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What the Blackhawks’ future holds for forwards like MacKenzie Entwistle, Mike Hardman

What can this forward duo offer the Blackhawks?

The Blackhawks will have many decisions to make this offseason, especially in terms of deciding which players to keep among their surplus of bottom-six forwards. They have veteran option in players like David Kampf, Ryan Carpenter, Brett Connolly, and Vinnie Hinostroza (if he’s re-signed) and they have younger possibilities in Brandon Hagel, Adam Gaudette, and Philipp Kurashev.

Everyone in that group spent a majority of the season playing in the NHL, but some others weren’t quite so lucky. Let’s take a look at a couple young forwards that only got a cup of coffee in the big show: MacKenzie Entwistle and Mike Hardman.

After being drafted in the third round (69th overall) by the Arizona Coyotes at the 2017 NHL draft, Entwistle’s development has steadily progressed. During his two final OHL seasons, his production took off and his performance in the playoffs really shined.

  • 2017-18: 38 points (13 G, 25 A) in 49 regular season games and 17 points (10 G, 7 A) in 21 playoff games.
  • 2018-19: 57 points (30 G, 27 A) in 29 regular season games and 21 points (7 G, 14 A) in 24 playoff games.

In addition to his offense, Entwistle was touted as a strong two-way player with power-forward capabilities with some positional versatility — he played center and wing in juniors. It’s easy to see why Blackhawks fans found him enticing after he was acquired in 2018 in the trade that sent Marian Hossa’s contract to the Coyotes.

However, the transition to professional hockey wasn’t particularly smooth, and Entwistle initially struggled with the IceHogs. He eventually found his footing and finished second on the team in rookie scoring with 26 points (11 G , 15 A) in 56 AHL games. Those are solid numbers but not overly impressive, which could explain why his NHL equivalency (NHLe in the chart above) dipped slightly in D3 (three years past his draft) in the chart above. Entwistle was learning how to effectively use his size and strength to his advantage and be strong on the puck when needed. He thrived on the IceHogs’ penalty kill with his good positioning and active stick in passing lanes.

That chart also doesn’t include the 2021 season, when Entwistle was mostly in Rockford continuing to hone his skills at the professional level. He had 12 points (4 G, 8 A) in 22 AHL games or 0.56 points-per-game, a marked improvement over his 0.46 PPG the season before — albeit in half the sample. His shot is decent but he didn’t take advantage of it enough, though. Entwistle’s greatest attribute is his hockey IQ, playing a smart game with or without the puck. He was good at cycling the puck and/or holding his own while battling in front of the net.

Entwistle’s sample size in the NHL is obviously too small to determine if his skills will translate to that level, but there were positives to note. He showed flashes of offensive skill — primarily when in transition — and finished with 2 points (1 G, 1 A) in five NHL games. Entwistle had high energy while being responsible defensively, often opting for the safe play. At 6-foot-3, Entwistle’s reach was noticeable, especially along the boards where he could poke pucks free in scrums. He acted as a power forward type in lower levels but his frame is light for his height at only 183 pounds, so it’s uncertain if he’ll have the same success without adding more muscle.

Entwistle has been working on his skating recently and it was quite noticeable in his short NHL stint, especially his straight-line speed. He’s never been labeled as slow, but his first steps and acceleration weren’t particularly impressive either, which is why it was surprising how quick he looked when with the Blackhawks. Considering how fast the NHL has become, improved speed can hopefully help Entwistle secure a lasting position with the Blackhawks sooner rather than later.

Although Entwistle had been pegged as a fourth-line and penalty kill specialist ala Marcus Kruger, his improvement in skating and progress with offense suggests he could be more of a third-line player instead. Before this season began, Blackhawks Assistant GM Ryan Stewart had discussed some of Entwistle attributes that could see him playing up the lines:

“He’s got a lot more offensive touch than people gave him credit for early on when he was framed as that defensive, rugged centerman. He can play the wing. He’s good around the net. He’s got a good release. He wants the puck. He wants to be a difference-maker.”

Ultimately, Entwistle is likely ready for an extended look in the NHL next season. The competition will be fierce due to the sheer number of forwards, but his defensive prowess and versatility should work in his favor to give him the needed edge.

Despite playing well in his first season of draft eligibility, Hardman was overlooked and went undrafted, likely due to the lack of notoriety of his high school program. In the following years, Hardman had a rough season in the USHL, which affected his draft stock. After an “alright” season in the BCHL, it wasn’t surprising he went undrafted again. Lucky for him, Hardman opted for the college route and his hockey career finally took a turn for the positive.

Before signing as a free agent with the Blackhawks, Hardman had just completed his sophomore season at Boston College. At BC, Hardman skated on one of college hockey’s best lines, playing primarily with 2019 first-round picks Alex Newhook (Colorado) and Matthew Boldy (Minnesota). The trio had been put together the year before to be dubbed the “Freshman Line.” While Hardman was older and doesn’t have the resume of the others, he was critical to the success of that line in both seasons.

  • 2019-20: 25 points (12 G, 13 A) in 34 games
  • 2020-21: 19 points (10 G, 9 A) in 24 games and one assist in one playoff game

Although Hardman spent slightly less time with Newhook and Boldy in his second NCAA season, his production stayed consistent, improving just slightly from 0.74 to 0.79 points-per-game. Regardless of who his linemates were, he tended to be the player doing the dirty work to set up offense via board battling, puck retrieval, and acting as net-front presence. Hardman was turnover prone in transition, but he did improve year-over-year in that regard. He had a decent shot but tended to score mainly in-close off shovels and often on the rebound. Overall, Hardman’s physicality lent itself as a compliment to the high-end skill of his linemates.

Hardman’s sample in the NHL was also very small, but the blue-collar mentality that was seen in his NCAA game was again on display. He finished with 3 points (1 G, 2 A) in eight NHL games, with two of those points coming from passes/shots in high-danger areas of the ice while. The third came after helping win a board battle to spring another player for a rush. His nose for the net, forechecking ability, and willingness to engage along the boards seemed to translate to the NHL decently. His passing was solid as well — more efficient than creative — though that wasn’t his forté at college.

At 6-2 and 205 pounds, he certainly used his size to assert himself physically as expected, racking up seven hits in his first NHL game alone. He’ll need to work on his timing, though, as smart hitting is key in the NHL today, especially for a player like Hardman who isn’t the fastest. When he focused on efficiency of the hit rather than the power, Hardman’s hitting and checking was a definitive asset.

There’s a lot to like about Hardman’s game: it’s a simple, physical style that has worked well along the boards and in front of the net. But the transition from NCAA to NHL can be tough: what worked physically against younger players won’t work against older NHL vets. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman summed up Hardman’s style of play simply:

“He has quick hands, can make some plays and score around the tough areas. He’s not a dynamic skill type, but he has good flashes. Hardman isn’t the quickest, though, which may hold him back from the NHL.”

So while it’s unknown if Hardman has the skating and consistency to play in the NHL yet, it’s likely he’d play the role of a body checker on either an offensive third-line — again complimentary to higher skilled players — or on a grinding, energy fourth-line.