Bollig knew Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville wanted him to utilize his 6-foot-2, 223-pound frame to knock people around and protect his teammates however needed. In 25 regular-season games, Bollig had 41 hits, five fights, 51 penalty minutes and zero points.
Bollig rarely abandoned his role. He was afraid of losing more ice time, so he did exactly what was asked of him. Even sticking to orders, Bollig’s job was never secure last season. He was often a healthy scratch, was reassigned to the AHL for a two-day period in April and played in only five of the team’s 24 playoff games.
What a difference a season can make, as Bollig can attest. The 24-year-old has found a permanent place in the Blackhawks’ lineup this season, has already appeared in more games this season (29) than last season and has even gotten comfortable being more than an enforcer.
Bollig hasn’t forgotten what last season felt like, but he’d like to never go through that again.
"It’s definitely a learning process when you’re in and out of the lineup and kind of learning what keeps you in and kind of what keeps you out," Bollig said after a recent practice. "It’s nice to have that, and hopefully that’s behind me."
Bollig has maintained his general role this season. He still tries to lay massive checks and will be the first to jump in to defend a teammate, but he also has expanded what he's willing to attempt on the ice. He has tried to handle the puck and shoot more than in the past.
Bollig has found positive results in that, too. He came into the season without having registered a point in 43 career NHL regular-season games. He put an end to that streak with a goal in the season opener and has since added six more points. His goal and assist during the Blackhawks' recent circus trip raised $700 in donations from AM Sports Marketing Group, which pledged $500 for any goal and $200 for any assist to Bollig, for the team’s Movember fundraising campaign.
Bollig isn’t sure any of that would have happened a season ago.
"Any time you’re kind of scared of being in and out of the lineup or making mistakes, you're obviously not going to play as well," Bollig said. "This year I've felt more comfortable and definitely with the way our line is going right now and the confidence that Q has in our line is great. It kind of lets you go out there and not think too much."
Jamal Mayers was the one often splitting time with Bollig in the Blackhawks' lineup last season. Mayers, who is now a NHL Network analyst, said he hasn't been surprised by Bollig's improved play this season.
"He can skate," Mayers said in a recent phone interview. "He’s a smart player. He knows his role. He’s realizing he doesn’t have to fight every night. He’s willing to do it. He’s a real tough kid. He shoots the puck real well. The more confidence he gets, the more patient he’ll get with the puck. He can make plays."
Bollig learned some of that from Mayers last season, too.
"Obviously when you play with guys like that, I think that was his 17th NHL season, there’s plenty to learn from guys like that," Bollig said. "It’s nice to have someone like that not only on your line or if you’re scratched the same game and you kind of sit with him during the game and feed off what he has to say."
As Mayers mentioned, Bollig has cut down on fighting. He has been in two this season. He dropped gloves with the St. Louis Blues' Roman Polak on Oct. 17 and with the Calgary Flames' Brian McGrattan on Nov. 27.
Bollig is adamant he's still all for punching people, but he's more careful about picking his spots.
"If our coach is going to play our line or me the kind of minutes they’re playing us, I'm guessing they're thinking that they don’t want me fighting as much," Bollig said. “If they’d rather have me out on the ice, getting minutes and playing well defensively and chipping in offensively here and there, then I'd be willing to do that. Fighting is very much a part of my game still. Just hasn't happened very much this year."
Quenneville has liked what Bollig has brought to the ice this season.
"Boller, he still has a presence to what he can bring to our game, but at the same time he’s the type of player [this season] that has really put him in a different place with us," Quenneville said.
Bollig prefers that place, too.