Blackhawks lose again to Panthers as focus shifts beyond this seasonon May 2, 2021 at 2:32 am

Jeremy Colliton will follow a “Goldilocks” principle as he increases ice time for Blackhawks young players in the 2021 season’s final games.

“You want to try and give them just the right amount,” the Hawks coach said. “Not too little, not too much.”

In the Hawks’ 5-4 loss to the Panthers on Saturday, that meant the usual candidates still led the team in ice time, but the distribution was more even across the board.

For example, a power play unit of Kirby Dach, Brandon Hagel, Philipp Kurashev, Vinnie Hinostroza and Wyatt Kalynuk — a group with three rookies and an average age of 22.4 — scored the Hawks’ third goal.

“We certainly want the young guys to get in those situations, but you don’t want them to be overwhelmed,” Colliton said. “We want to put them in a position to thrive… As they get more comfortable in the league and they’re able to better prepare themselves mentally, they can take more of a load.”

Despite the bright future, the Hawks continued to struggle with defensive assignments and fell to 1-4-1 in their last six games with just five left to play.

That stretch will be especially crucial for someone like Ian Mitchell, who remains a big part of the Hawks’ long-term plans but hasn’t had the rookie season he imagined.

Mitchell made just his third appearance since March 26, slotting into Nicolas Beaudin’s spot from Thursday. His loud voice and penchant for communication could be heard over the crowd of about 200 Hawks family and friends invited for the United Center’s soft reopening.

He’ll need a stronger sophomore year to begin living up to his elite prospect expectations, and the momentum toward that starts now.

“A lot of it is…to get his swagger back,” Colliton said. “It wasn’t unexpected that there was a drop-off [in his performance]. But sometimes when you go through that adversity, your confidence takes a hit. [He’s] getting back [to] being confident in himself and his ability to make plays.”

Adam Gaudette, another young player with a lot on the line in these meaningless games, continued to impress. The 24-year-old ex-Canuck forward now sports four points in his first three Hawks appearances after directly setting up Murphy and Alex DeBrincat’s second-period goals.

Zadorov wants to re-sign

Defenseman Nikita Zadorov, a pending restricted free agent — presenting arguably the most unpredictable, compelling decision of the Hawks’ offseason — would like to stay in Chicago.

“For sure, I would like to re-sign,” he said Saturday. “I like the organization, I like the team. We’re moving in the right direction with these guys up here… It’s really big for me to re-sign here and be part of it.”

What the Hawks decide to do with Zadorov will have heavy ramifications on who they protect in the expansion draft, what identity they try to build with their defense and what extra opportunities are available for young defensemen next season.

The 26-year-old Russian has been a lightning rod for criticism at times this season, but said Saturday he doesn’t pay attention to that and feels this year has been a “big step forward” for him.

“I’m averaging 19 minutes a night, and most of the year I’ve played with [Murphy] on the first ‘D’ pair, so it’s a huge step for me,” he said. “I take that responsibility as I have some ups and downs during the year. I’m playing well. [I have] also had some not-great games, but all of us make mistakes.”

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