Hayes, Shaw prove to be keepers -- for now

CHICAGO -- With the return of Chicago Blackhawks forward Marcus Kruger from a concussion, coach Joel Quenneville had a decision to make about his roster. As it turns out, it was probably an easy one.

Though he scored his second goal of the season on Tuesday against Columbus, Ben Smith was the odd man out among the young players and was yet again sent back to Rockford of the AHL. Why him?

Simply put, Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes aren’t going anywhere -- at least not for now. It’s not easy to score goals in the NHL and when a player has two in five games, as Shaw does, and another has three in seven games, as Hayes does, that’s a ticket to stay. For comparison, Michael Frolik has five in 42 games and Bryan Bickell has four in 38 games played.

But scoring isn’t the only reason Quenneville likes both players. More than once he’s used the phrase “protects the puck well” and other defensive-minded terms in describing their games. If you’re not a defensive liability, you’re fine in Quenneville’s book. Why do you think he likes Kruger so much? This isn’t to say Smith is a liability, he’s just been the victim of an injury and poor timing more than anything -- though he is minus-4 in limited games this season.

The bottom line is Hayes and Shaw and even Kruger have been too impressive in a short amount of time to make them go back to the minors. No one knows if they’ll hit a wall or if their play will dip -- odds are it will -- but the Hawks may as well take advantage of their youthful exuberance and talent while they are still on an emotional high.

Hayes may have the bigger upside as a huge body that can skate and play the total game, but Shaw is a better short term story. According to ESPN Stats and Information, no fifth-round pick or lower since 2003-2004 has played as many as Shaw’s five games in the NHL in the same year they were drafted. Think about that: Since the lockout no one drafted that late has made it to the NHL for as little as two games let alone five or more. And to do it on an elite caliber team adds another layer to the story.

Breaking in for a last-place team makes some sense, but for the loaded Hawks? Shaw had a breakout year for the Owen Sound of the OHL last year and kudos to the Hawks for getting him so late.

As for Hayes he’s at the infancy stage of the inevitable Dustin Byfuglien comparisons. The former Hawk, who helped the team to a Stanley Cup title, made his living in front of the net in the 2010 postseason.

Quenneville was asked about the Byfuglien comparison on Thursday after Hayes scored his third career goal while earning his first career helper.

“Hayes has got comparable size [to Byfuglien], and around the net that disruption and disturbing the goalie is what it’s all about,” Quenneville said. “I thought having a net-front presence is something that, when your power-play is struggling, ugly goals are what we’re looking for, and we got one of them like that.”

Listed at 6-foot-6, 221 pounds Hayes has the chance to be a force in the middle, especially on the power play. When the Hawks traded for him the day after drafting his brother in 2010, it would have been hard to imagine his advancement would be so quick. He was simply another (albeit big) body on the ice during prospects camp that offseason, but since then his skating has improved by leaps and bounds. His ability to handle the puck and move with it is reminiscent of Byfuglien when he was at his best.

For now, Hayes and Shaw probably aren’t changing any of general manager Stan Bowman’s short-term plans regarding possible trades. But if they keep it up, Bowman might be able to cross left wing off his wish list and just concentrate on a center and a defenseman.

Add Viktor Stalberg’s emerging success, and the Hawks are way better off on the left side than they were just a couple months ago.

The weekend: The Hawks have a big set of games against the Western Conference rivals Detroit Red Wings (11:30 a.m., Saturday) and the San Jose Sharks (6 p.m., Sunday) this weekend and they might be catching those teams at a perfect time -- but that has nothing to do with the opponents.

The Hawks are moving in the right direction, and the Wings and Sharks could be the victims of poor timing, if the current trend continues.

The Hawks had a great month of December but slowly started moving the other way as the calendar turned. Losers of four in a row overall, they bottomed out against Colorado, losing 4-0 on Jan. 6. Maybe they got lazy, maybe they got complacent or maybe that’s just part of the season.

Then they started the climb back up. A close loss to Detroit, in which they led most of the way, gave them renewed confidence. That carried over to a 5-2 win over Columbus on Tuesday in which the Hawks didn’t pull away until the third period. And on Thursday night, they took control even earlier scoring three times in the second in another 5-2 win over Minnesota.

So if the trend holds, the Hawks should get at least one, if not two, powerful performances out of this weekend and possibly re-establish themselves at the top of the division and conference. If the trend holds, of course. There are no guarantees.

Best guess has Kruger starting at center on the fourth line to ease him back after getting his head banged around last time he played several weeks ago. That would move Jamal Mayers to wing alongside Bryan Bickell. The rest of the lineup probably will remain the same for the time being which means Dave Bolland and Marian Hossa would stay together and get the tough defensive assignments against the dangerous Wings and Sharks. It should make for some great hockey this weekend.

Smith back?: Smith could be back as soon as next week. When Daniel Carcillo finishes serving his suspension after Sunday’s game against San Jose, he’ll undoubtedly be placed on injured reserve. Maybe the Hawks will wait a few days so it’s not so obvious they were able to circumvent a hazy rule that an injured player has to serve his suspension after he’s healthy enough to play. The Hawks have kept it quiet about Carcillo’s injury though Quenneville recently mentioned surgery as a possibility for the winger.

The league doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe they consider him punished enough between losing out on his paycheck and possibly facing the end to his season due to a knee injury suffered on the play he was suspended for.

If Carcillo is placed on injured reserved it would open another roster spot for Smith or someone else to be recalled. Or the Hawks just might play with 22 on the active roster.