SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A common refrain in the wake of the Blackhawks’ first-round playoff face-plant against the Predators was that they needed to be ‘‘harder to play against.’’ The suddenly faster and more ferocious Predators had their way with the Hawks, sometimes skating circles around them and often skating right through them. The Hawks barely put up a fight.
General manager Stan Bowman had that in mind when he added gritty veterans Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma to an already-crowded competition for fourth-line spots in the Hawks’ lineup. And with at least eight of the top nine forward spots basically etched in stone, the competition to be Tanner Kero’s wingers on the fourth line is one of the few real battles in camp.
‘‘There’s probably about six or seven guys in that same [boat], fighting to stay here or to be here,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said.
So Quenneville has to decide what ‘‘harder to play against’’ means. Does it mean the Hawks need to be more physical, more gritty? If so, then Wingels, Bouma and Jordin Tootoo are going to get a lot of playing time. Does it mean being faster and more tenacious offensively? Then Tomas Jurco should get a longer look, and Vinnie Hinostroza shouldn’t be skating with the extras at nearly every practice. Or does it mean bringing a combination of skill and grit? Because then John Hayden is a no-brainer.
No matter how it plays, the fourth line has to be competent enough to play significant minutes in significant games. The Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015 with a true four-line rotation. That depth hasn’t been there the last two seasons.
‘‘The biggest thing is to just be hard on the puck, hard on the forecheck and make the other team’s life miserable out there,’’ Bouma said. ‘‘Obviously, you want to put pucks in the net, too. But when you play that hard style of game and grind them down, that’s where you get your opportunities — when they get tired and are maybe thinking twice about making a play or hanging on to the puck for a second longer.’’
Because of the crowded field, even the veterans on one-way contracts think they’re in a heated competition, especially with Hayden and Hinostroza having particularly impressive camps so far and Alex DeBrincat making a surprisingly strong case for a spot among the top nine.
‘‘It’s very competitive, as it should be every year,’’ Wingels said.
Quenneville always says the players determine these competitions with their performances, but business decisions might get in the way of hockey decisions. There are only four or five spots for Hayden, Jurco, Tootoo, Wingels, Bouma and Hinostroza. Perhaps even fewer if DeBrincat makes the team.
Hayden and Hinostroza don’t have to clear waivers to go to Rockford; the four veterans do. That doesn’t make them uncuttable, but the Hawks didn’t sign Bouma to a $1 million, one-way contract not to play him. Same with Wingels and his $750,000 deal. And they didn’t protect Jurco in the expansion draft and then re-sign him just to let another team claim him.
‘‘We talk about it, but we don’t want to make decisions based on how much money you make or where you’re from or how old you are,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘Your performance is going to dictate that. But there is that asterisk there, where business decisions could be in the mix.’’
Of course, Quenneville’s business is ‘‘the winning business,’’ as he likes to say. And as recent history has shown, the makeup of that fourth line might go a long way toward determining how successful the Hawks are.
‘‘When you look at how they won the Cup a few years ago, their bottom-six guys were a lot grittier, and that’s what’s great about the playoffs,’’ Tootoo said. ‘‘It’s ultimately mind over matter and which of the guys are willing to do what it takes. That’s what we need.’’
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