CHICAGO -- It's only the second game of the season, but Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is quickly dipping into his team's depth prior to playing the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night at United Center.
Defenseman Michael Kostka will draw into the starting lineup for the first time with Chicago, likely playing with Nick Leddy on the third pairing, while 25-year-old forward Ben Smith will make his first start of the season playing right wing on the third line.
It's an opportunity for both to make a good impression on Quenneville, who isn't afraid to stray from the regular lineup and give his entire roster a chance to play.
"The hope is to show what you can do when you get those opportunities [to play] and to make those decisions tough for whoever has to make them," said Smith, who has played 20 regular season games and eight playoff games for the Blackhawks. "I was grateful to start here [in Chicago] and I plan on making the most of these opportunities and trying to get this career going."
The 5-foot-11 Smith is replacing 6-foot-6, 221-pound winger Jimmy Hayes and has scored four goals and no assist in his NHL career. He hass also battled some injury issues and has ridden the so-called "Rockford Shuttle" quite a bit between Chicago and the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League.
"There's always pressure," Smith said. "You always feel it when you're here. You want to stay and there's pressure to perform to make that happen. So you have to deal with that pressure. For me, part of [being a fourth-year pro] is working on that pressure and dealing with the mental aspect of the game. I feel like I've improved in that aspect, but there's more work to be done."
Kostka came to the Blackhawks under different circumstances. After playing five seasons in the AHL following his collegiate career at the University of Massachusetts, the 27-year old defenseman finally broke into the NHL by playing 35 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs last year, registering no goals and eight assists.
He signed a one-year deal with the Blackhawks in the off-season as an unrestricted free agent and made the team out of training camp to give Quenneville eight defensemen starting out. Quenneville first took notice of Kostka while watching the Maple Leafs on television last season and still liked what he saw in person during camp. He was particularly taken by the prospect of having another puck-moving defensemen who might even see some time on the power play.
"I think he's got some speed on the back end and can join the attack," Quenneville said. "He's got some good play recognition, got a decent gap and it gives him a chance to get into the lineup early in the season, as well. We'll get a good assessment of him. We're excited about getting him in the game."
Here are Chicago's projected lines for Saturday:
Bryan Bickell – Jonathan Toews – Patrick Kane
Patrick Sharp – Michal Handzus – Marian Hossa
Brandon Saad – Andrew Shaw – Ben Smith
Brandon Bollig – Marcus Kruger – Joakim Nordstrom
Duncan Keith – Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya – Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy – Michael Kostka
Scratched: Jimmy Hayes, Michal Rozsival, Sheldon Brookbank