Blackhawks still waiting for Philipp Kurashev to show what he could be

Philipp Kurashev knows he fits best as a first- or second-line winger.

“Most of my life, I played on the top two lines,” Kurashev said Monday. “That’s where I’m trying to get to here at [the NHL] level, too. I’m going to work my hardest to try to get there.”

Blackhawks interim coach Derek King knows that, too.

“He’s got to be a top-six player, if you’re in a perfect world,” King said Monday.

But the challenge, for both Kurashev and the Hawks, has been first justifying putting him in a top-six role and then receiving the necessary production and performance to justify keeping him there.

As Kurashev, still just 22 years old, nears the end of his second season as a basically full-time NHL forward, that confluence of events has yet to occur.

“The work part of it — the consistency of the work ethic — [has been] his struggle,” King added. “He’d give you a couple good games, and then he’d fade away. So you’d put him on the bottom line, hoping he learns to work well without the puck.”

That cycle of Kurashev slotting into a big role, then a depth role, then being healthy-scratched, has happened over and over this season.

He nonetheless keeps restarting that cycle, rather than falling into permanent irrelevance, because he occasionally shows flashes of dynamic talent with the puck on his stick.

Memories of his Connor McDavid-style wondergoal in February 2021 in Detroit resurface whenever he dangles past a defenseman or makes a zone entry look easy or perfectly reads a developing offensive play –and he does those things just often enough to stay interesting.

Taken on the whole, however, Kurashev’s body of work doesn’t stand out. He ranks ninth on the Hawks with 18 points (six goals and 12 assists) in 59 games — a nearly identical scoring pace to last season, when he tallied 16 points in 54 games.

He ranks 18th (as in, fourth-worst) on the team with a 42.0% even-strength scoring-chance ratio. He also falls below league average in terms of dump-in retrievals, carry-ins with possession, shot attempts, shot attempt assists and just about every other advanced stat, per All Three Zones.

“Overall [I need to work on my] consistency,” he said. “Every time you’re in, you’ve got to do positive things for the team. That’s a hard thing, but that’s what I’m trying to do.”

He’s a pending restricted free agent and said he “of course” wants to earn a new contract. The Hawks will probably try to bring him back at another cheap salary, but they’ll surely wish –when they enter negotiations –they had clearer idea of what Kurashev currently is and what he could eventually become.

Perhaps this season’s final 11 games will provide a glimpse. After two consecutive games out of the lineup, Kurashev was thrust Sunday directly onto a new first line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, of all people. It sounds like he’ll stay there Tuesday against the Kings and beyond, too.

“Coming [into] the last 11, it was like, ‘OK, if certain guys are going to be in the lineup, they’ve got to play in the spot that we think they may be able to play,'” King explained. “And that’s where we think he may be able to play: the top six.

“He’s a creative guy. He has some skill. He has some hockey sense. But it’s just the working part he has to get. Hopefully all those practices, not playing, getting bag-skated or being on the third and fourth line –during games when he is in –helps him now.”

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