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Blackhawks’ Alex DeBrincat rising to star level, eclipsing rookie season

It seems like Alex DeBrincat is always in the right spot for the Blackhawks. He has to be.

Muscling through the defense isn’t much of an option at 5-7, 165, and neither is banging around in front of the net. He needs to be quick and opportunistic, and he’s finding more ways to capitalize on those abilities in his second season as he grows into a premier scorer.

He sniped his 21st goal in the first period of Wednesday’s 4-3 overtime loss against the Predators, and it was classic DeBrincat — if that phrase can apply to a 21-year-old. As the defense drifted toward Patrick Kane on the right side, he zipped it to DeBrincat, who was camped out to his left waiting to fire home the one-timer.

It was almost identical to the one he buried against the Flames two nights earlier.

Alex DeBrincat shoots past Elias Lindholm #28 of the Calgary Flames at the United Center on Jan. 7. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“The big guys can fend off a few guys and still make a nice move at the net, but that’s not really my game,” said DeBrincat, one of the three shortest players in the NHL. “Maybe I’ll do it once or twice in a season. Just trying to find the soft areas is my game.”

He has been finding a lot of them lately. DeBrincat has seven goals and three assists in his last 10 games.

That run coincides with coach Jeremy Colliton shifting him from the second line with Kane to being the primary threat on the third line. Colliton views the forwards as a top nine rather than a top six and wants to allocate one fearsome scorer to each unit.

The move meant reduced ice time for DeBrincat, who had played 15:03 or less in four of the previous seven games, but Colliton sees that evening out as he improves. If DeBrincat keeps rising, the three lines would theoretically be treated as equals.

“We have tried to find a little balance in the lineup,” Colliton said at the morning skate. “As we get more depth — as we improve as a team, have more competition — hopefully we get to the point where we say, ‘Which is the third line? We don’t know what the third line is.’ He can be part of that.”

After all that dreaming, Colliton proceeded to stack the Jonathan Toews line by moving DeBrincat up with him and Dominik Kahun against Nashville.

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No matter where he plays, at 21 goals and 15 assists, DeBrincat is tracking toward better numbers than the 28 and 24 he put up as a rookie. He’s among the top 45 goal-scorers of the last three decades through their first 128 games. For context, Toews had 52 at that point, and Kane had 38.

Those are huge numbers for a guy who went No. 39 overall in the 2016 draft. The Hawks have had some personnel flops the last few years, but they hit the jackpot with DeBrincat.

He’s fourth in his class in goals, trailing a trio of top-six picks. DeBrincat ranks fifth in points (88), and he and New Jersey’s Jesper Bratt are the only non-first-rounders in the top 11 in that category.

The best part of it for the Hawks is DeBrincat’s approach, which suggests the hot start to his career isn’t an empty promise. His humility is genuine and serves him well. Just as he laughed off the possibility that he was entering the All-Star conversation this season, he came off that strong rookie year believing he had a lot more to prove.

“I think with a lot of guys that come out after their first season and have a good season, it’s easy for them to kind of expect the same the next year and maybe their work ethic falls to the side or whatever it may be,” Toews said. “But I don’t think you’ve seen any of that with Alex. He’s definitely a mature kid, and his priorities and his focus are all in the right place.”

Sun-Times staff writer Satchel Price contributed to this story.