CHICAGO -- As Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman scours the NHL for what’s left of available defensemen in advance of Monday’s trade deadline, he may have already found his depth defender in the form of 21-year-old Dylan Olsen.
In fact, if Olsen, a first-round pick in 2009, keeps up his steady play he may become more of an integral part than just a depth guy. He’s already on his way there.
“The first few games I was just getting my feet wet,” Olsen said Wednesday after Hawks practice. “Now, coming in during that losing streak, I wanted to do whatever I could to help out the team. They paired me with Duncan Keith, and I think we’ve been playing really well together. We communicate all the time. I think that’s the key.”
Olsen had the proverbial cup of coffee with the Hawks making his NHL debut back in early January. He played in two games and was sent back to the minors but not before Joel Quenneville took notice.
“I liked his progress right from the outset here in his first couple of games,” Quenneville stated. “He went back. He seems to be playing at a real high level for us. We like his size, his quickness his presence. He’s playing the right side for us which helps. Him and Duncs have been pretty solid together.”
When Olsen returned due to injuries to Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador his responsibilities immediately increased. He was minus-4 in his first four games, but he’s plus-5 in his last three. He was simply around the puck a lot on Sunday against Detroit producing shots on goal, takeaways, hits and even some turnovers. He knows what he has to improve on.
“A couple bad turnovers in my D-zone,” Olsen said. “Putting pucks where they shouldn’t go. I know that. It’s just mental mistakes. Try to work on that.”
Playing more minutes than he even did in the minors, Olsen is trying to be a sponge with his veteran teammates, especially his partner Keith.
“On the bench after I come off for a shift he tells me ‘Maybe you could have done this next time,’ ” Olsen said. “[Sean] O’Donnell has been helping me out a lot, too.”
Olsen has size (6-foot-2, 214 pounds) and quickness. Those are traits any coach likes to have on his blue line. But instincts are key for young defenders. "Should I ring the puck around the boards or clear it up the middle? Do I have a safety valve in case I’m in trouble?" Those are questions all defensemen face, and Olsen isn’t just learning by dipping his feet in the pool. The Hawks are asking him to jump right in. Corey Crawford has played behind him for most of his games since being recalled. He’s seeing a maturing player.
“You can see with each game that he plays he’s getting more comfortable with certain plays,” Crawford said. “He’s starting to get a feel for the guys he plays with. That’s really important. That’s probably the most important I think.”
It's safe to say Bowman isn’t changing any of his plans because of Olsen’s play. Many a rookie -- see Andrew Shaw -- end up hitting a wall and the Hawks already have 20-year-old Nick Leddy seeing significant time on the back end. But Olsen simply gives the Hawks more options when they finalize their situation on defense after the trade deadline. Options are always good.
“We feel he can move and handle situations and play against good players,” Quenneville said. “Two young kids getting top quality ice time is impressive long term organizationally on the back end.”
Hjalmarsson is due back from injury on Thursday, odds are that it won’t be Olsen coming out of the lineup for him. Not after averaging about 20 minutes of ice time over the last four games and producing that plus-5 rating. So you can count Olsen as a guy that’s already moved into the top 6, and he’s steadily advancing -- at least for now.
“I hope so,” Olsen said. “I would absolutely love to stay here and help keep the team winning and hopefully go through a good playoff run. But that’s not up to me. I just have to keep doing what I have to do to stay in Chicago.
“Coming up here and playing 20 minutes a night is incredible. Especially for a rookie.”
The tipping point: The Hawks talked more on Wednesday about their turnaround since losing nine straight games. They’ve won their last four.
“If I had to make a defining moment, it might have been the third goal against in Nashville,” Quenneville said. “That might have been a defining moment where things had to turn after that point.”
The Hawks played a stellar game on Valentine’s Day against the Predators, giving up just 19 shots while peppering Pekka Rinne with 32 of their own. They were tied 2-2 late in the contest and headed for at least a point in the standings for the first time in two weeks. But a tipped shot got by Ray Emery late in the third period sent the Hawks to their ninth straight defeat.
“That was a brutal loss, that stung,” Quenneville said. “Not that the other ones didn’t, but that was like ‘That’s gotta be the end.’”
And it was the end. The Hawks haven’t looked back, outscoring their opponents 15-5 since that goal.