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Blackhawks prospect Drew Commesso views first-year pro growing pains as ‘stepping stone to get better'

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Chicago Blackhawks goaltending prospect Drew Commesso turned pro last April after a very successful junior campaign at Boston University. He lost only eight games last season and won 24 of them, which ranked fourth among all NCAA goaltenders.

In his first AHL season with the Rockford IceHogs, Commesso is 8-10-2 with a 2.91 goals-against average, .895 save percentage and one shutout through 20 appearances. Not exactly the numbers he's used to seeing for himself.

"I was pretty spoiled the last few seasons being on kind of a loaded BU team, especially last year," Commesso told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think in one month I lost more games this year than I did all of last year."

Commesso is 21 years old but he's got the demeanor of a veteran and speaks like one too. He didn't seem too hung up on the struggles and was already thinking about how going through the adversity will make him a better goaltender in the future.

"I went through a little bit of a rough patch, which I feel like, in hindsight, in the long run I needed," Commesso said. "It was really good for me just to zero in on my habits and dial in some stuff away from the rink too. Everyone always says that the first season’s not easy and it’s a lot of learning and adapting, and I think I’ve done a really good job with that. 

"I didn’t expect it to be a straight shot, and it never is. Anything you really want, you’re going to go up and down and you’re going to have success and failure, and for me it’s how I view the failures. I was having some bad games and instead of getting frustrated, I was trying to take what I can learn from it and getting some advice from some other guys, more veteran guys, and it helped me a lot.

"Whether it’s in hockey or life, you’re going to go through some ups and downs no matter what and no matter who you are, so I feel like I’ve really benefited from it now and learn how to handle the pro life. I know that I came face to face with a lot of failure earlier in the year and I viewed it as a stepping stone to get better."

Rockford IceHogs head coach Anders Sorensen had a similar assessment of Commesso's first year in the AHL so far.

"It’s been a little bit up and down," Sorensen said. "I think long term, it’s good for him cause you have to go through these things, right? Long term for his development, I think it’s going to be really good. He was trending up and then went down a little bit. 

"We think he has more in him. It’s his first year pro, so finding that and stabilizing and being calm and realize that there’s some goals you can’t do anything about and just moving on, and I think he does have that demeanor, which is good."

Blackhawks assistant GM and director of player personnel Mark Eaton isn't concerned about Commesso's struggles, either. In fact, he welcomes it to some degree.

"He’s always been mature beyond his years, and for him to realize that growth mindset we’re always pushing, sometimes it’s easier to say it than actually do it," Eaton said. "We tell all of our young guys that nobody’s path to the NHL is a straight trajectory up and to the right. You’re going to have peaks and valleys, and it’s what you’re able to learn from those valleys that are going to make you a better player overall and a better person as well. 

"If we had our way dealing with the amateur prospects, if we could manufacture adversity for them, sometimes we kind of wish we could do that because it introduces it to them, they’re more abt to learn the tools, to deal with adversity. Drew probably didn’t face much at BU adversity wise, so he’s facing it here and he’s facing it head-on and, like he said, it’s only going to make him better."

Getting used to the on-ice transition from college to pros is one thing. The speed is different, players are smarter, and shots are harder.

For Commesso, the biggest adjustment has been getting acclimated to life as a pro off the ice.

"I didn’t expect it to be as hard away from the rink," Commesso said. "In college, I always had school and stuff to get my mind off of things, and I think that little rough patch I went through was great for me because it kind of reminded me to take a step away from hockey and really appreciate and remind yourself how lucky you are to play hockey for a living.

"My bad days are someone else’s dream days, so that’s kind of how I looked at it and it helped me a lot, so really getting my mental preparation away from the rink helped me a ton. I feel like I’m in a great spot right now and continuing going at that pace the rest of the season and getting a lot better too."

On the ice, Commesso made a minor mechanical tweak over the summer after working out with Boston Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman all offseason. He lowered his hands because the low glove and low blocker shots are "the hardest to save, so I think having lower hands, naturally you just don't have to move to the puck as much," Commesso said during training camp.

Even though the results aren't there, Commesso feels those changes have benefited him.

"It for sure has," Commesso said. "I think if you watch my game right now compared to last season, you really see a completely different goaltender in a lot of the good ways and a lot of ways that translate really well to pro. Right now I’m really just focusing on making sure those are all crisp and polished and really giving our team a good chance to win every game because that’s all I can control."

And that's all the Blackhawks organization probably wants Commesso to focus on right now: Process over the results, especially for a young goaltender.

The AHL All-Star break is approaching, and that should be a welcoming mental reset for Commesso as he prepares for the stretch run. Rockford has done an admirable job of staying afloat in the playoff race while the Blackhawks and IceHogs both dealt with "a rash of injuries I've never seen before," Sorensen said.

If the IceHogs want to stay there and make a deep run, they're going to need one of their goaltenders to step up, and Commesso is feeling increasingly confident that his game is finally starting to trend in the right direction.

"I feel like right now my game is in an excellent spot," Commesso said. "I feel like I’m a much better goalie than I was to start the year even from the end of last season, so I feel like I’ve progressed very well and hopefully going to continue that and really just focusing on having a really strong and consistent end of the second half, that’s my goal. 

"I feel like I’ve caught up to the speed, I know what to expect, and I feel like I’m going to have a really good second half, so I’m excited."

Commesso, who was selected by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2020 NHL Draft, is still a ways away from being a full-time NHL goaltender, and he understands that. But that doesn't mean he doesn't allow himself to dream about what it would be like to be with the Blackhawks one day and use it as motivation.

"I’d say it’s something that I honestly think about a lot," Commesso said. "It’s something that drives me every single day. I think it’s really healthy to have that. I’m really close with a lot of the guys up there; I stay in touch with Alex Vlasic all the time, Kevin Korchinski has been great too, so watching them have success is awesome.

"But for me it kind of just stays in the back of my mind. When I get tired and stuff, I always just remind myself how bad I want to be there and am willing to do whatever it takes to get there. At the same time, I’m patient though and I don’t want to rush it. I know I have a lot of room to develop and I’m developing great here, so really just focusing on my attitude and my work ethic every day, and I know if I continue to do that, I’ll end up in the right spot."

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