OH MAMA, DON’T YOU CRY! USA HOCKEY IS DO OR DIE!
Sorry, I’m still coming down off the adrenaline rush of Team USA’s World Junior Championships Gold Medal performance last night. It’s been a while since I’ve had a true rooting interest in a team with a legitimate chance of having championship success on the ice.
Last night’s Gold Medal showdown between the plucky United States and the powerhouse Canadians was so fun to watch. The action was end-to-end exciting and the surprise of the USA victory was thrilling (even the fake crowd felt almost real to the atmosphere of a tense, hostile Canadian crowd living and dying on every pass, shot, and bounce of the puck as their boys fought to claim World Juniors Gold).
I loved every minute of it.
It reminded me of when the Blackhawks were consistently playing meaningful games and we would invest years of our life to stay up past midnight (and later) to watch overtime playoff hockey. It also reminded me of what fun, youthful hockey is all about. Growing a bond that will last a lifetime and leaving a little piece of you on the ice when it’s all said and done.
Watching the World Juniors, you see the unfiltered passion and character of these players. The NHL stars of tomorrow, before the culture of hockey beats the personality out of them and we churn these players into cliché-spewing robots.
But I believe it’s that unfiltered passion of a youthful hockey star trying to excel on the highest stage that is getting into the minds and bodies of the Chicago Blackhawks. Their hand has been forced into playing younger players, guys who more than likely would not have had the opportunity to play at the NHL level had it not been for the injuries the Blackhawks have dealt with prior to training camp.
Two stalwarts of the Blackhawks roster (and two future first-ballot Hall of Famers), Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are the focus of a number of “rumors” and hypothetical trades among Blackhawks fans and pundits. So understanding their mentality heading into a season that feels already lost is important for the fans and the organization.
Fortunately, they sound genuinely excited for the opportunity to play with the new, young players that Chicago is going to be playing maybe a bit ahead of schedule. Kane spoke after Monday’s training camp session and sounded eager to prove doubters wrong.
“We have a lot of guys that work hard. We have a lot guys that are competing for a job that will follow a team structure. Hopefully we can make the most of this season.”
“As a player, you want to win now. You want to compete now, and I think we can do that with this group. I think we can surprise some people and put together a good team game.” Kane said following day one of camp. “We have a lot of guys that work hard. We have a lot guys that are competing for a job that will follow a team structure. Hopefully we can make the most of this season.”
For Keith, a more surly bloke and never someone to hold anything back when he gets the opportunity to speak his mind with the media, it was refreshing to hear his own optimism for the 2021 season.
"I think you can learn from anybody."
Perennial student of the game Duncan Keith says he's happy to help Chicago's young defenseman along and is eager to learn from them, too. #Blackhawks
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) January 5, 2021
It would be easy for the veteran blue-liner to dismiss this year and look for greener pastures. Although Chicago has been his home for the better part of 15 years, Keith could easily fit into any NHL lineup and would be justified trying to find a contender and get one last real chance at winning a Stanley Cup. But it sounds as if he is invested in continuing his career in Chicago and being a mentor to the next generation of Blackhawks players, while still playing at a high level.
One interesting sound bite that came from Blackhawks camp on Tuesday came from defenseman Connor Murphy.
It's only Day 2 of Training Camp and Connor Murphy says he's already impressed with rookies Ian Mitchell and Wyatt Kalynuk. #Blackhawks
— Chicago Blackhawks (@NHLBlackhawks) January 5, 2021
When asked about defensive prospect Ian Mitchell, Murphy casually also brought up Wyatt Kalynuk, another defensive prospect making headway in camp. A veteran of 444 NHL games, Murphy knows what it takes to succeed and stick in the NHL. For Murphy to throw in Kalynuk, when all eyes and ears are on Mitchell shows that the opportunities to impress reach across the board, not just to one or two prospects.
While Mitchell is the key figure at training camp as far as prospects go, I’ll leave you with a few names to also keep in mind as the Blackhawks look to fill out their lineup in the next week.
• Philipp Kurashev – Could have made his way into the NHL last season had he not been injured in the AHL. Good offensive generator, improved defensively.
• Wyatt Kalynuk – Fantastic skater, moves the puck really well. Part of the Cool Kids Club™ with Ian Mitchell.
• Brandon Hagel – High energy forward has demonstrated a decent scoring ability in the AHL. Possibly the first forward prospect to get a crack at the regular lineup.
• Andrei Altybarmakyan – Matured his game in the Russian KHL over the past three seasons. Solid two-way option that could fit into a bottom-six role for the Blackhawks this season, if given the opportunity.
• Pius Suter – Won the Swiss National League MVP honors last season and led the league in goals (30) and points (53). He’ll for sure be on the opening night roster. Skilled playmaker with a good scoring touch as demonstrated in Europe.
• Lucas Carlsson – Another fluid puck-moving defenseman who can create in the offensive zone. His defensive responsibilities still need improvement, but he took a big leap late last season.
• MacKenzie Entwistle – Hard-working kid with a large frame. He’s a good two-way option for the Blackhawks and knows the role that will get him into the NHL. Has decent scoring and playmaking ability for the AHL level.
The cupboards are far from bare when it comes to the Blackhawks prospects. With the expanded rosters this season and the amount of lineup spots that are up for grabs, this is the time for these young players to make the most of their NHL opportunities.