In the starkest, most binary of terms, Cody Franson’s demotion was Jordan Oesterle’s victory.
The two defensemen, the veteran Franson and the inexperienced Oesterle, essentially were battling over the past month to be Duncan Keith’s partner on the top pairing. And Oesterle, with his stellar play since Christmas — three goals and four assists in seven games while logging up to 25 minutes a night — won the battle, making Franson expendable.
But Oesterle’s satisfaction was bittersweet. It was Franson who spent most of the first month of the season in the press box with him. It was Franson who served as a sounding board for him as he learned the ins and outs of the Blackhawks defensive systems. It was Franson who became a friend and a confidante, often a commiserator.
“I obviously really like Franny,” Oesterle said. “I sat next to him in the locker room, and he was a big factor in keeping me above water when I was going through the early part of the season and not playing.”
Joel Quenneville really liked Franson, too. So did his teammates. But Oesterle’s play made the decision a no-brainer, and, in hindsight, made it clear why the Hawks were so reluctant to send him to Rockford earlier in the season and risk losing him on waivers.
The 25-year-old former Oilers prospect’s smooth skating and quick shot suddenly have made him the Hawks’ biggest offensive weapon on the back end. Oesterle has more goals in the past two weeks than Duncan Keith (zero) and Brent Seabrook (two) have had all season. Two of those three goals came against the Oilers, which Oesterle admitted made them “a little sweeter than just a couple of normal goals.”
Quenneville always says defensemen play better the more they play, and being a fixture in the lineup has suited Oesterle.
“I did that at the American League level the past couple of years,” said Oesterle, who had 32 points in 44 games last season for the Bakersfield Condors, and 25 points in 44 games the year before that. “I was just kind of waiting for it to transition to this level. Obviously, playing with Duncan and getting the minutes that I have been, it’s definitely given me more confidence to do more things with the puck and maybe be a little more creative than I was earlier in the season, when I was in a couple of games here and there.”
Oesterle’s emergence factored in Franson’s demotion to Rockford in another way, too. General manager Stan Bowman noted Oesterle’s success and saw a similar style in Erik Gustafsson’s game. So the Hawks recalled Gustafsson for the first time since the 2015-16 season, when he chipped in 14 assists in 41 games.
Like Franson did, Gustafsson will have a tough time cracking the lineup on a regular basis. But Bowman and Quenneville want to give the 25-year-old a chance.
“The one thing is just how encouraged we were with the way Jordan Oesterle’s played,” Bowman said. “He’s come in here and made a big difference. And his style of play is very similar to Erik. … It was less about Cody and more about just wanting to give Erik a chance.”
It’s only been a month, of course. But Oesterle has played in 14 straight games after being scratched for 25 of the first 29 games of the season. And no matter who the Hawks bring up to compete for a spot, whether it’s a veteran such as Franson or a fellow young guy such as Gustafsson, Oesterle is keeping a confident mind-set, determined to ensure nobody takes his job away again.
Franson taught him that.
“You’d rather not go through that,” Oesterle said of his prolonged benching. “But I think in the long term, it might help me in my career. I know what life is like as an extra defenseman, and I don’t want to be in that role ever again.”
NOTE: Anthony Duclair, who is expected to make his Hawks debut Friday against the Jets, will wear No. 91.
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