Blackhawks rookie Kevin Korchinski might not feel like an NHLer yet, but he’s here to stay

TEMPE, Ariz. — The beauty of this season, if you’re a Blackhawks fan, is that the wins and losses really don’t matter. Your team isn’t actively tanking like last season, so you can enjoy the occasional nice wins when they come. But your team isn’t anywhere near contending for a playoff spot, so you can brush off the inevitable hideous losses. All you need to see is a nasty Connor Bedard snipe or a slick Kevin Korchinski setup each night and, hey, the rest of the game is just gravy.

Even if that gravy is actually an odious toxic sludge oozing its way through your living room, destroying everything in its path.

Which takes us to Monday night’s game against the Arizona Coyotes.

The first 28 seconds went about as well as possible, with Korchinski setting up Bedard for his fourth goal in as many games (three of which counted). The rest of the game? Well, the rest of the game was a blur of brick red and desert sand, of Arvid Söderblom losing his crease, of the second and third pairing blundering in their own end, of goal after goal after goal after goal. Eight of them, all told, against just the one Bedard tally. It was pretty brutal. But, hey, the Blackhawks won both their fights, so let’s call it a wash or something. Whatever. Doesn’t matter.

Let’s focus on those first 28 seconds. And not on Bedard for once. Bedard did what Bedard does, unleashing a ludicrous shot that beat Coyotes goaltender Connor Ingram high on the short side. Let’s focus on Korchinski, the other franchise tentpole who’s breaking into the league at the same time as his more famous fellow teen.

In any other season, Korchinski would be the one with all the scrutiny. He’d be the one answering all the questions, shouldering the hopes of an entire fan base. After all, he was the seventh overall pick in the 2022 draft, a guy for whom the Blackhawks essentially traded Alex DeBrincat. He’s supposed to be the next Duncan Keith, the next great No. 1 defenseman, the engine propelling the next great Blackhawks team from the back end. But Bedard’s shadow is long, and buys Korchinski a lot of cover, a lot of grace.

Not that he seems to need it.

Korchinski very quietly (thanks, Connor) played in his ninth NHL game Monday night at Mullett Arena. Typically with a teenage rookie, that game comes with a lot of fanfare and a lot of debate. One more game, and he burns the first year of his entry-level contract. It’s usually a big deal, a monster decision for a franchise. But with Korchinski — just as with Bedard — it’s a foregone conclusion.

He’s not going back to the Western Hockey League.

“It would be safe to assume that,” coach Luke Richardson allowed on Monday afternoon. “I haven’t had any conversations with anybody about that. He’s played well and deserves this. He’s a big part of our team.”

Korchinski hasn’t had The Talk with anybody, not Richardson, not general manager Kyle Davidson. That’s how secure his position is. He’s surely been counting games in his head like any junior-eligible rookie would, but he just shrugged when the topic was broached following Monday’s morning skate. He honestly hasn’t given it much thought. But don’t take that as Korchinski getting cocky, or taking an NHL roster spot for granted. Quite the opposite, actually. He’s just having too much fun to focus on anything else.

He’s in the NHL. How cool is that?

“For me, being here is a privilege, and obviously it’s really cool — this whole experience with the guys, to see what the NHL is about. I just want to play my game and prove I belong here.”

There’s little question about that. Korchinski hasn’t been lighting it up offensively (the Bedard goal was his third assist in nine games), but the lanky blue-liner has looked surprisingly comfortable in his own end. He had a big moment in Las Vegas on Saturday night, getting pressed into penalty-killing duty with Alex Vlasic knocked out of the game with a concussion and Seth Jones in the penalty box. In a tied game against the undefeated defending Stanley Cup champions, Korchinski stepped right in and helped kill off the Jones penalty and get the Blackhawks to overtime, where Philipp Kurashev scored the game-winner.

The offense will come. When you watch him skate and when you see him make a heads-up pass like the bullet across the seam he sent to Bedard on Monday night, you know the offense will come. Defending is the hardest thing for a young defenseman, and Korchinski seems well ahead of the curve. He entered Monday’s game with a 50.73 percent expected-goals share, the only Blackhawks defenseman and the only everyday player on the roster not underwater. The Blackhawks have been outscored 11-4 with him on the ice at five-on-five, but the numbers suggest he’s due for a very positive regression (Chicago’s on-ice save percentage with him is an anomalous .849). It’s why he got bumped up to the top pairing alongside Seth Jones even before Vlasic suffered a concussion in Vegas.

For lack of a better word, he looks comfortable out there. That’s because he is. The NHL doesn’t seem to intimidate him.

“Hockey’s a game I’ve been playing all my life,” he said. “I try to go out there and have fun and enjoy it. That’s when you’re at your best. Obviously, there’s pressure just because you’re playing against the best players in the world. But it’s been fun. It’s been unreal.”

Just because Korchinski isn’t headed back to Seattle doesn’t mean he’ll be with the Blackhawks all season. If the Blackhawks are well out of the playoff picture, as expected, Davidson could have Korchinski play in the world juniors in Gothenburg, Sweden, around Christmas and New Year’s.

Of course, the very idea likely sends shivers down the spines of Blackhawks fans after the team did that with Kirby Dach three years ago, only to see him break his wrist in an exhibition game before the tournament. That injury cost him months, stunted his development and indirectly helped lead to his trade to Montreal.

Korchinski isn’t sweating that, either.

“That’s just a freak accident,” he said. “I can get injured whether I’m here or there, anything can happen. But world juniors, obviously that’d be special. There are a lot of guys on the team that are some of my best buds, guys I grew up playing with and playing against. Representing your country is one of the greatest honors in the world. You only get a couple cracks at that tournament, and it’s so prestigious. Everybody in Canada watches.”

Hell, Korchinski said he’d even embrace it if the Blackhawks did decide to send him back to Seattle. Even after getting a taste of that NHL life, with its chartered jets, five-star hotels and all the good food you can eat.

“I just like playing hockey,” he said with a smile. “Just give me a stick and gloves, and I’m happy.”

He’s not going to Seattle. He might go to Sweden. But right now he’s heading back to Chicago, where he’ll ideally stay for the next 10 or 15 years. So forget the eight consecutive Coyotes goals and just call up a GIF of that Korchinski pass to Bedard in the opening minute. That’s what matters. That’s the future.

Kevin Korchinski is an NHLer, whether he feels like one or not.

“I don’t know if I feel like an NHLer, but I got to see what the NHL is like,” he said, still couching his future, just to be safe. “It’s so cool just being able to travel to all these places, to play against the best players, to play in front of the best fans. To just experience a small dose of that has been unreal. It’s been the coolest time of my life.”

(Photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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