Vinnie Hinostroza’s 2-goal game a sign of progress, but is it enough?

The rookie forward has been the latest to step up, but the idea of him filling a top-six role going forward remains a dubious proposal.

It seems like each of the Chicago Blackhawks’ rookies has taken a turn stepping up at times this season. Nobody has broken out like Artemi Panarin did a year ago, but the Hawks have won a lot of games because of the efforts of their first-year players. The latest was a 6-4 victory over the Avalanche on Tuesday.

Vinnie Hinostroza has been the most recent to show signs of finding his NHL groove, and we saw that come together with a two-goal third period in the win over Colorado. The rookie has been bumped into a bigger role over the past few weeks due to injuries, and he’s been performing relatively well since then.

The biggest thing you’re looking for from a speedy forward like Hinostroza is offensive production, and he’s brought that more of late. Over the past 18 games, during which he’s played more consistently with teammates out of the lineup, the rookie has recorded five goals and four assists. Even more impressively, he’s averaged nearly 2.4 shots per game, with all of his playing time coming at even strength.

One of his main issues remains consistency. He’s still had some very poor performances,  like the one that directly preceded his big game against Colorado. The Wild completely contained Hinostroza, limiting him to zero shots on goal and putting his line constantly on the defensive. The Wild outshot the Hawks, 13-2, with Hinostroza on the ice in 5-on-5 play in that game.

His possession numbers haven’t taken a meaningful leap because of performances like that one. He’s been hovering around 48 percent in 5-on-5 Corsi most of the season, and playing next to Jonathan Toews hasn’t meaningfully changed that. One player in particular who he’s shown good chemistry with is fellow rookie Ryan Hartman, which makes sense considering they’ve been teammates at many stops in their careers.

The blender has bounced Hinostroza around the lineup, though, so he’s seen minutes on the top line, the fourth line, and everywhere in between.

On his better nights, Hinostroza looks like another legit NHL piece for the Blackhawks. He’s small, but can turn on the jets quickly, like we saw on a breakaway goal against the Avs. And while he’s never going to be as strong on the puck as similarly diminutive players like Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, he’s still skilled enough that he can occasionally make defenses pay when his speed frees up space.

In an ideal situation, you’d be able to deploy Hinostroza similarly to how the team used Teuvo Teravainen most of his first two seasons: as a speedy, offensive weapon on the third line. The Hawks haven’t had that luxury often this season because their forward corps has never really found the right structure. Marcus Kruger as a third center gives that line a decidedly defensive role, so Hinostroza has either been in a top-six role or a fourth line role most of the season.

If the team could find a way to restructure its lines like it did in the past, with Kruger on a hyper-defensive fourth line that frees up the other three lines for easier assignments, that would seem ideal. But without the talent to build a proper third line, the team has opted to just bump Kruger up and increase his role a bit. While Kruger playing more isn’t a problem in itself, his elevation exposes a lack of depth that prevents them from deploying the same line strategy they used before.

That’s cost Hinostroza at times when he’s stuck getting fourth line minutes with middling players like Jordin Tootoo and Andrew Desjardins, but as we’ve seen in a bigger role, there’s some ability when he’s paired with more skilled teammates.

As Jamal Mayers mentioned in a podcast Wednesday, the Hawks are a team that doesn’t always treat every game with the same urgency in the doldrums of January. His bigger point was that, in these times when the veterans are maybe easing off the gas a bit, it’s a crucial chance for guys like Hinostroza to kick it up a notch and show they can shoulder a bigger load.

It’s fair to say that Hinostroza struggles against tougher opponents, as some of his best games lately have come against teams like the Avalanche, Hurricanes, Sabres, and Red Wings, but the Hawks will need their superstars to carry the load if they’re gonna beat the great teams anyway. If the young guys can at least steal a few wins against the lesser opponents and improve that playoff standing a bit, it gives the team some breathing room to figure out what the plan is.

While there’s still a decent chance the Hawks go out and trade for some help before the deadline, it’ll otherwise need to come from guys like Hinostroza, Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, and Gustav Forsling stepping up. We’re seeing the flashes, but now we need to see more of them, and against better opponents. That’s gotta be the next step in the youth movement.