He’s rotated in and out the lineup as the team’s sixth defenseman. He’s played a top-4 defenseman role when needed. He’s played forward when Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has wanted to send a message to another forward or didn’t have enough healthy forwards on the roster. Brookbank has been on the ice for as little as 4:33 or as much as 25:27 depending on the game this season.
It’s not exactly what Brookbank imagined he’d being doing for the Blackhawks when he signed a two-year deal with them in July of 2012. It’s not always been easy, especially being a healthy scratch for much of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run last season, but the 33-year-old Brookbank prides himself on being a team player and that’s what he’s attempted to be.
“It has been a little tough,” Brookbank said recently. “I’ve always tried to think team first. That’s the way I kind of look at it. I obviously want to play top 6 and play every night. That’s what I strive for. We had close to a perfect season last year, so there’s no arguing the recipe didn’t work or whatever.
“I mean I didn’t really know 100 percent what to expect [when I signed with the Blackhawks.] Obviously I thought I’d be playing more. That’s for sure. But like I said, our team is that deep and we won the championship. If that’s what I am on a championship team, then I’ll take it.”
It’s that approach that has earned Brookbank the respect of his teammates.
“He’s a great guy first of all,” Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya said. “Very versatile hockey player. You can use him pretty much anywhere. I almost bet he can play goalie too if you put him at the net. He’s a good player. He’s a good defenseman. Great guy.”
Quenneville said he’s used Brookbank as he has because he’s known Brookbank can adjust to different roles.
“I think [Brookbank’s] an old pro that we like the energy that he brings,” Quenneville said. “He brings us a physical dimension on our back end which we can add to our team game. So that’s what he does for us and I think he does a nice job for us. He’s well-liked by his teammates and he’s appreciated for what he does.”
A recent Oduya injury thrust Brookbank into a larger role for the Blackhawks. While Oduya was out, Brookbank averaged more than 20 minutes a game over three games. He played 25:27 against the Minnesota Wild on April 3. It was his most ice time since April 8, 2010.
“It’s always nice to kind of re-establish what you can do and what you’re capable of and stuff like that,” Brookbank said. “We’re a pretty deep team here. My role hasn’t been as big here as it has been in the past. Definitely happy to get a little more ice time.”
Brookbank held his own in Oduya’s spot. He had zero points, a zero rating and a 50.3 Corsi (the Blackhawks had 47 shots for, 46 against when he was on the ice in 5-on-5 situations) in the three games.
“He’s a steady guy,” Quenneville said after the Wild game. “Him and [Niklas Hjalmarsson] looked like they were comfortable together. [They] saw the top line a lot. Just simple, get in and out, keep a nice gap and keep the play ahead of you. It was simple. We liked what he did.”
Brookbank has played in the Blackhawks’ last eight games and hasn’t been a healthy scratch since March 25, but it’s still unlikely he’ll be slotted as the team’s sixth defenseman in the playoffs. Quenneville opted to use Michal Rozsival over Brookbank in the playoffs last season, and that could be the case again this season.
Brookbank was crushed last season to be a healthy scratch in 22 of the 23 playoff games. He played against the Los Angeles Kings in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals after Duncan Keith was suspended for one game.
“It was tough last year not really playing in the playoffs at all,” Brookbank said. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to deal with myself personally.
“You just kind of have to somehow find a positive in the situation, find a silver lining if there is any. You definitely don’t want to drag anyone else down around you. You don’t want your problems to become anyone else’s problems. You just keep working and stay patient. Kind of send a message to the coaches you’re ready to go and you’re not just going to walk around and pout about it. You’re willing to do what you got to do.”
Brookbank will do the same again this season if that’s what’s asked of him, but he is holding out hope he’ll get a chance to contribute in the playoffs.
“I live for the playoffs,” Brookbank said. “I love the intensity and stuff like that. That’s something I live for. That’s my first and foremost goal for me personally is to get out there for the playoffs.”