Hartman.
“It’s a lot of small detail stuff, catching the puck and moving before you get it to create distance from the ‘D,’ ” Hartman said of the camp. “Making the ‘D’ move side to side to mess up his gap a little bit. Stuff in the corners, being elusive. I never really worked on skill stuff my whole life. I was more of a get-on-the-ice-and-just-play-hard guy. Now I can get a routine and try to work on skill stuff, and it can definitely help my game a little bit by adding things to it.”
That’s exactly what Quenneville wants to see.
“He had a good year, and our playoffs should give us motivation across the board, collectively and individually,” Quenneville said. “As a player, you have to keep looking for more, and never be satisfied, so you’re constantly trying to improve your game and [be] motivated to set new standards.”
Hartman doesn’t set statistical goals, knowing full well that his feisty style of play can be an asset whether or not the puck is going in. But he’s hoping for even bigger and better things in his sophomore season. And as for the playoffs, well, it can only get better.
“It was definitely a learning experience, learning that you can have one of the best seasons in team history and when you come to the playoffs, it’s a different game,” Hartman said. “It’s about learning — can’t say it enough — from all my experiences and taking this season by storm.”
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