The Chicago Blackhawks have dealt with a few key injuries this season, mostly in spurts, one of which was Alex Vlasic, who left the Oct. 27 game in Vegas after taking a high hit and was placed in concussion protocol the next day.
Fortunately for both the player and team, Vlasic missed only two games and returned on Sunday in a 5-2 loss to New Jersey. After getting that first game under his belt and a few more practices in since then, the 22-year-old defenseman feels up to speed again.
"I feel great," Vlasic said after Wednesday's practice. "It's definitely nice to be symptom-free and back to kind of feeling like myself. It's been fun to get back out there and be with the guys again."
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When he's been healthy and in the lineup, Vlasic has legitimately been one of the Blackhawks' most consistent defensemen. He's taken significant strides in his development, and his teammates have noticed it, too.
"He really has," Connor Murphy agreed. "He's been amazing every game, I think, this season when he's played. He just uses his size and his skating so well, and he seems to be confident using his stick and closing, defending and reading plays.
"And then on top of that, he seems to be taking a big step with his playmaking ability and getting some offense going for us. It's really exciting to see and it's been fun to see him all summer here honestly working on all this stuff and getting his body in a good place to be a dominant pro defenseman that I think he's becoming."
According to Natural Stat Trick, when Vlasic has been on the ice at even strength this season, the Blackhawks have a +4 goal differential, which leads the team. In fact, no other Blackhawks defenseman has a positive differential.
When he's not on the ice at even strength, the Blackhawks have a -13 goal differential. It's a pretty big discrepancy.
"He does pretty much everything well," Blackhawks head coach Luke Richardson said. "His all-around game is really developing well, and he worked on it a lot last year. We just saw a little bit of it up here, but he put a lot of work in over the last two years, and it's really showing. We're benefitting from it and whoever plays with him benefits from it."
In Sunday's game against New Jersey, Vlasic led the Blackhawks with six shots on goal, which was also a career-high. For context, he had only four shots on goal total in six games last season.
Vlasic said earlier in the season that he's playing with "a little bit more mojo," and it seems like he's been the stabilizer of whatever pairing he's been for the Blackhawks. Vlasic takes a lot of pride in that.
"Ever since I was a kid, I feel like I kind of wanted to be that guy who, not necessarily was going to put up a ton of points but can play both sides of the puck and just play well defensively," Vlasic said. "Looking up to my cousin on the Sharks, Marc-Édouard, it felt like early in his career he was that shutdown defenseman. On the Olympic team he was playing Drew Doughty and just kind of being that stabilizing pair, so that's kind of something I try to model my game after I guess."
Vlasic, who has been promoted to the top pairing again with Seth Jones, has worked hard to elevate his all-around game. It's something he focused heavily on in the AHL after playing in all-situations with the Rockford IceHogs, whether it was at even strength or playing on both the top units of the power and penalty kill.
"At the start of last season, being sent down, nobody obviously wants to hear that news, but at the end of the day, looking back towards the end of the year and now, it was such a good experience for me being able to grow and gain confidence down there and work on my skills and all that good stuff," Vlasic said. "So yeah, it's been fun. It's been an interesting ride for me but I'm glad to be here. It's been a great year so far."