Alex Vlasic is developing into the defenseman the Blackhawks hoped he’d be

TORONTO — Alex Vlasic can no longer stand the sight of an unmade bed.

He’s become one of those people who has to make his bed before he leaves home every morning. And when he doesn’t …

“If I do forget, it just looks dirty, it looks gross,” Vlasic said.

The 22-year-old Vlasic wasn’t always that way. It wasn’t that long ago he didn’t make his bed, didn’t read outside of what was required in his classes. You know, lived pretty much like any other college student.

Vlasic decided this offseason to try to open his mind to new ideas. He began picking up self-help-type books and found he liked them. He wasn’t searching to transform his life, just improve it a bit, and what he read made sense to him.

“Just kind of like little things that you can do to get one percent better every day,” Vlasic said. “I think that’s big for me, like making sure I’m staying disciplined with little things throughout the day. Like making my bed was a big thing I read from a book. Sounds kind of stupid, but there was some military speech and he was just talking about how making your bed every day is a good way to start the day, feels like you did something and you’re more likely to kind of complete those goals throughout the day. Yeah, I don’t know. I just think I’m trying to do as much as I can away from the rink to help me out in the rink.”

Vlasic is unsure whether what he’s doing away from the ice is having an impact on it, but it’s difficult even for him not to make correlations. On and off it, he feels good, possesses more confidence, has learned to shrug off mistakes and has become more detail oriented.

The on-ice results speak for themselves. Outside of Connor Bedard, Vlasic has arguably been the Blackhawks’ most impressive player over the season’s opening. And on the Blackhawks’ seventh day of the season, he played possibly the best NHL game of his young career. From helping shut down the league’s hottest goal scorer in Auston Matthews to setting up the game-winning breakaway goal, Vlasic’s contributions were vast in the Blackhawks’ 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I think it’s up there,” Vlasic said of ranking his performance. “I think, could be one of my best for sure. I think just taken the next step as the season’s gone on, I’ve been able to progress. And I’m definitely going to have ups and downs, but I think as long as I’m headed in an upward trajectory, I should be in good shape.”

Vlasic’s upward trajectory has a lot to do with him taking a step back last season. He was hopeful he’d be an everyday NHL player from the moment he entered the league after finishing his junior season at Boston University in the spring of 2022. He ended the 2021-22 season playing NHL games and showed some promise. But come the next season, Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson thought he could benefit from playing major minutes in every situation in Rockford.

Vlasic can now say Davidson was definitely right. Vlasic can see where he has improved in almost every area due to spending most of last season with the IceHogs.

Let’s start with the offense. Vlasic’s stretch pass to free Corey Perry for a breakaway goal in the second period Monday is an example of Vlasic’s progression. That patience is new.

“I think maybe go back to even last year; I think last year probably wiring that off the glass,” Vlasic said. “But this year, definitely have a little bit more confidence, a little bit more mojo, felt pretty good today. So, yeah, I think that definitely had something to do with it.”

Vlasic’s puck skills have come a long way. It’s something he and skills coach Brian Keane have worked on the last few seasons. Vlasic was even getting power-play time in Rockford last season.

But as much as that part of his game has grown, Vlasic’s greatest asset remains his defensive ability, and that aspect of his game is moving to an elite level. With his smooth skating, 6-foot-6 frame, added weight (he’s up to 218 pounds) and a better understanding of positioning and how to use his stick and body, Vlasic has become the Blackhawks’ best defenseman at killing plays.

“Just maturing and some time,” Blackhawks coach Luke Richardson said. “The repetition last year of being the main guy like he was tonight in the American League really helped. He probably wasn’t going to do that with us and there’d be a lot of hard knocks, and I think at the end of the year, he came up and played well and felt more confident than his first stint, which I wasn’t here for the year before, and he’s gotten bigger and stronger and he’s paying attention to some detail. I think him and Seth (Jones) are playing excellent right now, so just a little bit of repetition and a little bit of maturity and he’s come a long way.”

Again, outside of Bedard’s highlight offensive plays, it’s been Vlasic’s defensive plays that have jumped out most early in the season. Here is a mixtape of Vlasic’s highlights so far:

And another:

And, finally, another:

Monday’s game will add even more highlights to it. Vlasic seemed again to be in the right place every time in the defensive zone. He broke up plays with his stick. He stopped opponents along the boards with his body. He was positionally sound.

Which all played a part in Matthews’ not scoring a single goal after recording back-to-back hat tricks in his previous two games. In the 9:58 of five-on-five ice time, Vlasic spent with Matthews, the Blackhawks outscored the Maple Leafs 1-0. In Vlasic’s 18:42 overall of five-on-five time, the Blackhawks had more shot attempts, shots on goal, scoring chances and goals. He finished with a career-high 22:18 of ice time.

Vlasic has been tall for some time, but he feels like it’s just been in recent years that he’s realized how to best utilize his physical tools.

“I think I’m still trying to learn it,” Vlasic said. “I think that’s a big part of what can be my game. You look at a guy in Boston like Charlie McAvoy. I feel like he’s so good at using his body. He obviously lays guys out. I don’t think I’m ever gonna be somebody that’s going for those big hits, but kind of just if it’s just getting my arm in their way, like I have a pretty big wingspan, and I think I’m just getting stronger and more comfortable using my size, too. I think that’s a big part of it. But yeah, it’s definitely a big advantage. I feel like over the past couple of years, I’ve been told to work on it, so that’s something I’m trying to get better at.”

Vlasic has kept his new reading habit going during the season, too. The book Atomic Habits was one he found interesting during the summer. Lately, it’s been 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.

“One of the things is they don’t dwell on the past,” Vlasic said. “I think that’s something huge I try. I used to get down on myself pretty bad when I was younger and had a bad game or a bad play. I’d kind of let it linger in my head for a little bit too long. And I think now that I’m more mature, I kind of like learn from that. Like reading the book, you’re able to kind of see things that stick out to me, and it’s been good all around so far. I think I’ve been learning a lot of stuff. Just even like reading little blocks, everything I can do to get better and gain a competitive edge.”

So far, it seems to be working.

(Photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)

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