Rozner: Chicago Blackhawks youth will be served next season

  • Chicago Blackhawks center Nick Schmaltz, celebrating after scoring a goal against the Colorado Avalanche in January, is one of the young players the team will have to count on heavily in the future.

    Chicago Blackhawks center Nick Schmaltz, celebrating after scoring a goal against the Colorado Avalanche in January, is one of the young players the team will have to count on heavily in the future. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 6/26/2017 7:32 PM

In a perfect world, Rocky Wirtz would have had the freedom to spend as much as he wanted to keep the Chicago Blackhawks together this decade.

It's easy to imagine -- in an NHL without a hard cap -- the Hawks winning five or six Stanley Cups, instead of three to this point.

 

But the Hawks don't live in that world.

It was Gary Bettman's dream to have good teams constantly losing good players so that parity can rule throughout the land, and it has happened just the way he hoped.

It means the Hawks have no choice but to add youth and give those players significant roles, something the Penguins have done so well that it's returned them to the Promised Land with back-to-back titles.

It's not as if the Hawks haven't given kids chances. They just haven't committed to them -- especially on defense.

Now they must.

"If we go back 15 years ago, it was really uncommon for a player to come right to the NHL as an 18- or 19-year-old," said GM Stan Bowman. "You had to have one or two years in the American League and earn your stripes.

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"But that whole script changed with the salary cap."

The Hawks have been able to find low-priced veteran options to fill a lot of those roles, but they are past the point of using kids at the bottom of the roster.

Pittsburgh put them in key roles, and those young guys were a huge part of these last two Cups.

"A lot of teams need to have those guys jump into the lineup right away, so maybe they've been more open-minded to giving these guys a chance," Bowman said. "You have to balance patience with opportunity, and sometimes you have a very specific need that maybe a young guy is able to fill earlier than predicted."

The Hawks have a number of young players who will have to put the puck in the net this year. On defense -- where they've been reluctant to allow young players to contribute -- they will certainly have major roles in 2017-18.

It helps that new assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson has experience with young players, but the final decision still rests with head coach Joel Quenneville, who has always had veterans to rely on.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It often appeared as if he was choosing experience over youth. There's plenty of evidence to back up that criticism, but in his mind Quenneville was probably choosing reliability on a veteran team expected to win immediately over potential upside.

"We were young last year," Quenneville said. "We had a number of guys come in to play their first NHL games. We saw a lot of that over the course of the year with a lot of teams.

"The game is getting faster and the young guys seem like they're not only just coming into the league, but they're making an impact.

"We're going to need our young guys to make a contribution."

It means that Nick Schmaltz can't get buried in the first period of a playoff series for making a single mistake.

It means that defensemen like Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny can't disappear for weeks or months at a time.

It means Connor Murphy will need time to adjust, not time on the bench.

Not that he was asked specifically, but Quenneville volunteered that he's not opposed to a younger-looking roster.

"There will be some new guys. We'll see how they do in camp," Quenneville said. "I don't mind young guys at all. We look forward to working with them."

The truth is the Hawks have no choice anymore. Young equals cheap, and cheap will have to help the Hawks get to where they want to go.

"It's probably just more of an open mind toward young players if they can help you win," Bowman said. "You don't really care about their age anymore."

The Hawks simply can't afford another way.

brozner@dailyherald.com

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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