The Chicago Blackhawks, barring injury, have a roster full of stability and depth, especially at the forward position. Making his season debut Saturday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning will be Blackhawks prospect and playoff veteran Ben Smith, who is looking to earn a spot on the roster after waiting in AHL Rockford.
Smith has improved his game dramatically since debuting and scoring three unlikely playoff goals for the team that, at the time, was attempting to defend its Stanley Cup title. Since being relegated to the AHL, Smith has put on a show alongside Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Hayes and Jeremy Morin.
While Hayes started the season and occupied Smith’s spot, Smith will be vying for time not only with Hayes or the waiting Morin, but with surprise starter Joakim Nordstrom as well.
Smith is a chippy, albeit not overly large player. Fourth-liner Brandon Bollig has solidified himself as a legitimate NHL talent, and the goal is for Marcus Kruger to center the fourth line all year long. That leaves only two paths into the NHL permanently.
The first would be through poor play from Hayes or an injury which would cause Smith to step up to the third line, where he would likely be a more rough hitter to counter the pestering Andrew Shaw. This is entirely possible, but Hayes has a lot riding on this year, and his large frame is an asset Smith simply does not possess.
The more likely option is to rely on either injury or poor play through Nordstrom. Nordstrom impressed in camp, but reports from practice indicate that his size (around 160 pounds) is a hindrance when battling for the puck. Despite this, he is seeing time on an aggressive penalty kill, and his role there alongside Kruger will determine his NHL fate for now.
The decisions were made after camp by coach Joel Quenneville, and Smith was one of the odd men out. Hungry for an opportunity, there are many who believe Smith’s time is now, and so far the coaches will give him a timeshare with Hayes based on matchup. Expect Smith to be even more aggressive than normal, as his play this season will drastically determine his NHL future.
Follow Mike Guzman on Twitter @Mike486