With Blackhawks core fading, Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz & Co. need to step up

Even as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer this season, 20-year-old rookie Alex DeBrincat still was deferential to runner-up Patrick Kane.

“I know he could have shot a few more pucks. Thanks to him for that,” DeBrincat said. “I know he had two-on-ones where he opted to pass. He definitely could have scored a few more goals.”

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Kane played along.

Blackhawks rookie Alex DeBrincat (celebrating a goal against the Canadiens with teammate Patrick Sharp in October) led the Hawks with 28 goals this season. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)

“I let him win,” the 29-year-old Kane joked. “I was playing with [Patrick Sharp] the past couple of games, so I passed it every time. I give [DeBrincat] credit. He had a great season and did his job. And he should be proud of himself.”

Indeed he should. DeBrincat’s 28 goals this season marked the first time a player other than a three-time Stanley Cup winner has led the Hawks in goals since the vaunted core became a thing in 2009-10. That’s a modest distinction in the worst Hawks season of the Joel Quenneville era, but still the first tangible sign that a new era beckons. It’s about time the next generation takes a bigger step toward leading the Hawks to their next serious Cup contention instead of playing a supporting role.

With the glorious core fading — only Patrick Kane had an in-his-prime season in 2017-18 — the Hawks still have hope that Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook can have rejuvenated seasons in 2018-19 and Corey Crawford returns in top form. But unless they’re chugging from the Fountain of Youth, it’ll be up to DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz (21 goals, 52 points), Vinnie Hinostroza (seven goals, 25 points in 50 games) and other relative newcomers — including defensemen Connor Murphy, Jan Rutta, Erik Gustafsson and Jordan Oesterle — to take a giant leap toward leading roles on and off the ice. The Hawks no longer can afford to be a team with a veteran core supported by a group of deferential youngsters.

“We’ve got to find ways to bridge that gap,” Toews said, “and there should be no talking about young guys and old guys. Everyone’s in the same boat together. We all went through the season together, so we all have to build off that experience and improve on it.

“A big part of that is helping some of these young guys understand their own leadership capabilities and knowing that aside from your talent and offensive abilities, there’s so many things that guys can bring on and off the ice that’s going to make our team better. We’re going to be better for it.”

It will be a challenge, though. The leadership of the core group that became a hallmark of the three-Cup run is so strong that it can be an intimidating factor for the next group. When Toews became the third-youngest captain in NHL history at 20 in 2008, the longest-tenured Hawks were Jim Vandermeer (three-plus seasons) and Keith, Seabrook, Sharp and Rene Bourque (three seasons) — none of whom had won any Cups. Even with recent departures, players such as DeBrincat, Schmaltz and Hinostroza still are looking up at Keith, Seabrook, Toews, Kane and two-Cup winners Crawford and Brandon Saad.

“Those older guys you look up to so much,” Schmaltz said. “You don’t want to — I don’t want to say steal their show — but you respect those guys so much that they’ve done such a good job of leading and taking care of the young guys. But at a certain point, the younger guys coming up need to take a step in the leadership role. Whether it’s by leading with your play or saying a few things on the bench or in the locker room. As a young group, we can definitely step up and add some leadership.”