They’ll say otherwise, because they’re professionals and they have pride, but the last six games of the season don’t mean a heck of a lot to Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and the other veterans on the Blackhawks roster. They can’t — not after so many years of playoff pushes and Stanley Cup runs.
But these last two weeks mean a heck of a lot to Victor Ejdsell, who made his NHL debut Monday as the Hawks’ top-line center. They mean a heck of a lot to Dylan Sikura, who should make his NHL debut Thursday once his immigration paperwork is completed. They mean a heck of a lot to the likes of David Kampf and Matthew Highmore, Andreas Martinsen and Tomas Jurco, who are hoping to make a lasting impression that will lead to a job in the fall.
Therefore, they still mean a heck of a lot to Joel Quenneville, who is trying to figure out what his team might look like next season — assuming he’s here to see it.
“It’s good for the kids, as well — good experience,” Quenneville said. “They get some exposure, see the pace, the strength, the decision-making that goes on, and the time factor. That helps them prepare going into the following year.”
The Hawks’ lineup in Monday night’s 4-3 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks was stunningly young, especially considering how old they were when the season began. Of the 19 players who played in an opening-night 10-1 thrashing of the Penguins (remember that?), only 10 were in the lineup against the Sharks.
Erik Gustafsson just turned 26. Jordan Oesterle and Jurco are 25 (as are Brandon Saad and Connor Murphy). Vinnie Hinostroza, John Hayden and Kampf are 23, while Highmore, Ejdsell and Sikura are 22 (as is Nick Schmaltz). Then there’s 20-year-old Alex DeBrincat. Not to mention 21-year-old Gustav Forsling (in Rockford) and 22-year-old Anthony Duclair (injured).
Ejdsell had a solid start. He was on the ice for all three goals-against, but he had a couple of good scoring chances, positive possession numbers and was 6-of-11 in the faceoff circle.
“The stat sheet doesn’t look so hot, but I didn’t mind him at all,” Quenneville said. “I thought he had a lot of nice plays, good vision, good anticipation, a lot of direct plays and knew where people were around the ice.”
DeBrincat scored his 26th goal, Murphy celebrated his birthday with a goal, and Patrick Sharp tied the game with 2:22 left to salvage a point. Anton Forsberg made 35 saves, including a few spectacular ones in overtime, in his second straight strong performance.
Not all of these young players are guaranteed to be a big part of the future, of course. But they’re getting a chance this season that they normally wouldn’t, not in a typical playoff season. That’s the bright spot in an otherwise miserable campaign.
“Just try to be a sponge and try to learn from the older guys and the coaching staff,” Sikura said. “I can] get a little experience here and get my five games in, and hopefully learn as much as I can and come back next year.”
It’s been a whirlwind for Sikura and Ejdsell. Sikura’s senior season at Northeastern ended in heartbreak in the NCAA tournament on Saturday. He signed a two-year entry-level contract on Sunday and showed up to watch practice and meet the team on Monday.
Ejdsell, meanwhile, was acquired from the Predators in the Ryan Hartman trade on Feb. 26. Last week, he was assigned to Rockford after his season in Sweden ended. Four days later, he was called up by the Hawks as an emergency replacement for Hayden, who’s battling an upper-body injury.
“It’s been going so fast I haven’t thought about how crazy it is,” the 6-5, 214-pound Ejdsell said. “I’m super-excited to be here.”
That youthful enthusiasm and motivation can spill over to the more established guys who are playing out the string, too.
“As a group, we’ve done a really good job of integrating everybody and staying upbeat and trying to get better each and every day,” Highmore said. “That’s the No. 1 goal here, is to win every game and to get better and push each other and make headway.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus