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Revolving Rockford talent pool getting a look-see from Blackhawks

CHICAGO IL - DECEMBER 30:  Jimmy Hayes #39 Chicago Blackhawks makes his NHL debut tonight against Detroit Red Wings

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 30: Jimmy Hayes #39 of the Chicago Blackhawks makes his NHL debut tonight against the Detroit Red Wings at the United Center on December 30, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\136279346.jpg

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Updated: February 2, 2012 9:56AM

There’s a stall in the Blackhawks’ locker room between forwards Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg that has had its nameplate changed
often this season.

It belongs to those auditioning to stick with the Hawks.

Jimmy Hayes currently occupies the stall. Brandon Pirri had it before him, and before Pirri it was taken by Jeremy Morin. Before Morin, it belonged to Ben Smith.

On the other side of the room, where the defensemen sit, Nick Leddy, the youngest Hawk at age 20, has a stall directly across from it. He has had a good view to see friends come and go from Rockford all season.

“All the guys that have been called up and sent back down are all my buddies and stuff,” Leddy said. “I hope all of them stick here one day.”

But there’s room for only one of them right now on the Hawks’ 23-man roster. As rookie center Marcus Kruger did after being recalled in place of Pirri after the first game this season, the Hawks still are waiting for one to show enough consistency to remain for an extended period.

It can be argued that general manager Stan Bowman is showcasing his young players, especially after recently telling the Sun-Times that the plan is to trade “draft picks, players in Rockford or players that are unsigned” for more experienced players by the trade deadline this season.

But Bowman also needs to see if his young players are capable of filling roles on his team. Most should be kept. It’s Hayes’ turn right now, and he was praised by coach Joel Quenneville after his NHL debut Friday against the
Detroit Red Wings.

“I liked him,” Quenneville said. “He had a great first shift, and from that he still had that presence. He had some good physicality in his play. He had some strength in the puck area. I thought he asserted himself well. He was dangerous around the net. He didn’t play a ton, but it was great first game for him.”

Quenneville had similar compliments for Pirri after he was recalled for the game against the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 21. But not long after that, it became a matter of Pirri finding consistency and being “just OK” for Quenne-
ville, which signaled his inevitable reassignment to the IceHogs.

Pirri and Morin both were thrust into important spots for the Hawks. Morin’s first game was on the wing opposite Kane on Jonathan Toews’ line. Pirri centered Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp with Kruger reeling from a concussion.

Smith, a playoff hero from last season, was recalled with great fanfare as he replaced underachieving winger Rostislav Olesz during the circus trip in November. Considered a favorite of Quenneville’s and some members of the Hawks’ brass, Smith got a long look, playing in seven games.

Things just never clicked for Smith. But Bowman remains confident in him.

“Ben came up at a tough time when our team was really having trouble,” Bowman said. “We played a couple of bad games there [against the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames], and he was
unfortunately thrown into that.

“He was leading Rockford in scoring. He had a lot of confidence. He comes up — and it’s not his fault — but we got bombed a couple of times in a row. Then they take him out, and he sits for a couple of games. Basically, all the momentum that he had built up went away. At that point, you’re just trying not to make mistakes.

“We told him: ‘Look, we just want you to start playing with some confidence. Go down there, play a lot of minutes. You’re not
going to be able to get yourself your confidence back playing a limited role up here.’ I still think Ben will be a contributor, for sure.”

Overall, Hawks players have liked what they’ve seen from the rookies.

“We know that there is a handful of guys down there that can [fill roles],” Toews said. “It gives us the confidence that we can keep winning and we can keep playing good hockey even if we have a couple of our key guys out of the lineup.

“It’s great opportunities for those guys. We’ve seen Brandon, Jeremy, Ben Smith also come up and do what they have to do. All of those guys are fighting because they want to keep playing here. They’re all very deserving of the chances they’re getting.”

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