It didn’t take Alex DeBrincat long to realize that playing in the NHL was going to be much, much different from playing in the Ontario Hockey League.
“First game,” said the smiling 19-year-old after the Chicago Blackhawks practiced Wednesday at Johnny’s IceHouse West before departing for Philadelphia.
Blackhawks vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 6 p.m. Thursday
Radio: WGN 720-AM
The skinny: Since being shut out by the Hawks 3-0 at the United Center last week, Philadelphia (7-6-2) beat St. Louis 2-0 and lost to Colorado 5-4 in a shootout. Dale Weise tied the Avs game at 4-4 one minute after Nail Yakupov gave Colorado a 4-3 lead at 5:37 of the third period. … Sean Couturier scored 9 goals in the first 12 games but hasn’t scored in the past three. … Heading into Wednesday’s games, the Flyers rank 24th on the penalty kill (76.9 percent), while the Hawks rank 27th on the power play (13.6 percent). … The last time the Hawks won a regular-season game in Philadelphia was Nov. 9, 1996. … Both of these teams should be well rested as the Hawks haven’t played since Sunday and the Flyers since Saturday. … Corey Crawford starts in net for the Hawks.
Next: Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena, 6 p.m. Saturday
— John Dietz
It’s rare for anyone to make the leap from juniors to the best league in the world, but DeBrincat did enough in camp that the Hawks felt like they had to keep him. And while DeBrincat has just 3 goals (2 into empty nets) in his first 15 games, the coaching staff still loves what it has seen out of the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Michigan native.
“It’s exciting knowing he’s got a lot of upside in offensive play selection, scoring, making plays, being in the right spot, how he seems to have the puck a lot is a nice trait,” coach Joel Quenneville said.
“But the thing we’ve been pleased about is how well he’s adapted to how he has to play without the puck in all zones. He’s picked that up surprisingly well.”
So much so that Quenneville slotted DeBrincat in on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik in four of the last five games. That will change Thursday against the Flyers, however, when DeBrincat teams up with buddies Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman.
“I think it’ll be good,” DeBrincat said. “We should be fast and moving the puck well.
“Hartman and Schmaltz can move the puck really well, and Hartman battles in front of the net. That’s a good piece to the line. Hopefully we can have a lot of puck possession.”
DeBrincat spends much of his free time with Schmaltz and Hartman, so it will be interesting to see if their off-ice chemistry translates to the ice.
Other than speed of the game, awareness of defenders and quality of the goalies, DeBrincat said his biggest adjustment has been how he takes care of his body off the ice.
In juniors, maybe he didn’t stretch as much as he should have, but he knows now that it can catch up to you during the daily grind of an 82-game NHL season. DeBrincat’s daily routine doesn’t change much, and he said his biggest priority is making sure he gets enough rest between practices and games.
How does he do that? By doing what most 19-year-olds do in their free time: watching TV and playing video games like NHL, FIFA and NBA.
On the ice, DeBrincat hasn’t been shy about shooting the puck, averaging 1.5 shots on goal per game. That may not seem like a lot, but Nick Schmaltz averaged just 0.6 shots in his first 26 games last season and it earned him a demotion to the AHL.
DeBrincat, who piled up 167 goals in three OHL seasons, scored his first goal with the Hawks against Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price in the fourth game of the season.
He was excited about his back-to-back empty netters last week as well but wants to do more to contribute.
“I mean I’ll take ’em any way they come,” he said. “But I’m hoping to produce maybe a little bit more 5-on-5.”
The Hawks took DeBrincat in the second round of the 2016 draft. Whether or not he will be considered a steal one day is still up in the air, but the coaches are more than pleased with how his first month has gone.
“I like his thinking in the game,” Quenneville said. “His awareness to how we have to play is high end. I like his confidence and his playmaking selection. I’ve liked his start.”