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New-look Blackhawks have work to do

Young supporting cast struggles in season-opening loss to Blues

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

CHICAGO -- These are not the same Chicago Blackhawks. It struck you from their pregame introductions through their 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues in their regular-season opener at United Center on Wednesday.

One by one they skated on stage, the main lights low, the spotlights twirling, the LED lights blinking on the wristbands given to the 21,729 fans. They skated across the old logo at center ice, lined up on the blue line under the franchise's six Stanley Cup banners and listened to the thunderous U.S. national anthem.

There were the vaunted veterans of the 2010, 2013 and 2015 championship teams: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook. There were others who had earned a ring or two here: Corey Crawford, Brian Campbell, Marcus Kruger.

Then there were the rookies, six of them, four making their NHL debuts, none quite like Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft who set a modern record by scoring four goals in his debut for the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 5-4 overtime loss at the Ottawa Senators.

There were forwards Ryan Hartman, 22, and Vinnie Hinostroza, 22, who played mostly in the American Hockey League last season; forwards Tyler Motte, 21, and Nick Schmaltz, 20, who played in the NCAA; and defensemen Gustav Forsling, 20, who played in the Swedish Hockey League, and Michal Kempny, 26, who played in the Kontinental Hockey League.

The Blackhawks were outshot 34-19, including 20-11 at even strength, and the rookies didn't log a lot of ice time. Neither of the defensemen reached 19 minutes: Kempny at 18:44, Forsling at 15:29. Only one of the forwards reached nine minutes: Motte at 12:16, Schmaltz at 8:51, Hartman at 8:33, Hinostroza at 7:47.

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It wasn't all the rookies' fault. Special teams skewed things too; the Blackhawks went 1-for-4 on the power play and 2-for-5 on the penalty kill. None of the rookies played on the power play. Only Motte and Kempny played on the PK, and neither was on the ice for a power-play goal. The Blackhawks fell behind early in the third. Coach Joel Quenneville shortened his bench.

Defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk struggled on the top pair, taking two penalties. Forward Jordin Tootoo, a free-agent addition, struggled on the fourth line and essentially didn't play in the third, finishing at a team-low 4:26.

Two of the rookies gave the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead in the second, when Motte earned his first NHL point with an assist on Hartman's first NHL goal.

"I think everyone takes ownership for that effort," Toews said. "It starts with the guys who have experience, who know what's expected of our team. In that regard, we have to lead the way and set the tone, and we didn't do that well enough. I think everyone's responsible."

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But this underscored the challenge the Blackhawks face. After they won the Cup in 2010, they committed to their core and purged half the roster to stay under the salary cap. They rebuilt their supporting cast and won the Cup again in 2013, then reshuffled their supporting cast and won it again in 2015. Now they have to do something similar.

It might be even harder this time. Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, Crawford and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who finished serving a suspension for charging Wednesday, carry a salary-cap charge of $48.788 million combined. That's two-thirds of the $73 million cap. That leaves little room for the supporting cast. And that's a big reason why a third of the skaters were rookies Wednesday.

The veterans are going to have to stay healthy, carry the team and set the example for the rookies. Toews, Kane, Keith, Seabrook and Crawford need to play at an elite level. Hossa, whose production has declined over the past three seasons, needs to rebound at age 37. Kruger might be a defensive specialist, but he is now the third-line center, not the fourth-line center, and needs to chip in offensively on occasion. He had zero goals in 41 games last season.

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The rookies are going to have to grow and take some of the burden off the veterans eventually.

"You can't just be excited to be here," Motte said. "You've got to work hard, earn your spot, earn some respect."

For now, Quenneville has his top two lines stocked with vets and four rookies on his bottom two lines. He has Kempny on the second pair with Seabrook, Forsling on the third with Campbell. Before the game, he said there was "opportunity for these young guys to show they can move up in the lineup." After the game, he said: "We'd like to play everybody a little bit more and not our top guys as much."

That means you need to expect growing pains, and accept them.

"We want to make sure we're playing the right way from start to finish," Quenneville said. "There's definitely some learning that'll be going on, and we'll be accepting mistakes and hard work. But that's how you get better."

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