Connor Bedard has unlocked Philipp Kurashev. Has he found his long-term wingman?

RALEIGH, N.C. — Philipp Kurashev has never really had the luxury of the long view.

As a fourth-round pick, the Chicago Blackhawks forward always was something of a long shot to become entrenched in the NHL. On a team with constantly changing priorities and personnel, he was relentlessly fighting to prove his worth. With three coaches in his first three seasons, his role was in constant flux, centering Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat one day, playing nine minutes on the fourth line the next. Now in the first season of a two-year contract, Kurashev is simply trying to show Kyle Davidson and Luke Richardson that he can be a part of the bigger picture in Chicago.

So, no, Kurashev doesn’t feel like he’s auditioning to be Connor Bedard’s long-term wingman. He’s not looking that far ahead. He can’t.

“Obviously, playing with Connor is a great opportunity for me, for anyone,” Kurashev said. “And I’m enjoying it so far. I’m just trying to make the most of it right now.”

There’s more talent on the way, of course — guys who’d love nothing more than to take that spot on Bedard’s flank. Frank Nazar could be here next month. Taylor Hall should be back next season. Oliver Moore might be arriving a year after that. The Blackhawks have two first-round picks this year and two more next year. It’d be quite presumptuous of Kurashev to think he can plant his flag on Bedard’s right wing and stay there for the next, oh, 10 years.

But he’s got a head start on everyone else. And he is indeed making the most of it.

In his fourth NHL season, Kurashev already has career highs in goals, assists and points with nine tallies and 23 helpers in 49 games. Now, playing with a sniper like Bedard is going to boost anyone’s numbers a bit, but Kurashev isn’t just riding Bedard’s coattails. The 18-year-old has brought out the best in the 24-year-old, turning a mild-mannered, defensive-oriented center into a daring and aggressive winger. Bedard has assisted on six of Kurashev’s last seven goals (five of them primaries), and Kurashev has assisted on nine of Bedard’s last 13 goals (seven of them primaries). The chemistry has been clear, perhaps never as much as in Monday’s 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, in which Kurashev was sensational, making plays that led directly to three goals, two of them Bedard’s, one of which counted.

It was Kurashev’s forecheck that put the puck on Bedard’s stick to set up Nick Foligno’s spinning backhanded goal in the second period; Kurashev’s beautiful cross-slot feed that set up a Bedard one-timer goal that was overturned because Louis Crevier was offside (the second straight game in which Bedard has had a goal overturned), and Kurashev’s beautiful backhanded leave that teed up Bedard’s power-play goal minutes later. He only got an assist on the third one, but it extended his point streak to six games.

As countless Kane linemates learned over the years, keeping up with a star forward is half the battle. And Kurashev can hang.

“He’s fun to play with,” Bedard said. “He’s super smart, fast, skilled. … Kurshy’s a stud. I’ve had a lot of fun growing that chemistry and getting to play with him.”

On-ice chemistry isn’t dependent on off-ice compatibility — plenty of great players have made it work with linemates they didn’t exactly go to the movies with every weekend — but it doesn’t hurt, either. And Bedard and Kurashev have grown close since Kurashev made his season debut in late October after recovering from March wrist surgery.

Like Kane and DeBrincat before them, they’re just a couple of hockey nerds, nerding out over hockey.

“We definitely talk a lot,” Kurashev said. “We hang out at the rink, and we’re usually the last guys there. We talk about the game, about other games, things we want to work on. He’s already such a pro, it’s fun to watch him and talk to him. I really like him as a guy. He’s awesome.”

“It’s a lot of talking and stuff,” Bedard said. “The best chemistry in my experience is (with) people you just like talking hockey to. We’re good friends, and I think that adds a lot to it, the off-ice aspect. We’re still growing.”

Bedard deemed Kurashev “dominant” even in his absence, which is a bit of a stretch. Like all of his teammates, Kurashev’s offense dried up when Bedard broke his jaw on Jan. 5; the Blackhawks scored just 20 goals in 14 games in Bedard’s absence, and Kurashev didn’t score in the last 13 of those games. But he started heating up as Bedard’s return neared, with four assists in the last three games of Bedard’s stint on injured reserve.

In the three games since they’ve been reunited on the Blackhawks’ top line, Kurashev has a goal and two assists and several more scoring chances. He looks dangerous again. At times, he’s looked, well, dominant. And it’s not as simple as feeding Bedard the puck and watching him go. Anticipating where a player of Bedard’s caliber will be — or where he’ll find you — requires a player to think of the game the same way Bedard does.

Not everyone can do that. Kurashev, it appears, can.

“Kurshy sees the game at a high level,” Jason Dickinson said. “He’s able to match Bedsy’s hockey IQ at times.”

Kurashev demurred when asked if this was the highest his confidence has ever been during his NHL career, noting plainly — not arrogantly — that he’s always been confident. And there’s truth to that. In each of his first three seasons, Kurashev frequently talked about how he had more offense to give, that he wanted to be more than just a defensive middle-sixer. But Jeremy Colliton and Derek King used him as a Swiss-Russian army knife, moving him all around the lineup. His stints at the top of the lineup tended to be brief.

Richardson — by default, really, given the talent exodus over the past couple of seasons — has kept Kurashev by Bedard’s side pretty much from Day 1. Kurashev chalked up his more aggressive play to Richardson’s faith as much as anything else. He’s no longer looking over his shoulder, worrying about getting dropped down to the third or fourth line if he makes a mistake.

“It’s mostly just the trust the coaches put in me to play a lot of minutes and to play on top lines and to have the role since the start of the year,” Kurashev said. “Because I used to be just up and down in the lineup a little bit, so that was hard, not playing so much. Now they put so much confidence in me, I try to give it back to them.”

Bedard and Kurashev — typically joined by the grittier, net-crashing Foligno on the top line — have hardly been flawless. They’ve been outscored 29-19 at five-on-five, which is pretty close to their expected goal-share of 41.09 percent. But Kurashev’s defensive analytics have taken a big jump back to respectability after bottoming out last season (Evolving Hockey had him at a minus-6.3 even-strength defensive goals above replacement last season and just minus-1.4 this season), and he’s having by far his most productive offensive campaign.

Both players are feeling the weight of all the losses. Bedard called the Blackhawks’ staggering 21-game road losing streak — their last road win came way back on Nov. 9 and their next road game isn’t until March 4 — “embarrassing.” Kurashev said it’s been “frustrating to lose so much.” That’s where the long view comes into play. Much as he wants to win right away, Bedard can afford to see this as the first step to something special. Kurashev is still thinking only about the present.

But if he keeps playing like this — this aggressive, this confident, this productive — not only will he be around for the long haul, he might just have the sweetest spot in the lineup.

“It’s been really hard,” Kurashev said. “But we’re using this time to develop, as well. You’ve got to take the positive. If we keep improving together, we’ll get more wins, too. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

(Photo of Philipp Kurashev and Connor Bedard: Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)

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