Jordan Oesterle, Michal Kempny trying to force Joel Quenneville’s hand
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The first time Jordan Oesterle and Michal Kempny watched a game together from the press box, both of them healthy scratches on Nov. 9 in Philadelphia, they picked each other’s brains a bit. They watched experienced guys like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and tried to figure out how to incorporate some of their styles into their own games. They took advantage of the bird’s-eye view to get a better feel for the Blackhawks’ defensive systems.
By the 13th game they watched together from the press box, it was mostly silence.
“The longer it got, the less we had to talk about,” Oesterle said with a laugh.
But hockey’s a fickle game. Complete afterthoughts for more than a month, Oesterle and Kempny suddenly have staked their claim to regular spots in the lineup in light of injuries to Jan Rutta and Cody Franson. Oesterle has played in four straight games, fitting in nicely on the top pairing with Keith and on the power play. Kempny has played two straight games, scoring in Winnipeg, then having another strong game against Minnesota.
Joel Quenneville, always stingy with his praise, deemed Oesterle “really good.” And he dubbed Kempny’s game against the Jets “excellent.”
So where does that leave Rutta, the most pleasant surprise of the early season? And Franson, the veteran who helped solidify the back end? Well, it could mean they’ll be the two up in the press box Thursday in Dallas, through no fault of their own.
“That’s the NHL,” Quenneville said. “It’s a competitive business, a competitive team, and we have to make tough decisions like that on a night-to-night basis. It speaks volumes to our depth and it’s a good, healthy situation to be in.”
The Hawks have kept eight defensemen on the roster all season, an unusual decision triggered by the fear of losing Oesterle — an unproven but valuable commodity as a right-handed defenseman — on waivers if they tried to send him to the American Hockey League. That’s kept everyone other than Keith and Seabrook looking over their shoulders.
In fact, when Franson had to leave the game against the Sabres on Dec. 8 after a cross-check from behind, his first concern was if he had just lost his job. He even considered rushing back from injury before realizing that wasn’t feasible.
“That was my biggest worry, obviously, when I first got the injury,” Franson said. “That’s always a worry when you have an eight-man rotation like this, and guys that go in play really well. … That’s always a thought in the back of your mind. Hopefully, you’ve done enough to be able to put yourself in the situation where you go back in when you’re healthy.”
Franson has nearly a decade of NHL experience, and Rutta established himself as a solid shutdown defender in the first 31 games of the season. They’ll be fine. For Oesterle, confidence has been the concern.
“It’s a lot different than years past in Edmonton when I was getting called up to come play,” said Oesterle, who played 25 games with the Oilers over three seasons. “No matter how well I did, once the guy came back from injury, it was back to the American League. Just knowing that I made this team, and this coaching staff thinks I can play at this level, and being around the guys and learning from these guys has really given me that confidence.”
The competition is heated, but not awkward. Nobody’s rooting for their teammates to get injured. But two guys have to be in the press box every game, vainly trying to make idle chatter and make the most of a lousy situation.
The trick is to make sure it’s somebody else.
“Me and Michal, we’ve been in the press box the majority of the year, so we know what that tastes like,” Oesterle said. “And we don’t want to be back up there. We want to force their hand to keep us in there.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus