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Blackhawks role players sacrifice points for glory

Antoine Vermette was a top-line center in Arizona; he’s been a third-liner in Chicago. Brad Richards was a top-line center nearly his whole career; he’s a second-liner in Chicago. Kris Versteeg was a top-line winger in Florida; he’s been a healthy scratch for much of the postseason. Patrick Sharp was the Blackhawks’ leading scorer just last year; he’s been a third-liner for most of the season. Andrew Shaw scored 20 goals last season as a center; he’s been a checking-line winger for months now.

On another team, maybe Marcus Kruger has a more offensive role. On another team, maybe Teuvo Teravainen is playing 20 minutes a night already. On nearly any other team, any of these guys might have bigger roles, more minutes, higher point totals.

But on nearly any other team, they wouldn’t be playing in mid-June. They wouldn’t be on the verge of a Stanley Cup.

“We, not me” is the ultimate sports cliché. But with guys like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa in the way, if you want to play in Chicago, if you want to contend every season, it’s just the way it is.

“Me and [Vermette and Richards] have talked quite a bit about how it’s a different role when you come here and play,” Versteeg said after Saturday’s 2-1 victory set the stage for a potential Cup-clinching Game 6 at the United Center on Monday night. “You’ve got to understand that. You’ve got to understand the situation you’re in. You might not be where you’d be on other teams. You’ve got to play the best with the ice time you’re given and try to contribute.”

Versteeg knows this well. After winning the Stanley Cup with the Hawks in 2010, his second full season in the NHL, he played a prominent role in Toronto, Philadelphia and Florida. When he came back to the Hawks in November of 2013, he found himself bouncing around from the top line to the fourth line, on and off the power play, in and out of the penalty kill. Whatever role he got, he never complained. In November of this season, he was one of the most prolific players in the league, with six goals and 13 assists in a 14-game span. But he was a healthy scratch for the entire second round, and six of seven games in the third round, before getting another chance in the Stanley Cup Final, replacing an injured and ineffective Bryan Bickell.

In Game 5, he was the best forward on the ice, his big rush leading to Vermette’s game-winning goal for the reconfigured third line.

“We’ve got a lot of depth on our team, and a lot of guys that have played some pretty good hockey in their careers, like [Vermette],” Versteeg said. “And [Teuvo] Teravainen is on the rise. It was exciting to be part of that line [Saturday], and hopefully we can keep it going.”

For Vermette, it was harder to accept at first. He was the biggest rental forward available at the trade deadline, and the Hawks gave up a first-round pick and prospect Klas Dahlbeck to get him. Then Joel Quenneville promptly moved him to wing and played him 12 to 15 minutes a night. Vermette didn’t score a single goal in 19 regular-season games. He was even a healthy scratch in Game 3 of the Western Conference final. The next game, he scored the game-winner in double-overtime against Anaheim. He had the game-winner in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Then he had another Saturday night in Game 5.

“In the beginning, he tried to understand the system,” Hossa said. “I think after some time, he got the role and he grew in that role unbelievably, and he’s scoring huge goals for us. I’m feeling great for him.”

The Hawks are deeper that most, and they play a structured, defense-first system that’s particularly demanding of centers. It just took time to adjust.

“Vermy was a top guy in Phoenix, he played top minutes,” Versteeg said. “And when you come here, it’s an adjustment. Your minutes are going to be cut down, and you’ve got to adjust to the system and adjust to a different playing style and the different minutes you’re playing.”

Even Sharp, who was the Hawks’ most consistently productive forward in their previous two Stanley Cup runs, has had to sacrifice this spring. His goal in Game 5 was his first in 41 days, since Game 2 against Minnesota. The guy who goes by the name “Shooter” spent most of the postseason as the defensive muscle on a line with Vermette and Teravainen, until he was finally reunited with Toews and Hossa during the Final.

For a veteran with 43 career playoff goals, it could have been frustrating. He could have raised a stink about it. But if Sharp was bitter about his altered role, he never showed it.

Because scoring goals is fun. Playing a lot of minutes is fun, too. But winning is more fun than anything else.

“You hear Joel say all the time, ‘We don’t care where the goals come from,’” Sharp said. “That’s an honest quote. … Whatever my role is on the team, I’m just going to try to do it the best I can.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com
Twitter: @marklazerus