Viktor Stalberg may be Blackhawks’ solution for power-play problems
BY MARK LAZERUS firstname.lastname@example.org January 15, 2013 9:03PM
Hawks winger Viktor Stalberg (left) played overseas in two leagues during the lockout and put in plenty of work on the power play. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: January 15, 2013 9:32PM
It doesn’t sound like a heck of a lot of fun — stand in front of a goaltender who’s likely shoving you in the back and jabbing at your ankles with his stick while a defender tries to forcibly remove you, and your teammates fire chunks of frozen rubber toward you at 90-some mph.
Yet it might be the most coveted job in the Blackhawks dressing room these days. One of the most important, too. And it looks like Viktor Stalberg is going to get the first crack at it.
When the Hawks skate Wednesday morning at the United Center, then have an intrasquad scrimmage in the evening, the focus finally will be on the power play that scored on just 15.2 percent of its chances last season, 26th in the NHL. And Stalberg will be front and center, clogging the crease, screening the goaltender and trying to deflect pucks into the net.
The way Stalberg sees it, it’s about time.
‘‘It’s something I looked for last year, and it didn’t happen; I was frustrated by that at times,’’ he said. ‘‘If I do get the chance, it’s up to me to prove I deserve that chance. I’m going to do everything I can to make a difference there.’’
There’s really nowhere to go but up as the Hawks try to recapture the power-play magic they had in recent seasons. The previous year, they were fourth in the league at 23.1 percent. During the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2010, they scored at a 22.5 percent clip as Dustin Byfuglien and Troy Brouwer parked themselves in front of the net.
‘‘It’s a reason why our power play has struggled,’’ Stalberg said. ‘‘I think we missed those guys that we had a couple years ago. Last year it seemed no one really took it upon themselves to get that spot.’’
This year, coach Joel Quenneville has targeted Stalberg and Andrew Shaw as possible solutions. Shaw is just 5-10 but has quick hands and a knack for positioning himself in front of the net. Stalberg, at 6-3, 209 pounds, and coming off a career-high 22-goal season, is a more natural fit. During the lockout, he split time between the Swedish Elite League and Russia’s KHL, where he scored a combined 10 goals in 25 games while seeing lots of time on the power play.
‘‘Viktor’s been talking about working on that,’’ Quenneville said. ‘‘[Wednesday], we’ll get to see that work. It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s produced very well for us 5-on-5, so it’s an opportunity to get that quality ice time that everybody wants on that power play.’’
Stalberg was glad for the time spent overseas, but he quickly shot down the notion that he was in midseason form. While he said the KHL might have more talent ‘‘top to bottom,’’ it’s an entirely different game. The bigger ice surface leads to easier puck possession and far less hitting. The teams play a more passive style, too, with little forechecking.
‘‘It’s more like a soccer game,’’ he said. ‘‘You get your chance, then it’s the other team’s time to get a chance.’’
Well, now it’s his chance. As an unrestricted free agent after the season, he’s hoping to build on the steady improvement he’s shown in his two seasons since coming over from Toronto in the Kris Versteeg trade. He’s a prime candidate for a spot on the top two scoring lines, but so far in camp, he’s been skating on the checking line alongside Shaw and Bryan Bickell.
But as Stalberg pointed out, that has its advantages, too, because he’s usually matched up against opponents’ top scoring lines — guys who aren’t usually worried too much about playing defense. In other words, it’s all about making the most of your opportunities, whatever they are.
Stalberg has done that so far in his brief Hawks career. Now he’s getting maybe the biggest opportunity yet, in a role the Hawks desperately need someone to fill.
‘‘You want to play as much as possible,’’ he said. ‘‘If you get a chance to be on [the power play], that’s great. But you’ve got to take advantage of it. I have to prove I belong there.’’