Dave Bolland exemplified what it meant to be effective at not only getting under the team’s skin -- especially of their best players like Brad Marchand and the Sedin Twins -- but also backing up his actions with actual hockey skills that make a difference on the outcome of a game.
For Bolland, his impact came as being one of the top defensive centers in the league who also had some offensive jam as a 0.50 PPG player. He came into the NHL touted as a 2nd liner yet was at his best as a 3C even though he wasn’t particularly strong on draws.
Bolland also brought snarl with scrappy play in addition to a willingness to play physical despite his slender, wiry frame. He also dished out hits that left marks and some that led to huge goals.
Not to be outdone, Marcus Kruger was as much a rat as Bolland just without the physicality and side of nasty. Kruger would play to the whistle and subtly yet effectively irritate the opponent by doing things like skate through the crease, jab after the goalie covered, and lay on pucks in scrums.
Kruger was purely a defensive specialist who also was a beast at the dot. While he was an offensive desert -- and at times miscast as a middle 6 center when he excelled as a 4C -- Kruger still ate precious minutes in the O zone and scored some timely goals as a top notch role player.
Then there’s the one and only Andrew Shaw. Sandpaper, big mouth, and solid two-way play as a winger who can be productive up and down the lineup. It remains to be seen if his best days are behind him but he could be more than a shadow of himself if he can rebound this season.
Shaw is also a willing and spirited combatant throwing down with anyone. In these tilts, Shaw did the entire league a solid by taking down the much despised Antoine Roussel.
One thing that Shaw embodies for the team is the fearlessness to not be intimidated as he kindly reminded Steve Ott in this clip.
It’s not that Bolland, Kruger, and Shaw cornered the market on the rat mentality. Many teams have these types of players. However, the best teams leverage these impact players to their advantage in order to be contenders and formidable foes.
The issue, though, is that the rat mentality is something that is missing with today’s Blackhawks. Yes, Shaw is on the team again but he’s been injured and has been a lesser version of what he was in his prime and may struggle to regain that form.
A factor to keep in mind with Bolland, Kruger, and Shaw is that they aren’t huge by any stretch at 6’0” 180 lbs each (Shaw is an inch shorter but we’ll round up for sake of argument). However, they played big in more ways than one to help the Hawks during their Stanley Cup runs.
The new team direction is reportedly focused on players who compete hard in every zone and commit to defense. The 2020 draft class as well as free agent signees Mattias Janmark and Lucas Wallmark attest to that aspired persona.
A competitive fire and defensive conscience were definitely not devoid in Bolland, Kruger, and Shaw. Yet, what they brought to the rink in spades was the rat mentality that can help put a team over the top, especially in lieu of having hulking power forwards or bruising blueliners.
It would be nice if Shaw can bounce back strong and return to the level that has made him a fan favorite and a player who every other team hates. But that’s a lot to ask of someone who is battling with head injuries that could prove to be career threatening.
So do the Hawks have youngsters in the organization who can deliver that rat mentality?
Matthew Highmore is one currently on the roster. His game most closely aligns with Kruger’s style. Other Kruger-like prospects include Brandon Hagel and Antti Saarela. These three are relentless buggers with persistent puck pursuit who agitate with a “death by a thousand paper cuts” approach.
As far as a Bolland analog, Landon Slaggert could be in that mold albeit as a winger rather than a center. He’s aggressive, competitive, physical, and crafty. Like Bolland, Slaggert may thrive best on the 3rd line while being dependable at both ends and on the penalty kill.
For Shaw clones, there are a few prospects who come to mind: Reese Johnson, Evan Barratt, and Tim Soderlund.
Johnson plays the body and flaps his gums all game. His upside is low, though, topping out as a 4th liner or just a 13th forward with limited offense.
Barratt is closest to being the heir apparent to Shaw with his all-around game that allows him to be versatile anywhere he’s slotted in the lineup where he can be gritty and in your face.
Soderlund may not stand out as a rat but he’s Charlie Hustle wrapped up as a little wrecking ball. His speed and endless motor to attack the middle with no fear rubs teams the wrong way. Plus he’s tough to knock down and is equally adept at unloading hits and reverse hits that hurt.