Why part of Blackhawks' struggle can be chalked up to growing pains
The list of problems plaguing the last-place Blackhawks is almost too painful for most fans to look at.
Corey Crawford's injured. The power play is pathetic. Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad aren't producing enough. Disappearing acts by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have left gaping holes in the 'O' zone.
Those are four huge reasons the Hawks may not make the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
But there's another problem as well -- too much youth and inexperience on the back end.
"There's going to be people that find out the hard way that (speed and youth are) not everything. You can't replace experience," veteran defenseman Cody Franson said after being assigned to Rockford two weeks ago. "Sometimes organizations … start changing a bunch of things and they put it in a bunch of young people's hands and there's growing pains that go with that."
One might see Franson's statement as sour grapes, but it's tough to ignore what has happened to the Hawks and their green 'D' corps.
"It's not an easy league," said Duncan Keith. "There's a lot of good players and it's tough every night."
Before Gustav Forsling was assigned to Rockford on Sunday, a whopping five defensemen had fewer than 80 games of NHL experience.
In the Central Division, only Minnesota has more than one defender who had played fewer than 120 games. The average of the Wild's other five defensemen? Try 481 games -- or the equivalent of six seasons.
What might seem odd to some is how badly Jan Rutta and Forsling have regressed after being trusted to shut down the opponents' top players for a while. To a veteran like Connor Murphy, though, it isn't all that surprising.
"Right when you come into the league, it seems to be easy just because you're playing on adrenaline," said Murphy, who played in his 300th game Monday. "You know you're going to make mistakes, but you're not thinking about them. As soon as you get over that hump, definitely everyone goes through challenges that you try to push through and overcome slumps."
Said Brent Seabrook, who has appeared in 969 games: "The NHL is a fast pace. It's a grind. You're playing every night, every other night. You've got to be prepared and until you go through it, it's sort of an eye-opener. So experience definitely helps."
And for some fairly obvious reasons such as:
• The longer you play in a team's system, the more comfortable you are.
• The more you face a team or individuals, the more prepared you are to stop their attack the next time.
• After a while you realize you can hold onto the puck a little longer. There's more time than you think.
• There's no reason to panic when your team falls behind 2-0 or 3-1; you always know a comeback is possible.
But when you're on the ice for 6 goals against -- as Rutta was Saturday against the Islanders -- it can make anybody second-guess himself. Rutta admitted afterward his confidence was shaken, and he ended up sitting out Monday's contest against Tampa Bay.
Eventually Rutta will get another chance and try to put that game behind him. Same goes for Forsling. Michal Kempny, Jordan Oesterle and Erik Gustafsson will go through tough times as well.
Focus on the next faceoff, the next rush, the next shot attempt. Forget any and all of the bad -- and the good -- that came before.
"You say it all the time -- it's got to be a short memory," Seabrook said.
The Hawks are 2-4-0 since Franson and his 550 games of experience were sent to Rockford. Whether or not that was the right move is obviously open for debate.
For now all Rutta, Kempny, Oesterle and Gustafsson can do is learn as quickly as they can and hope one day soon they will remember this rough stretch as one they learned from.
"It's easy to get down and feel bad for yourself and the team and to be (teed) off," Murphy said. "But it's about directing it in the right way. It's about working hard and working productively, and taking it out on the other team (once in a while) if you need to. …
"Then things end up clicking, you get the bounces and the next thing you know you look back on it and laugh and say, 'That (stunk), but we're better because of it.'"
Learning on the flyThe 22-19-6 Blackhawks have the most inexperienced group of defensemen in the Central Division.
Player GP Age
Brent Seabrook 969 32
Duncan Keith 960 34
Connor Murphy 300 24
Gustav Forsling* 79 21
Michal Kempny 72 27
Jordan Oesterle 47 25
Erik Gustafsson 43 25
Jan Rutta 39 27
* Currently in Rockford
Other teams:Winnipeg (28-13-7)
Josh Morrissey (131) and Ben Chiarot (194) have fewest games played; everyone else has at least 300.
Anthony Bitetto has played 87 games; every other D-man has 263 or more.
St. Louis (28-18-3)
Vince Dunn has been in 42 games, Joel Edmundson 185, Colton Parayko 209, Robert Bortuzzo 250; next three have 500-plus
Stars next closest to Hawks in inexperience with Julius Honka (40), Stephen Johns (120), Esa Lindell (125), Greg Pateryn (133) and Jamie Oleksiak (154).
Anton Lindholm has 42 games, but everyone else has at least 139
Gustav Olofsson (40) and Mike Reilly (77) under 100, but rest of team at 275-plus.
* Records through Monday