Hours after the Blackhawks acquired Vinnie Hinostroza on Friday, news that Philipp Kurashev had been demoted to the taxi squad briefly ignited confusion on Twitter.
It turned out to be a false alarm — it was simply a paper move. Kurashev was added back to the active roster for Saturday’s game against the Predators, and coach Jeremy Colliton insisted Hinostroza’s addition wouldn’t block any prospects like Kurashev from getting steady NHL starts.
But the initial news was believable because Kurashev, 21, has fallen off significantly in recent weeks.
“We haven’t played him as much lately,” Colliton admitted. “He had an outstanding stretch, and then consistency is part of the equation with a lot of guys in their first season in the league. We’re trying to help him find that [higher] minimum level.”
The Swiss rookie forward, in his first 31 games this year, tallied seven goals — including a Goal of the Year-candidate beauty Feb. 17 against the Red Wings — and five assists while averaging 12 minutes per game. He wasn’t a superstar, but his offensive creativity, quickness and agility added a dynamic element to the Hawks’ top nine.
But Kurashev has now gone without a point in seven consecutive games, and even beyond the box scores hasn’t generated much at all.
He has taken only four even-strength shot attempts, getting only two on goal, over the last six games. He has gone five straight games without an even-strength scoring chance. There have been occasional moments where his skill has resurfaced — a quick move around a defender, a well-crafted pass — but they’ve been rare and fruitless.
While fellow rookie Brandon Hagel chugs along with maximum-effort outings every day and Pius Suter cashes in on a steady diet of rebounds and retrievals, Kurashev has turned invisible — even though he’s the best of the three of them when the puck is actually on his stick and therefore arguably has the highest potential ceiling.
“In every game, he teases you with the upside that he has,” Colliton said. “What we’re hoping to get from him is the pace and the tempo every shift, and just awareness…to be on the defensive side [of opposing players] and get through hands to win battles and help move pucks ahead. If he does that, he’s going to be an extremely effective player.”
Kurashev echoed Colliton during an interview late last month that keeping his performance steady has been a challenge.
“For me, the biggest thing is consistency,” he said March 25. “We play so many games so it’s hard to always be at your best, but I’m just trying to get better every day as much as possible. The goal for this year is to keep improving.”
Kurashev’s playing time had dipped recently in accordance with his declining play. He averaged 10:09 of ice time over a six-game span and played only 8:13 on Thursday against the Hurricanes.
But Colliton gave Kurashev a vote of confidence Saturday, elevating him to the second-line center role in a big depth chart shakeup and giving him 14:33 of ice time. Kurashev is now back at his preferred center position, where he believes his “pretty good vision” is more efficient and allows him to “use my teammates a little bit more.”
Colliton had success earlier this year elevating, rather than demoting, Kurashev when his play dipped. He did it Jan. 31 against the Blue Jackets and Kurashev, on a line with Patrick Kane, turned in two points in a 3-1 win.
The hope is the same maneuver to jumpstart Kurashev will work again this April.
“I believe in him a lot,” Colliton said. “He can really help us if he can find a step above the current level he’s at.”