Trevor van Riemsdyk was a big surprise last season. He made the Chicago Blackhawks out of training camp, got hurt and then returned in time to help his team win the Stanley Cup.
For coach Joel Quenneville, what van Riemsdyk is doing so far this year just feels like an extension of a solid start to his NHL career.
"Getting him back here, playing in some important shifts and the minutes has been growing as well," Quenneville said. "But I think his mind for the game is what we appreciate."
The emergence of the 24-year-old van Riemsdyk is a big reason why Chicago is once again among the top teams in the Western Conference at the NHL's Christmas break after a so-so start to the season.
The Blackhawks (20-12-4) had won three in a row and seven of nine before Tuesday's 4-0 loss at league-leading Dallas. Van Riemsdyk had a rough night with a minus-three rating against the high-scoring Stars, but he leads Chicago with 72 blocked shots and is fifth on the team with an average ice time of 20 1/2 minutes.
"I think there is a lot more comfort there," van Riemsdyk said. "You feel more confident in the things you're doing. Obviously, it comes from just getting that experience. Just feeling more comfortable with who you're playing with or getting that confidence from the coaching staff."
Chicago's defensive depth was a concern coming into the season after Johnny Oduya left in free agency for a $7.5 million, two-year deal with Dallas. Then Duncan Keith, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, had right knee surgery on Oct. 20.
Keith's injury could have turned into a huge problem for the Blackhawks, who play in one of the league's toughest divisions and could ill afford to lose much ground. But van Riemsdyk took on additional ice time in Keith's absence, and Chicago went 5-4-1 without its star defenseman.
"When Duncs went down, it's obviously tough to see," van Riemsdyk said. "But yeah, there's a few more minutes now to be had since he logged so many and I didn't know if I was going to be the guy to play those, but I was looking forward to the chance if they did give it to me. Yeah, those games were great for the experience."
Now he plays alongside Keith on the same defensive pairing.
"It's awesome," van Riemsdyk said. "He's just a great defenseman. I think he pushes you in the right way and gets the best out of you."
Van Riemsdyk joined Chicago in March 2014 after playing college hockey for New Hampshire. His older brother, James, a forward for the Toronto Maple Leafs, also played for the Wildcats, and his younger brother, Brendan, has committed to the program.
Trevor van Riemdsyk said their father, Frans, played hockey in high school, and then at the club level in college. The three brothers tried several different sports while growing up in New Jersey, but each of them took to hockey right away.
"Some pretty good genes in that family," New Hampshire coach Dick Umile said.
James van Riemsdyk was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft and made his NHL debut with Philadelphia two years later. He has been a key confidante and sounding board for Trevor in his transition to the league.
"It's huge. I think without him I don't think I'd be anywhere near here," Trevor van Riemsdyk said. "He just kind of shows you the way."
His older brother was of particular help after Trevor had surgeries on his left knee and right wrist last season. James helped talk him through the process of coming back from the injuries, and Trevor returned to the ice for the last four games of the Stanley Cup final against Tampa Bay.
Van Riemsdyk gave Quenneville some valuable minutes against the Lightning, setting the stage for his progress this season.
"Positionally aware, got a good stick, anticipates both sides, both ways," Quenneville said. "I like the fact that he wants the puck, definitely, but his positioning is probably what gets him into position to block shots, and a good stick."
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap