Friday, January 20, 2012

Rookies on fire : Jimmy Hayes & Andrew Shaw

It was the end of practice on Tuesday. Half a dozen players - four of them rookies - clustered around one of the nets, casting Rock, Paper, Scissors. What was at stake? The loser would have the duty to lug in the milk crate that was heavy with the pucks they'd filled it with after practice. Although it might have been any recreational rink across the country, this was Johnny's West, and the players in question were the young men who are lighting the lamp for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Recent call-up Andrew Shaw was the first to peel off for the cluster with a gleeful shout, and waving his stick for a celly like he'd just scored a goal. Frequent "Rockford Express" rookie Ben Smith was next, followed by Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik. It came down to Jimmy Hayes - also a fresh call-up from the IceHogs - and Nick Leddy, who just a year ago was in the same place where Shaw, Smith, and Hayes are now. As Hayes yelled in triumph over the last round, the other players teased Leddy about his task.

It's this youthful spirit and enthusiasm that is giving the Blackhawks a huge jolt of energy at the time of year when it's most needed - the winter doldrums as the All-Star break approaches, but the final push of jockeying for playoff positioning has not yet begun. One of Chicago's top scorers, Patrick Sharp, is out with a wrist injury; and agitator Daniel Carcillo's season is finished after knee surgery. As a result, the team is filling the roster holes with the players who've been making a difference for their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.

Hayes on the ice at Detroit 1/14/12
By now, everybody has heard Hayes and Shaw's stories: After originally being picked in the second round of the 2008 Draft by Toronto, Jimmy Hayes came to the Blackhawks in a 2010 trade that gave the Maple Leafs a Draft pick. Then Chicago chose Kevin Hayes - Jimmy's younger brother - in the first round of the Draft that summer. 

Meanwhile, Andrew Shaw was picked by the Blackhawks in the fifth round of the 2011 Draft, in what was Shaw's third year of eligibility.

Other players have been called up from Rockford this season - playoff hero Ben Smith has made the trek several times; forward Brandon Pirri and defenseman Dylan Olsen saw a handful of games in Chicago. So what has made these two players - Shaw and Hayes - fit so dynamically now, when others have simply filled a gap? 


Jimmy Hayes, 22, spent three years at Boston College, where he not only played alongside his brother, Kevin, but also current IceHog/Blackhawk Ben Smith. (The older Hayes and Smith were on the 2010 BC team that won the NCAA ice hockey championship and that played Boston University at Fenway Park in January 2010 - the same ice that had hosted the 2010 Winter Classic.) Much of the buzz during the 2010 prospect camp swirled around the Hayes brothers, although there are those who feel Kevin was the more exciting of the two prospects.

Hayes has been quoted as saying that he set goals for the 2010-11 season and that he met them, so he decided it was time to pursue his dream to be a NHL player. He took the first step towards that when he appeared in several games for the Rockford IceHogs at the tail end of the 2010-11 season. He was already noticeable then - at 6'6", it's hard to miss him - with a long reach, a scoring touch and good consciousness of body positioning. He returned for the Blackhawks' summer prospect and training camps, and was one of the last to be cut before the season began; the improvement from 2010 to 2011 was noticeable - and the change from training camp to today even more so.

In Rockford, when Kyle Beach dislocated his shoulder in late October and subsequently required surgery, it would end his season early. Hayes ended up taking his role on the third line. As his skills and confidence grew, he began seeing more ice time, and by the time he was called up to the Blackhawks, he was tied for fifth in scoring for the team with 5 goals and 13 assists.

Those who have been around Rockford for a while describe Hayes as "a solid kid" with "a great sense of humor". For his size, he moves well - and more importantly, has speed and soft hands. He's willing to set up camp in the other team's crease and work hard for the greasy goals - something which was helped along by a nudge early in the 2011-12 season in Rockford. The coaches benched him for two back-to-back games to send him the message that he needed to not just be a big body, but play like a big body. Chris Block, who regularly covers the IceHogs, states that "Hayes took the message and hasn't looked back." In other words: Hayes is the kind of player that the Blackhawks wanted to see out of Bryan Bickell, but which the team has only seen in fits and spurts.

Andrew Shaw: high speed, at the net - 1/17/12
What the team and its fans have seen so far with Hayes is a player who fills the role Dustin Byfuglien used to - that big body with the scoring touch in front of the net - but Hayes is more than that. He's more akin to Andrew Ladd - a guy with good ice vision, the mobility to get where he needs to be, and a drive to keep improving. 


Andrew Shaw was chosen in the fifth round in his third year of eligibility, but from the way he's been lighting up the score sheet, you have to wonder how he got overlooked for so long. 

Last season, he dominated for the Owen Sound Attack both in the regular season and in the Memorial Cup playoffs. By modern hockey player standards, he's considered on the "small size", at 5'10" and 180 pounds. But you'd never know it for looking at how huge he plays.

Shaw made an immediate impression in prospect camp - not only for his scrappy, persistent style of play, but for going toe to toe with fellow prospect Dylan Olsen, who has a few inches and some 40 pounds on him. During regular training camp, he would further prove his fearlessness by dropping the gloves with Daniel Carcillo - and easily holding his own in both cases.

Like Hayes, Shaw didn't start off this season on the top lines in Rockford. When Rob Klinkhammer's performance slumped, Hayes began seeing time on Brandon Pirri's line. Shaw clicked well with the line, giving them the boost needed for them to produce. Subsequently, Pirri became one of the top producers in Rockford, aided by Shaw's energy and net presence.

A near-goal in Detroit, 1/14/12
Like team captain Jonathan Toews, Andrew Shaw scored a goal on his first shot in his first game in the NHL. He didn't stop there, either - just 8 games to his name and he already has 5 goals and 1 assist. He should have 6 goals, but an overeager referee in Wednesday night's game blew dead a play as a hand pass, rather than what it was: catching and dropping the puck to his stick, where he swatted it across the crease to Marcus Kruger, who tapped it in. in less than a fifth as many games, Shaw already has more goals than Bryan Bickell and has tied MIchael Frolik and defenseman Steve Montador at 5. Shaw has undeniable talent, not only in terms of skill with the puck, but ice vision as well. He's an energy guy and an agitator, bending the rules but rarely breaking them: he's collected 7 PIM so far, a fighting major in his first game, and a 2 minute minor in his 8th. He seems to be all over the ice at once and yet in the right place at the right time as well.

"I don't like losing, so I always give everything I've got to try to win," Shaw said earlier this season in an interview with IceHogs "Hog Talk" radio.

Should any of this be a surprise when it's the player who was given the OHL Hardest Working Player Award last season? Coming out of the Canadian junior hockey system, Shaw could have spent another year there rather than Rockford, but he felt that his play would improve his game more playing against men, rather than being "a man among boys" in the OHL.

It shows in his persistent play. Earlier this week, in a game versus the Sharks, Shaw was at the net against Antti Niemi. Niemi gave up a rebound; Shaw threw it back at him. Niemi gave up another rebound, Shaw threw that back too - and rebound # 3 was the magic number as Shaw leapt over Niemi's outstretched leg and banged the puck home.

It probably shouldn't be surprising that Shaw looked up to Wendall Clark as a kid, either. In the same radio interview, when asked about what he found appealing in Clark as a player, Shaw said, "Just his style of game. He's not a flashy player; he just goes to the net hard. He's a team player, lot of character, just goes out there and gives it his all, every shift. I just try to play kind of like him."

As far as that goes, Shaw is doing exactly that, and doing it well - and as a result, he's quickly getting noticed: by his teammates, his coaches, the fans, and around the league. He's gritty, he's determined, and he's fearless on the ice - and as a result, he's winning the battles and screaming up the score sheet. Couple that in with his humble attitude and work ethic, it's no surprise he's quickly found himself a fan favorite, even being the subject of a "#ShawFacts" hashtag on Twitter this week, an homage to Chuck Norris jokes. (Shaw's favorite? "Chuck Norris wears Andrew Shaw pajamas to bed.")

The popularity of the "#ShawFacts" hashtag might have been their first exposure to the depth of dedication that the Blackhawks fanbase has in this city. Shaw's Twitter following surged by some 2,000 followers in two days; Jimmy Hayes' popularity isn't far behind. 

They're both aware of the power of social media, however, and Shaw spoke wisely on Wednesday and Thursday, noting that he was a professional athlete and aware that he had to be cautious about things he says online. 


Hayes and Shaw are both currently performing beyond expectations, but they realize their spots on the Blackhawks roster can disappear at any time, and they're playing to stick with the big club. After all, they're still under Entry Level Contracts, meaning the Blackhawks can ship them back and forth to Rockford as needed without the risk of losing them to waivers; but if they can outplay some of the struggling vets, well... it makes decisions a lot more difficult for the team. 
Fans watching at a Blackhawks practice 1/9/12

By all indications, the rookie duo are humble and even-headed, constantly conscious of their role on the team, the expectations placed upon them, and are both striving to do their best to stay up with the Blackhawks.

Coach Quenneville loves what he sees from the two rookies, and the pair has electrified the team's depth, so the team is currently firing on all four lines. Clearly, the rookies' energy and style of play is infectious, and the team seems to be having a lot of fun playing as of late.

The rookie pair are taking the NHL one game at a time. They're making a midseason adjustment into the locker room, but it helps to join friends they're already used to playing with in Rockford - namely, Nick Leddy and Marcus Kruger - who are established on the team.

In the meanwhile, the playful antics between the youngest members of the Blackhawks remind you that these guys are not all that far away from their college and junior hockey years.

But to watch them on the ice, you'd never notice.

1 comment:

  1. Love the "near-goal" photo - great angle, puck perilously positioned, every player in the shot identifiable by name and/or number.


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