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The Chicago Blackhawks have now had three full days on the ice together as they prepare for the 2022-23 NHL season. With a few hours of ice time under their collective belts, the team is starting to feel more comfortable with their new teammates and coaches. The mood in the locker room continues to be optimistic and excited as year one of Kyle Davidson’s rebuild is in full motion.
Athanasiou Ready For His Opportunity
Andrea Athanasiou has been through it all in his NHL career. He started as a top prospect for the Detroit Red Wings in the early stages of their rebuild. He spent some time in the high-pressure atmosphere of an Edmonton Oilers playoff run that the Blackhawks ended in the “Bubble.” For the last two seasons, he played for the Los Angeles Kings, another team hitting the reset button after a long run of sustained success.
Now the 28-year-old forward finds himself in Chicago on a one-year contract. The security is not what he hoped for, but the opportunity is enormous. Athanasiou will get a chance to play top-six minutes here; hoping he will catch the eye of a contender and be flipped for assets before the trade deadline. It is not the most glamorous situation to be in, but he will have a chance for a long playoff run if things work out well.
“You just kind of take the opportunities you get,” Athanasiou said after Saturday’s practice. “They called and gave a good opportunity, so it was a no-brainer. Obviously, there’s a lot to look forward to in this locker room.”
Athanasiou has proven he can produce at this level. He had a 30-goal season for the Red Wings back in 2018-19. He contributed well for the Kings last season with 11 goals and 17 points in 28 games, but he had trouble staying in the lineup due to a pair of injuries and a bout with COVID. He has put the frustration of last season behind him and is ready to move forward with this Blackhawks team.
“I’ve always been a guy who’s been able to get opportunities, so not really worried about the producing too much,” he said. “I know I’m going to get my chances; I just got to bear down and make the good play, the right play.”
He laughed heartily when asked if he hoped some opportunities would come playing with Patrick Kane.
“I don’t think anybody would not want to play with that guy,” he said with a smile. “That guy is the best in the world. When you have someone of that caliber, obviously every guy wants to play with that guy, and I’m sure you’ll get opportunities here and there; you just got to be ready, and that’s about it.”
Entwistle & Sikura Adding Weight
One of the hardest adjustments for some young hockey players is learning how to adjust their game and accepting a different role to stay in the NHL. Many join the pro ranks as the top offensive star on their junior or college team. Not every player can be a goal-scoring superstar. Those who can quickly realize they need to do the less glamorous things to make an NHL roster will have an easier path to the league.
One such player is MacKenzie Entwistle, who was a power forward and offensive contributor during his time in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He has learned to embrace a fourth-line role and do the dirty work needed to stay in the NHL. Entwistle told us on Saturday that he spent the summer in Chicago working out with strength and conditioning coach Paul Goodman. He added that he put on nearly 10 pounds in the offseason.
“For my game, being a bigger-sized guy, I’ve got to hold on to pucks,” he said. “I want to be like Alex Killorn. He protects the puck so well. He takes pucks to the net. I think putting on a couple of extra pounds is going to benefit me down the road holding on to pucks.”
Killorn scored 25 goals and 59 points last season, so Entwistle is a long way from putting up those kinds of numbers. However, he is confident that he can start trending that way.
“I still have to prove I can maintain and stay at this level,” said the third-year pro. “That’s going to be a big thing for me this year; establish myself into a role and take a step forward. I don’t want just to be an average player. I want to prove that I can not only be a fourth-line player, but I want to move into a bigger role. That’s what I’m striving for.”
Dylan Sikura is another player learning what it takes to remain on an NHL roster. He took a little longer than Entwistle to embrace playing a heavier game, but he has added about 15-20 pounds since we last saw him with the organization in 2020.
“I think I’m a different player,” he admitted. “I’ve matured a lot. I’m more of a 200-foot player. I put on a little more corner weight for the heavier parts of my game. Now I have to find that scoring touch.”
Sikura, now 27, knows he cannot rely on his perimeter game to keep him in the NHL. He needs to be stronger and tougher to play against on a nightly basis. He has realized what it will take to wear a Blackhawks sweater this season instead of spending time in Rockford.
“Not getting pushed off the puck,” Sikura said. “Being stronger in battles. In my first year, I don’t think I even went to the net at all. Just doing the little things like that; going to the net, boxing guys out. I lacked the confidence to do that. I was getting pushed around in some of those spaces because I knew I couldn’t win those battles. Now, with the extra weight, I feel I can have confidence in those areas.”
Richardson Loves Speed
If you were playing a drinking game Saturday during Luke Richardson’s post-practice interview where you had to take a swig after every time he used the word “speed,” you would have needed a cab to get home from the Fifth Third Arena. There is no doubt that the Blackhawks’ new head coach is in line with Davidson in wanting his team to play fast.
Richardson quickly mentioned players like Max Domi, Sam Lafferty, and Athanasiou regarding overall team speed. He envisions his team to play fast and organized, create turnovers, and spend more time with the puck than without it.
“I want to play fast in transition,” Richardson revealed. “Basically, it starts from playing defense. Even if we lose the puck in the offensive zone, you’re playing defense. So, you’re tracking hard. I showed them some clips from the Finals of that. We want to get there. To play well and execute in the Finals, you have to do that all year long. We have to start doing that now.
“I want to be a good, solid-structured defensive zone team, but we don’t want to be there all night. That’s not how you become a good defensive team. It’s when you’re there the least amount of time and when you are there, you kill the play and go on offense. That’s how we want to play.”
Lafferty showed last year that he plays an excellent north-south game. He has a high motor and provides the Blackhawks with that energy they lacked throughout the lineup at times. Richardson wants to start the new season using that speed and energy down the middle of the ice.
“I’d like to see that speed used at center,” Richardson said of Lafferty. “Just talking to him about a few of the responsibilities. Even if he is off-key just a little bit in position out there, he has the ability to react quickly and get back into position. I think center ice is a good fit for him, at least to start.”
Lafferty has played on the wing more than center throughout his NHL career, but Richardson is ready to give him a shot to stay in the middle of the ice.
The Blackhawks are back on the ice Monday morning before opening the exhibition schedule on Tuesday night by hosting the St. Louis Blues.
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