One of the big stories out of Russia at this year's World Championships is the magnificent play of Blackhawks forward Artemi Panarin, but it's one of his possible Chicago teammates that's also turning heads. Team USA forward Vincent Hinostroza is coming off a strong 2015-16 season largely playing in the AHL, and now he's following it up with more solid hockey at the international level.
As Scott Powers of The Athletic writes, Hinostroza's game continues to evolve since left Notre Dame to sign an entry-level contract with the Hawks last spring. The 22-year-old fell to the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft because of his lack of size, but he's spent the past four years since showing that he might be one of the rare players skilled enough to overcome his dimensional disadvantages. In 2015-16, he took an especially big leap in becoming the kind of two-way forward Chicago demands.
"With [Rockford coach] Teddy Dent, he taught me a lot about defense this year," Hinostroza told Powers. "Coming into the year, he said that’s what I need to work on and that’s what he’s going to work with me on. He showed me a lot of video just around the D zone when I’m playing center and wing and how I could improve my game in the defensive zone so that we could quickly transfer it to offense."
That commitment to improving defensively may ultimately decide whether Hinostroza can stick in the NHL. He's only 5'9 and 175 pounds on paper, so he needs to learn how to leverage his speed and positioning to be effective in all three zones. Given his impressive scoring numbers in his first year with the IceHogs -- 51 points in 66 games -- the hands are apparent. But as Powers notes, offense was always Hinostroza's calling card. The skepticism always stemmed from whether he'd get enough chances to use those hands in the more confined space of the NHL game.
It seems like there's a very real chance that Hinostroza plays a major role for the Blackhawks next season, though. He told Powers that's his goal -- well, at least once the Worlds are over -- and GM Stan Bowman offered some nice praise for the forward. Obviously the GM isn't going to tank his prospect's value by saying bad things about him in the press, but after getting a cup of coffee with the team last year, Hinostroza might be an answer on the third line next season.
The Bartlett, Ill., native looked overwhelmed at times during his initial stint in Chicago. After the extra time in Rockford and a taste of international play, Hinostroza should be better equipped to make the jump.
There will be opportunities, too. The Blackhawks realistically have eight forwards who are locks to be on the team next season: Toews, Kane, Hossa, Anisimov, Panarin, Teravainen, Kruger and Desjardins. That means there are several spots in the bottom six that still need to be filled, and after going much of the 2015-16 season without steady offensive production from those roles, Hinostroza could potentially be a nice change of pace. You would need to find the right partners to balance with his game, because you know Joel Quenneville isn't going to roll out an undersized line against, say, St. Louis, but I think for a team in need of cost-controlled pieces, Hinostroza at $717,500 will be a tempting option.
That is, if he can convince Coach Q he's worth playing, of course. For an undersized rookie who plays an offensive style, Hinostroza will have to prove that the rest of his game has come a long way to get on Quenneville's good side. Based on a strong year in Rockford, the good vibes coming out of St. Petersburg and the openings on the NHL roster, he should have a very real shot in camp.