LOS ANGELES — In the Blackhawks’ first nine games after they signed rookie defenseman Alex Vlasic on March 16, he played only three times and averaged just 7 minutes, 1 second of ice time.
But in the Hawks’ last eight games, he has become a regular in the lineup. He has played in all eight, averaging 15:11 of ice time.
”It has been a whirlwind for me, but I’m getting more and more comfortable as the games go on,” Vlasic said Wednesday. ”We play against some of the best teams. Playing against Calgary, that top line was crazy to play against. You get a sense of how good players really are in the NHL.”
In the final weeks of this hopeless season, the Hawks have — to their credit — finally made more use of their NHL roster spots to develop a few prospects.
Vlasic and fellow rookie defenseman Alec Regula technically have made up half of the Hawks’ top two defensive pairs for six consecutive games, with Vlasic paired with Seth Jones and Regula with Jake McCabe.
Although Jones and McCabe have played quite a bit more than their younger counterparts — Regula has averaged 18:41 of ice time during his six games — the rookies have learned from being tossed headfirst into the fire.
”[Regula] just continues to get better and better, and Vlasic [does], too,” interim coach Derek King said Monday. ”I’ve got no problems with them on the ice. I’m not turning my head when they get the puck. They’re doing well, they’re working hard and it’s good to see.”
Added Regula: ”You always want to play as much as possible. It’s definitely a different animal up here . . . so getting to feel it out a little bit is nice.”
In the last seven games entering Thursday, Vlasic led Hawks defensemen in (even-strength) scoring-chance ratio at 54.8% and Regula ranked third at 51.4%. They were the only two Hawks defensemen with high-danger scoring-chance ratios above 50%. Thursday’s game against the Kings went poorly, but that was the case for the whole team.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
They also each notched their first NHL goals this week. Regula caught Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom off-guard with a shot from the point Monday, then Vlasic benefitted from his shot from the point deflecting off Coyotes forward Nick Schmaltz’s skate during the second period Wednesday.
Schmaltz exacted revenge a period later, however, intercepting a risky pass by Vlasic during four-on-four play and promptly converting it into the tying goal.
It was a bad mistake. Vlasic later admitted he should’ve cleared the puck ”up the wall instead of up the middle.” But with the Hawks eventually winning in overtime, the lesson he learned about the fleeting nature of glory in the NHL — and the need to stay focused at all times — might end up being a positive.
”That’s the thing: He played such a good game, but . . . we’re talking about the turnover, right?” King said after the game. ”This is the stuff he’ll learn as he gets more mature and becomes better and better and gets more games under his belt. But he was probably one of [our best], if not our best, defensemen on the ice tonight.”
Vlasic’s and Regula’s spots aren’t guaranteed to last forever. They’ll compete against an array of defensive prospects in training camp in the fall, some of whom — such as Ian Mitchell, Wyatt Kalynuk and Nicolas Beaudin — will boast more NHL experience, and only a few will earn immediate NHL roles.
That is a problem for next season, though. Right now, their presences are two of the most encouraging parts of a bleak April.
Vlasic singled out Jones, who has given him lots of advice while sitting on the bench without ”being negative at all,” and forward Tyler Johnson, whom Vlasic worked out alongside during his first few weeks, as two veterans he has learned most from. He might glean even more over dinner Friday in San Jose, California, with Sharks veteran Marc-Edouard Vlasic, his cousin.
And when asked what lesson has had the most impact on him, Vlasic tied his answer into his roller-coaster performance Wednesday against the Coyotes: ”Not letting mistakes hold you back.”
”I try not to let [them] affect me, but [I] just learn from things I’m doing wrong and hopefully continue doing the things I’ve been doing right,” he said. ”There are going to be players that are better than you in this league; it’s the best league in the world. Being able to learn from those mistakes — and hopefully keep those to a minimum — has helped me a lot.”