Young Blackhawks star DeBrincat flirts with 40-goal season

 
 
Updated 1/16/2019 6:08 PM
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  • Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat, front, is congratulated as he passes the team box after scoring a goal against the Colorado Avalanche in the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Denver.

    Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat, front, is congratulated as he passes the team box after scoring a goal against the Colorado Avalanche in the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Denver. Associated Press

When it comes to impressive achievements in the sports world, many pundits would point to a 4,500-yard season by a quarterback, 200 hits or 50 home runs by a baseball player or 2,000 points by an NBA star.

In hockey, anytime someone approaches 40 goals or 100 points, you better believe players, coaches and analysts all start taking notice.

And while almost 20 players are on pace for 40 goals in 2018-19, that milestone has only been accomplished 45 times over the previous 10 seasons, with Washington's Alex Ovechkin doing the honors six times by himself.

There's a long way to go this season, but the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat both have a legitimate chance to pull off this feat. Kane's done it once before, when he cranked out 46 during his 2015-16 MVP campaign.

But not many expected so much so soon from DeBrincat.

After all, it was just 16 months ago when we wondered if the 5-foot-7 Michigan native might be better off starting his career in the minors with the Rockford IceHogs.

Instead, he led the Hawks with 28 goals, then stayed in Chicago last off-season to work with head trainer Paul Goodman.

The results are showing in a big way as DeBrincat has 23 goals and is on pace for 39.

"He's got a big heart. He's a good kid," Duncan Keith said in September. "He's a good guy and a good teammate. He cares and he works hard. There's a reason he scored so many goals in junior and he's had success early on in his career. That's not a coincidence."

Said Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt: "You can't really compare anybody to Kane, but he's got a lot of similar tendencies. … You can see his maturity the last year and a half has grown immensely."

His game has grown as well.

Last season, DeBrincat was often content to find open areas on the ice so he could take advantage of a shot that is extremely accurate and deceptively quick.

Now, the diminutive forward is so much more confident with the puck on his stick. He'll weave through traffic. Push the pace through the neutral zone. Fight hard in the corners. Take a hit to advance the puck deeper into the zone. Or make a slick pass to a teammate, as he did Monday night in New Jersey when he threaded the needle to Dominik Kahun in the first period. Kahun didn't score, but that feed was a perfect example of how DeBrincat is turning into a much more complete player.

"He's doing a really good job just moving his feet out there and having his head up with the puck, so he's making a lot of plays," said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. "That's the biggest improvement I've seen."

And his shot remains as lethal as ever.

It's a lot for defensemen to handle. Schmidt said he likes intimidating young players by getting in their faces until they prove themselves, but he doesn't use that tactic with DeBrincat anymore.

"I like to try and stay off him a little -- like at least a stick length and make sure he knows if he does turn, he's going to turn into my stick," Schmidt said. "(Guys like DeBrincat) can spin off you so well. "It's so hard to go in for hits nowadays because when you have players that are smaller, shifty and fast -- you go in sometimes and miss, and all of a sudden they're gone."

Much of DeBrincat's production of late has come on a supercharged power play that has scored in six straight games and is 14-for-40 over the last 13 contests. The chemistry between DeBrincat and Patrick Kane is a big factor in the top unit's success.

"Obviously that seam play's been working pretty well," said DeBrincat, who was stapled on the third line for much of the season but has earned a promotion to Toews' line the last three games. "We have a lot of different options that we can score on. Kaner's a threat by himself over there, too.

"It's tough for the other teams to defend if we're zipping it around. We're pretty confident right now and we look to keep going with it."

As confident as DeBrincat has become this season, he figures to keep scoring at fairly consistent rate. Can he hit 40 goals? We'll find out soon enough.

But no matter what happens, he's certainly opened plenty of eyes around the league and earned even more respect among his teammates.

"He keeps his life really simple," Toews said. "He's really committed to playing the game, to being a good player.

"With a lot of guys after (they) have a good first season, it's easy for them to expect the same the next year, and maybe their work ethic falls to the side. … I don't think you've seen any of that with Alex.

"He's definitely a mature kid and his priorities and his focus are all in the right place."

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