On a team where the captain is just 22 years old, it’s odd to distinguish anyone on the team as “young”. But with Jonathan Toews and the rest of the youthful members of the 2009-2010 squad that already tasted Stanley Cup glory, there’s certainly a group of guys on the team we can call youngsters.
It’s interesting to see a defending Cup champion use so many rookies throughout the season. Injuries led to the appearance of several guys with little to no NHL experience, with most of them leaving an impact with the club, whether they stuck around or bounced between Chicago and Rockford.
Obviously, the biggest name to emerge from the crop of rookies was goaltender Corey Crawford. Both he and Marty Turco were tasked with filling the big, Finnish shoes of Antti Niemi. The veteran Turco was unable to do so, with Crawford eventually breaking out to steal the starting gig.
After a couple of shaky outings, Crawford never looked back. He won 33 games for Chicago, and nearly won their first round series against Vancouver, with stellar performances in Games 6 and 7. Remembering the debacle in trying to retain Niemi last summer, the Hawks quickly rewarded their rookie netminder this summer. Set to become a restricted free agent, the Blackhawks made Crawford their goaltender for the foreseeable future, signing him to a three-year deal worth $8 million.
But the rookie success stories of ’10-’11 don’t end there. Nick Leddy was another guy who established himself as a Blackhawk with a rookie campagin that saw him improve steadily over the course of the season, which he spent shuffling back and forth between Chicago and Rockford.
With the preseason injury to Brian Campbell, Leddy got his shot on the blue line to start the season. He struggled early but flashed some major potential prior to being sent down after Campbell’s return. He would return, though, and while the kid still showed signs of being a rookie, his imprvoement was very evident. As he improved, Leddy eventually saw more time, including sharing a line with Duncan Keith for a stretch.
With not much shakeup expected on the Chicago blueline, Leddy is a sure bet to be in the lineup on opening night for the Blackhawks next season. Some feel he might have been better served with a full year in Rockford, but the extra experience at the NHL level, particularly in the postseason, should have benefitted the 20-year-old. Whatever the case, it certainly looks as if Chicago got a steal when they dealt Cam Barker to Minnesota to acquire Leddy.
A pair of guys that were called up late in the season also look like they’ll make a strong impact next season, the first of which is Ben Smith. Though he lacks ideal size, Smith is a little ball of energy, and saw time with the top lines in the first round against Vancouver. Almost fearless, Smith isn’t afraid to get physical, as his Game 6 overtime winner from down in the trenches showed us.
Though we saw less of Marcus Kruger, it appears he’s going to be a very solid center for a team desperately seeking help in the middle. In his short time in Chicago following the call from his Swedish club, Kruger showed good two-way ability, strong passing, and a terrific hockey IQ. He’s not sure bet to make the team out of camp, but it would be surprising to not see Kruger in a Blackhawks sweater on opening night.
There are certainly other young guys, such as Jeremy Morin and hot goaltending prospect Alexander Salak, primed to make an impact next year, but with the success of Crawford and Leddy, along with what we saw from Smith and Kruger, there is even more reason to be excited about the future of this Blackhawks team, something that was unheard of just a few years ago.