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Professional

Chicago’s defensemen encounter new challenges in system

Blackhawks learning on the fly

Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) eyes the puck as teammate and defenseman Jan Rutta (44) defends the crease during Saturday’s game against the Wild in St. Paul, Minn.
Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford (50) eyes the puck as teammate and defenseman Jan Rutta (44) defends the crease during Saturday’s game against the Wild in St. Paul, Minn.

Whether they are here for the long-term or only a few games, every Blackhawks player says the same thing: It takes time to adjust to the team’s style of play.

That goes double for defensemen, whom the Hawks ask to do things they are not accustomed to doing with other teams, such as changing their technique against rushes or playing more zone coverage instead of man-to-man.

Four new Hawks defensemen – Cody Franson, Connor Murphy, Jordan Oesterle and Jan Rutta – were candid during training camp about the bumps they encountered. They now are 15 games into the season, about the time most players say things begin to click.

So how are the newcomers developing? Coach Joel Quenneville hasn’t minded what he has seen, especially from Rutta, who has been impressive. But Quenneville knew there would be some growing pains with so many new faces.

“Everyone makes mistakes, everyone’s going to have some rough games,” Quenneville said.

“You have to know sometimes patience isn’t a bad thing, and learning from the things we need to improve on is part of the progress.”

And Quenneville has seen progress as he tries to juggle having eight defensemen on the roster and dressing only six per game.

Franson has said his biggest challenge was retraining his body to learn zone coverage as opposed to man-to-man.

“It’s not something I didn’t know,” Franson said. “It was just a matter of, you do man-to-man for a certain amount of time, that’s what you become trained to respond to. When you change systems, you have to try and retrain yourself to think the other way.”

At practice Wednesday, Quenneville had Gustav Forsling back in the defensive pairings, and to try to keep the right-handed Murphy, Rutta and Franson in the lineup — along with the right-handed Brent Seabrook – Quenneville had Murphy playing on the left, with the left-handed Michal Kempny a likely scratch for Thursday’s game against the Flyers. Murphy, who has been a healthy scratch for three games, has said he’s “not the best” at playing on his off side, but if it means staying in the lineup, he’ll do it.

“That’s the name of the game, try to keep playing and do what you can to help,” Murphy said. “You just have to keep a strong work ethic and believe in the process you’re going to hopefully get to that point where you’re a consistent player to be able to contribute. You want to make it harder and harder for the coaches to take you out of the lineup. That’s your goal.”

Murphy had said his biggest issue with the Hawks’ system was learning how to defend odd-man rushes. His previous team, the Coyotes, wanted him to be more passive and sit back. The Hawks prefer their defensemen to be selectively aggressive.

“A lot of it has shown to pay off in certain ways,” Murphy said. “Your body will naturally become a habit when it feels right. It’s getting to that point where you feel certain rhythms of the game that start to come into your body and the feeling of certain things as they develop. Plays on the ice you can read and make them more natural.”

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