Center and defensive depth remain the strengths of Chicago Blackhawks system

By Brad Gardner

Brandon Pirri - Chicago Blackhawks

Photo: Brandon Pirri earned an opportunity on Chicago’s second line and has responded with three goals, one assist in his last five games (courtesy of Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

The Chicago Blackhawks’ organizational depth has begun to break through to the NHL level in 2013-14. Led by Brandon Pirri, a handful of prospects have seen playing time in Chicago so far this season, while the depth on the wing and the blue line allowed General Manager Stan Bowman to swing a trade for former-Blackhawk Kris Versteeg.

Outside of the pro level, the system has top picks like Ryan Hartman and Dillon Fournier in the CHL. The strengths of the Chicago Blackhawks organization remains down the middle and on the back end, both positions that are well-stocked with NCAA and Swedish prospects who have plenty of time to develop at their respective levels.

Left Wing

With Brandon Saad graduated to the NHL club, Jeremy Morin takes over as the team's top left wing prospect. Although he was among the final cuts from Blackhawks camp, Morin was a force for the team's AHL affiliate in Rockford and earned a call-up to the NHL on October 25. The acquisition of Kris Versteeg a few weeks later meant Morin was headed back to Rockford after two assists in six NHL games. His play away from the puck was an area that the Blackhawks coaching staff specifically mentioned would need to improve.

Other prospects on the left side in Rockford include Terry Broadhurst and Garret Ross. Both wingers will skate in Rockford, and as the lineup shifts over the course of the year, should have opportunities to skate in a variety of roles.

Prior to the start of the AHL season, Kyle Beach was loaned to HV71 of the Swedish Hockey League. He skated in seven SHL games but eventually returned to Rockford, where he has appeared in four games. Philippe Lefebvre was acquired from Florida in the Kris Versteeg trade. He will remain in the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye.

Center

Chicago's depth and talent down the middle is one of the organization's primary strengths. The group is led by Finnish center Teuvo Teravainen, an intelligent and highly skilled prospect currently playing in Finland's top pro league, Liiga, for Jokerit Helsinki. A strong showing in training camp may have had Blackhawks brass rethinking the plan for him to skate the 2013-14 season with Jokerit, but Teravainen should benefit from another year of playing prominent minutes against professionals.

More immediate returns at center have come from Brandon Pirri and Joakim Nordstrom, both of whom have laced up for games with the Blackhawks during the 2013-14 season. Nordstrom broke camp with the Blackhawks and saw action in eight games before his assignment to Rockford. Pirri is the center prospect that has made the biggest impact for the team so far in 2013-14. Following an injury to Michal Handzus, Pirri has performed well in the role of second line center. His defensive zone play could still use some work, but Pirri has not had any trouble adjusting in the offensive end to skilled players like Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane on his wings.

The Rockford IceHogs lineup is loaded with notable center prospects, some of whom have slotted in at wing early in the season. Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault, Drew LeBlanc, and Alex Broadhurst all made their debut in Rockford this season to big fanfare. McNeill is off to a torrid start with six goals and six assists while appearing in all 18 games for the ‘Hogs so far this season. Danault has not had the same scoring touch, but his all-weather game still makes him an important piece of the Rockford puzzle. While McNeill and Danault have averaged right around two shots per game, LeBlanc has shot the puck just 14 times in 18 games and has skated to a team-low minus-seven rating. Alex Broadhurst, the younger brother of Terry, is the leading scorer among Rockford’s forwards in his rookie season. He earned a one-day call-up to Chicago in November but did not see any action. All four prospects are likely to stick in Rockford for most of the 2013-14 season, but a cup of coffee in the NHL is not out of the question for any of these rookies.

Byron Froese and David Gilbert are also skating with Chicago's minor league affiliates. Froese has skated in 14 of Rockford’s 18 games so far in 2013-14, but he has played in more of a defensive role than many of the other prospects. Gilbert has spent the year in Toledo and likely is not on the radar for more than fourth line minutes in Rockford should injuries hit.

Kevin Hayes leads a deep pool of center prospects skating in the NCAA during the 2013-14 season. After a leg injury cut his junior season at BC short, Hayes has returned with an emphatic performance. Through 11 games, Hayes ranks second on the team with 16 points, including six goals. The Eagles are poised for another long run this season, after which Hayes will likely make his pro debut with Rockford.

The 2013 NHL Draft yielded four center prospects, who along with 2012 pick Vince Hinostroza, are making their collegiate debuts in 2013-14. John Hayden, Tyler Motte, Luke Johnson, and Anthony Louis have all stepped into everyday roles in their first years on campus, but none have had the same impact as the 19-year-old Hinostroza. Despite opening the year on the fourth line, he leads Notre Dame in scoring with 12 points through 10 games. Hayden, Motte, Johnson, and Louis have all shown glimpses of strong play for their clubs, but they are still looking to develop more consistency as the teams get into conference play.

Right Wing

Right wing lost some depth in Chicago's trade of Jimmy Hayes, who was sent along with defenseman Dylan Olsen to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Versteeg. Prospects like McNeill, Morin, and Froese can also play on the right side, but without Hayes, the Blackhawks have only one natural right wing prospect playing with the professional affiliates. Maxim Shalunov has not been able to crack the lineup consistently so far in 2013-14, but with the right linemates, he still possesses the skill to make an impact as the season progresses.

Ryan Hartman, Chicago's first round pick in 2013, returned to the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers for 2013-14. The winger will have the opportunity to skate in all situations for the Whalers. Come December, Hartman will likely be one of the players returning for Team USA's gold-medal defense in Malmo at the 2014 WJC.

Chris Calnan is in his freshman season at Boston College, part of yet another talented class of players entering the program. A power forward in the making, the 19-year-old winger has a mix of size and scoring ability. He will have plenty of opportunity to round out his game at the college level.

Defense

Adam Clendening, the AHL’s third-leading scorer from the blue line, is the Blackhawks top defensive prospect. Not the biggest defender on the ice, the 21-year-old defenseman nonetheless makes an impact with his rough style of game while maintaining close to a point-per-game scoring pace. He possesses excellent offensive instincts and leads the IceHogs in points and shots on goal. Not far behind Clendening in the scoring column is Klas Dahlbeck, who is also playing in his second season with Rockford. The Swede proved a reliable defenseman last season and has added offense to his game in 2013-14 with five goals and six assists in 18 games. The strong performances from Clendening and Dahlbeck have made up for the loss of Ryan Stanton (VAN) to waivers and the trade of Dylan Olsen (FLA). Swedish free agent signing Viktor Svedberg has also helped shore up the blue line depth from a prospect standpoint. Svedberg has a lot of tools, and if he can continue to improve his game at the AHL level, he could be on the NHL radar as well.

The NCAA pipeline remains rich on the blue line. Senior Stephen Johns continues to set the tone for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in their first season of play in Hockey East. The 21-year-old blueliner already has the size and temperament to make an immediate impact at the pro level, and he will have another year of ample ice time in a leadership role at Notre Dame under his belt before making that jump.

Junior Michael Paliotta and senior Justin Holl also have the potential to be signed to NHL contracts when their college careers end. Paliotta plays a primary shutdown role for the University of Vermont. In 2013-14, the Catamounts have avoided being swept through a difficult early-season schedule that included weekend sets against North Dakota, Notre Dame, and Miami. After playing forward for much of the 2012-13 season, Holl has moved back onto a prominent role on blue line for the University of Minnesota in a pairing with Brady Skjei (NYR).

Nick Mattson, Sam Jardine, and Kirill Gotovets round out the Blackhawks depth on the blue line in college hockey. Mattson is in his junior season at North Dakota and remains among the more productive members of the team's defensive corps. Jardine is skating in his sophomore season at Ohio State, a team that has seen a lot of turnover and lost commits since Mark Osiecki, now the assistant to Ted Dent in Rockford, was fired as the Buckeyes men's hockey coach. Gotovets, acquired from Tampa Bay in exchange for Philippe Paradis, is in his senior season at Cornell.

The pro and college ranks are deep for Chicago, but the defensive talent extends to the junior level and Europe. Dillon Fournier, a second round pick in 2012, logs a ton of minutes on the blue line for Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL. Fournier thinks the game well and is an excellent skater capable of making an impact at either end of the ice. Travis Brown is skating with the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors, where he has always played under the shadow of standout defenseman Morgan Rielly. With Rielly making the Maple Leafs, Brown will have the chance to shoulder the load. The Warriors have struggled but Brown has been productive, leading the team with 28 points through 26 games.

Chicago's second round pick in 2013, Swedish blueliner Carl Dahlstrom, is currently skating with Linkoping J20 team. He has already skated with Sweden’s U20 club this year and could be part of the team’s blue line corps when they host the 2014 WJC. Fellow 2013 draft picks Robin Norell and Robin Press are also continuing their development in Sweden this season. Chicago retained the rights to Shawn Lalonde, but the blueliner signed for 2013-14 with Eisbaren Berlin in Germany’s DEL.

Goaltender

The Blackhawks refashioned the goaltending pipeline with their last few draft classes and then bolstered the group with a free agent signing out of Finland. Antti Raanta, the Finnish league MVP in 2012-13, is making his North American debut with Rockford in 2013-14. He has been sharp, winning seven of 12 starts behind a .914 save percentage and 2.83 goals against average.

Behind Raanta, Kent Simpson won the back-up job in Rockford. Simpson has appeared in eight games but has not found much consistency. Mac Carruth landed in ECHL Toledo, where he has shared the crease with Jared Coreau (DET) so far this season. The 21-year-old Carruth has had a few outstanding performances as well as a few poor outings, but he remains in the league’s top-10 in save percentage at .927 through eight games.

Brandon Whitney has been a workhorse in net for the Victoriaville Tigres, appearing in 21 of the team’s 24 games so far in 2013-14. Whitney got off to a strong start through the first few weeks of the season, but neither he nor the team in front of him have been able to sustain much success this season.

Matt Tomkins is in his first year at Ohio State University, where he immediately stepped into the starter's role. Buckeyes sophomore goalie Collin Olson (CAR) left the program in search of more playing time, leaving Tomkins as the best option in net. Although he was knocked out of the lineup due to a leg injury in early November, the 19-year-old goaltender is in line for plenty of work this season for Ohio State.