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Mark Visentin hoping to be Blackhawks' next goalie success story

The Chicago Blackhawks have taken chances on goaltenders before and had it pay off.

Carter Hutton signed to an AHL deal in 2011, and he turned into an NHL goalie. The Blackhawks signed Scott Darling to a two-way contract last season, and he made his NHL debut by October.

The Blackhawks are hoping Mark Visentin is the next goaltender to reward them. Visentin recently signed a one-year AHL contact with the Rockford IceHogs and will share the net with Michael Leighton next season. The Blackhawks aren't expected to bring in another AHL goaltender.

Like Hutton, Visentin will have a chance to earn a contract with the Blackhawks.

“We’ll start him on an American Hockey League deal and always have the ability to flip later,” Blackhawks minor league affiliations general manager and hockey administration director Mark Bernard said Friday. “You’re only allowed so many NHL contracts. But as I always tell our players, it doesn’t matter if you’re on an American League or East Coast deal, the best players rise to the top.”

Signing Visentin isn’t a massive gamble for the Blackhawks. Signing Darling was probably a bigger one. Visentin is 22 years old, was a highly touted junior player, was drafted in the first round by the Arizona Coyotes in 2010 and has already played an NHL game.

Visentin sat out last season after suffering an ankle injury and undergoing surgery. The Coyotes did not place a qualifying offer on him as a restricted free agent after last season, and he became an unrestricted free agent.

Visentin looked around for nearly a week after hitting the open market and found the Blackhawks’ pitch to be the best one. Visentin was sold because he will be the organization’s No. 4 goaltender on the depth chart, will have a chance to earn an NHL contract, will get to learn from a veteran goaltender in Leighton and will be part of a winning organization.

“I think everything that happened the last few years I put behind me,” Visentin said by phone. “Starting with a new team is like a fresh start. It’s a change. I think change is good in this situation.

“The way I look at it is I have an opportunity to play for a great organization. I think the way it works in my mind is I expect to have a good season and with that I can earn a new contract. The goal for me is to come back, to get healthy and playing well and everything will take care of itself.”

Visentin thought he was on right track with his career just a year ago. He had played 75 games for the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate and made his NHL debut at the end of the 2013-14 season. He stopped 29-of-32 shots in a 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on April 12, 2014.

Visentin turned 22 in August and entered his third professional season ready to take the next step in his career. But his plans were derailed when he fell awkwardly in training camp and injured his ankle. The ankle never got better and he underwent surgery in late December. He was officially cleared last week for all hockey activities.

Visentin is confident he can get back to where he was. Part of the driving force for him is that brief taste of the NHL.

“I think it was huge,” Visentin said of his NHL debut. “It really solidified in my mind I can play at that level. More importantly, there’s no surprises now. I know what to expect when called up. That’s huge for any player. Having those experiences does help you moving forward. I set high goals for myself.”

The NHL is the ultimate goal, and he’s using Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw as an example of how it can be done within the organization. Visentin and Shaw were teammates on the Niagara IceDogs in the OHL, and Visentin witnessed how Shaw worked his way from an AHL contract to a permanent place in the NHL with the Blackhawks.

“He was that scrappy guy who fought everyone’s biggest guy,” Visentin said of Shaw. “It’s pretty cool to see the success he’s had. He’s a heart-on-the-sleeve type of guy. He obviously shows that. He deserves to be where he is.”

Bernard is optimistic Visentin can succeed in a similar way.

“We think there’s a ton of potential there,” Bernard said. “He didn’t get to where he was in junior hockey and a first-round pick by accident. Goalies develop at different stages. It took Corey Crawford five years to develop. Every goaltender matures and evolves at a different rate. He’s only 22 years old, and there’s a lot of time for him. We’re excited to give him the opportunity and see what he does with it.”