ANAHEIM, Calif. — Some NHL wingers can play either side almost interchangeably.
Until this season, Blackhawks forward MacKenzie Entwistle wasn’t one of them. A right-handed shot, he only had played right wing and a little bit of center; he never truly had played left wing.
But Hawks coach Luke Richardson has changed that recently, slotting Entwistle at left wing on the third line. As it turns out, he enjoys it.
”Skating through the neutral zone, everything is now on your backhand,” Entwistle said Friday. ”But it’s nice getting into the zone. You can open your body up, and everything is a one-timer.”
Added Richardson: ”It’s a tough spot for a big, lanky guy to play on his off-wing. There are a lot of pucks in your feet. . . . But he’s versatile. For a coach, a utility player is great to have on your team. And he’s a bright-eyed young kid. He’s always listening, learning and trying to put that into his game.”
As a lefty on the right side, Patrick Kane has spent his whole career playing on his off-wing. So Entwistle — even as a much different style of forward — has studied Kane’s tendencies and talked with him about the adjustment.
Regular linemates Jason Dickinson and Sam Lafferty also have helped Entwistle, although Dickinson missed the Hawks’ game Saturday against the Ducks with an illness and was replaced on the line by Boris Katchouk.
Entwistle’s biggest adjustment has been in the defensive zone. When he picks up pucks along the boards while facing his own net, he now does so on his forehand rather than on his backhand. That makes it easier for him to identify and make a play to orchestrate a breakout.
”Being able to look around your left shoulder is a little easier than, when your body is on your backhand, looking across and seeing what’s coming down your right side,” Entwistle said. ”Most [defensemen] pinch down, so it’s a tough play, trying to pick it up on your backhand and trying to make a play to the middle or a play out.”
In addition to the wing switch, Entwistle has taken on power-play duties this season for the first time in his career. He has averaged 1 minute, 54 seconds of power-play ice time per game on the second unit after previously receiving less than five total minutes of power-play time in his first two NHL seasons.
In those situations — and in general during attacking shifts — he’s working on holding on to pucks longer down low, taking advantage of the extra eight pounds (boosting his weight to 200) he added to his 6-3 frame during the offseason.
That’s all part of Entwistle’s plan to repurpose himself gradually into a middle-six, two-way threat rather than purely a bottom-six grinder. He mentioned Lightning forward Alex Killorn as a best-case comparison during training camp.
”Killorn [is] a guy with a bigger frame that can move,” Entwistle said. ”He protects the puck so well, takes pucks to the net. . . . That’s something I definitely want to be. Whether I get to that point or not, ultimately that’s going to be up to me. But it’s definitely attainable.”
So far this season, there’s not much in the numbers to suggest a Killorn-esque breakout is imminent. Entwistle entered the game Saturday with two points — both assists — in 13 games while producing the fewest individual scoring chances per minute among Hawks forwards at five-on-five.
He is only 23, however, and clearly is motivated to improve.
”He’s a guy we can count on for pretty much anything,” Richardson said. ”So we hope he just keeps building his game.”