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X-Factor: van Riemsdyk coming up big for Blackhawks

Defenseman trying to fill Oduya's skates for playoffs

by Brian Hedger / Correspondent

CHICAGO -- Johnny Oduya isn't the NHL's biggest defenseman, but the void he left on the Chicago Blackhawks blue line was much larger than his 6-foot, 194-pound frame.

Oduya signed with the Dallas Stars as a free agent last summer after helping the Blackhawks win their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, and his role among Chicago's top-four defensemen hasn't been filled.

Heading into the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks hope Trevor van Riemsdyk can be the answer. Chicago leaned heavily on its top four during its run to the Cup last season, and might have to do it again.

"Johnny fit that niche and that spot extremely well for us," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "That experience Johnny had ... with [van Riemsdyk] we're looking for him to capture it, and the quicker the better."

Video: CHI@DAL: van Riemsdyk scores on rebound off goalie

van Riemsdyk, 24, has shown flashes of capturing it since making his NHL debut in 2014-15.

After signing with the Blackhawks as a free agent in March 2014 out of the University of New Hampshire, van Riemsdyk quickly caught Quenneville's attention. He played the first 18 games of his rookie season (2014-15), cut short by two injuries that each required surgery.

van Riemsdyk's first games back were against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, which he rode into this season. With Oduya gone, van Riemsdyk played 82 games and spent time with all three defense pairs. He finished with three goals and 11 assists, and his 19:59 per game ranked fourth among Chicago's 11 defensemen. 

That's where Oduya ranked too, but van Riemsdyk prefers not to make comparisons.

Video: NYI@CHI: van Riemsdyk scores his first NHL goal

"I think you've just got to play your own game," he said. "You just play your own game. You're not trying to do too much or be someone you're not. You've just got to know all the things that you bring to the table, the things you do well and the things you do to help the team, and really focus on doing those."

van Riemsdyk's strengths include size (6-foot-2, 188), a good shot and solid passing in the offensive zone. His biggest improvement needs are in the defensive zone; he led the Blackhawks in blocked shots (155), but struggled to consistently win puck battles, clear pucks and hit forwards in stride with clean exit passes.

Part of the issue is playing on his off side. van Riemsdyk, a right-handed shot, usually plays the left point because the Blackhawks already have three veterans who prefer the right side.

"Something you've really got to focus on is how you position your body when you're getting pucks," he said. "[When you're] trying to go and break the puck out, clearing the puck out of your own end, you want to make those good first passes so we're not just chasing the puck around and we've got it on our sticks. Those split seconds make all the difference."

It was one of the lessons he learned in the Cup Final, when van Riemsdyk logged seven minutes a game.

"Defense is a very hard position to learn," said Duncan Keith, whose spot on Chicago's top pairing is being filled by van Riemsdyk during his six-game suspension. "You make a mistake, it's a scoring chance the other way a lot of times. For him to be able to do what he's done, especially last year coming in and [stepping] right into a Stanley Cup Final ... it's been huge for our team."

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