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Waiting for opportunity a challenge for young Blackhawks

Center Joakim Nordstrom 21 opened seaswith Blackhawks but has played only 10 games for them. He’s played 16 for Rockford.

Center Joakim Nordstrom, 21, opened the season with the Blackhawks but has played only 10 games for them. He’s played 16 for Rockford. | Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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Updated: December 8, 2013 12:45AM

His face red and his tie flapping with every gesticulation, Joel Quenneville was screaming before Joakim Nordstrom even sat down after his first shift in Minnesota on Thursday night — a shift that started with a lost faceoff and a giveaway, and somehow only got worse from there.

For a 21-year-old eager to make an impression and crack the toughest lineup in the NHL, it’s not exactly how Nordstrom planned his return to the Blackhawks after nearly seven weeks in Rockford.

“I knew,” Nordstrom said. “I felt it myself that I did something wrong. But it’s nothing you can hang yourself up on. You just have to go out there and prove that you’re here for a reason.”

Nordstrom did that, settling down and improving as the game went along, even chipping in with an assist.

But some 40 hours later, on Saturday morning, Nordstrom was sent back to Rockford for the second time this season, to make way for Andrew Shaw’s expected return from an upper-body injury. It’s an all-too-familiar drive on I-90 for several Hawks prospects, many of whom might be NHL regulars on lesser teams.

Nordstrom has had two NHL stints this year — the first lasted eight games, the second just two. Jeremy Morin has been called up and sent down three times. Brandon Pirri is back in Rockford awaiting his second call-up of the year. Ryan Stanton couldn’t make the Hawks roster as an eighth defenseman out of camp, and is now a productive starter in Vancouver. Jimmy Hayes had three chances over three years with the Hawks but couldn’t stick; now he’s an every-day player in Florida.

The Hawks are talented, they’re deep, and they’re still young. And there are even more highly touted players in the pipeline. That creates a daunting challenge for on-the-cusp prospects who have paid their dues with one, two or even three years in Rockford.

“It’s a little frustrating, just because you want to play in the NHL — it’s everyone’s goal,” said forward Ben Smith, who finally stuck with the Hawks this year after three seasons in Rockford, boosted by the fact that, at 25, he can’t be sent back down without going through waivers. “At the same time, it gives you time to develop and really work on your game. So for me, when I finally got the opportunity this year, I felt confident, and I felt ready. It’s definitely frustrating, but at the same time it helps you build confidence and when you do get an opportunity it helps you thrive in that opportunity.”

It wasn’t always like this, of course. When Patrick Kane was a rookie in 2007, the Hawks were coming off their fourth straight losing season. Then-coach Denis Savard threw Kane — the No. 1 pick in the draft — right into the fire at age 18, because, well, why not? Kane wasn’t just any prospect, of course, but the Hawks had nothing to lose by giving younger players extended looks.

“Once I was on the team, they were going to give me every opportunity,” Kane said. “I remember Savvy was pretty much playing me 21, 22 minutes a night my rookie season. That’s a lot of minutes for a first-year player, and i think it helped me a lot to get better. You can’t really do that here as much. There are so many good players.

“Those guys are working hard to try to get up here. And when they do get the opportunity, sometimes they’re playing good and still getting sent down. I think all the guys that have been called up this year have played really well at some point. I thought Morin probably had his best game against Edmonton (on Nov. 25) and he got sent down the next day. It can be awkward.”

Quenneville understands how frustrating it is to be a prospect in the Hawks organization, but pointed out how important the guys on the Rockford shuttle are over the course of the season as the organization’s depth is tested by injuries and the usual wear and tear of an 82-game campaign. Jonathan Toews said it’s important for the call-ups to make the most of their time in Chicago, no matter how brief it is — to learn from the veterans, to pick up good practice habits, and to get comfortable with the pace of the NHL, both on and off the ice.

But the pressure to perform once recalled is so great, because the window is so small. You might get a game to prove your worth, you might get a month. Or sometimes, you might get only one shift to leave a lasting impression. Then it’s back to Rockford, back to the drawing board, and back to waiting for the next call that maybe, just maybe, will change your life for good this time.

“Every time you get sent down, you’re disappointed,” Morin said. “But if you stop getting called up, that’s the issue.”


Twitter: @marklazerus

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