LAS VEGAS — When Nick Foligno signed with the Blackhawks this summer, he was excited to take on a bigger role than he had with the Bruins the last two years.
One month into the season, it’s clear he has done that. In the locker room, he has quickly become one of the Hawks’ most outspoken leaders and popular teammates.
And on the ice, he’s enjoying a spike in playing time. Through the Hawks’ first seven games (entering Friday), he had averaged 16:34 of ice time, up significantly from 12:28 and 12:22 the last two seasons. He was among the top eight Hawks in power-play and penalty-kill ice time, too.
For him, the best part of that increased workload is that it also — somehow — makes his body feel better, even as he approaches his 36th birthday on Halloween.
“It’s funny: The game can sometimes be harder when you don’t play as much, right?” Foligno said. “As an older player, you like [when] you know you’re going over the boards more and you get that rhythm of the game. It’s not so choppy.
“That’s where I’m needed right now. Things change as the year goes on, but I’m feeling really healthy. I’m excited about the opportunity to play a little more but also [about] the responsibility that comes with that.
Foligno spent much of September and October on an all-veteran, defense-oriented third line with Corey Perry and Jason Dickinson. Over the last few days, however, the Hawks have promoted Foligno all the way up to the first line alongside Connor Bedard.
“His play has been excellent, so he deserves it,” coach Luke Richardson said. “He gives us a bit of a physical presence on the forecheck [and] the net-front presence . . . so that’s what we’re looking for him to continue.”
Limited chances for plays
Anticipating how much opposing defenses would focus on stopping Bedard this season — perhaps to an excessive degree — the Hawks created four preset plays off offensive-zone faceoff wins designed to exploit that during training camp.
“We drew up four just as a start because you don’t want to have 10 — it’s too overwhelming,” Richardson said. “It’s something simple. It’s laminated. It’s on the wall before games.”
One of the first times they tried executing one of those plays, it worked beautifully. During the Oct. 3 preseason game against the Red Wings, Taylor Hall lined up to take a left-dot faceoff while Bedard lined up on his left wing (against the boards).
Hall won the draw, Bedard cut to the middle to grab the puck and the attention of all eyes, Connor Murphy moved down from the opposite point, Bedard waited a moment to suck in the Wings’ forward before passing to Murphy in space and Murphy ripped a shot into the top corner.
“If you see [Bedard] on the wall, it’s like Alex Ovechkin coming off the wall,” Richardson said that night. “Everybody’s talking [about] who’s getting to him. You kind of forget about everyone else for a second, so they’re open.”
But that was the preseason. In the regular season, those preset plays haven’t had as much success. Against the Canadiens, another one nearly clicked, but Andreas Athanasiou double-hit the puck and sent his shot wide.
Part of the problem is the Hawks don’t win many faceoffs, limiting their opportunities to execute the plays. They entered Friday ranked last in the NHL in total faceoff percentage (39.0%) and second-to-last in offensive-zone faceoff percentage (36.7%).