With the majority of prospects playing at the pro level, the Chicago Blackhawks pool of junior prospects is only four players deep in 2013-14. The group still features plenty of talent, including 2013 first round pick Ryan Hartman and 2012 second round pick Dillon Fournier.
Although early picks in the draft have been used on CHL prospects in recent years, the Blackhawks tend to favor college-bound players and European prospects with later picks. The flexibility of not having to sign a player for four years after the draft, an advantage which now extends to European prospects in the new CBA, is especially valuable to a club like the Blackhawks, where roster spots are at a premium in both the NHL and the AHL.
At least a couple of Chicago's current junior prospects are poised to crack those rosters in the next year or two. With three unsigned 2012 picks in the group, the 2013-14 season is an important one as the players attempt to seal the deal on their future professional careers.
Travis Brown, D, 19
An understudy to Morgan Rielly (TOR) as long as he has skated with the Moose Jaw Warriors, Travis Brown has been the squad's top blueliner in 2013-14 with Rielly sticking with the Maple Leafs. Brown has responded by providing a consistent presence on the team's blue line and leading the team in scoring with 34 points through 36 games, even if the Warriors have had a tough go of it so far this season with a 9-21-3-3 record and a minus-40 goal differential. Brown's production nonetheless ranks him fifth overall among WHL defensemen.
At 6'2 and 183 pounds, Brown has the size and skill set that should see him earn an opportunity at the pro level. He wields a strong shot in the offensive zone and plays a big part of his team's transition game, whether it be starting the rush out of his own zone or stepping up to force a turnover in the neutral zone. That aggressiveness, however, is one reason he is still a raw defensive prospect, as improving his positioning and picking his spots better are areas for development.
Chicago will likely have both Stephen Johns and Dillon Fournier turning pro at the end of their respective seasons, but Brown remains a candidate for a contract next summer. If he can maintain his level of play for Moose Jaw, the blueliner can only improve his chances.
Ryan Hartman, C/RW, 19
Ryan Hartman, Chicago's first round pick in 2013, returned to the Plymouth Whalers for the 2013-14 season. Skating at center for the squad, he has hovered around the point-per-game mark in his second season of OHL play. He currently ranks third in goals (13) and second in points (26) through 25 games so far this season.
A hard-nosed forward that does not shy away from the high-traffic areas on the ice, Hartman's game may not have translated into huge numbers yet at the junior level. In spite of that, he is exactly the type of forward that can succeed on a talented Blackhawks squad that has little need for volume scorers. The winger possesses both the skill to the skate Chicago's top players as well as the work ethic and energy to contribute in a lesser role when called upon. The Blackhawks rewarded his play this season when they signed the forward to his entry-level contract in mid-November.
Although an injury kept him out of the lineup for a month, the winger returned to the Whalers lineup with three goals and two assists so far through five December games. He will be one of the returning players for Team USA as the squad looks to defend their gold medal at the 2014 World Junior Championships in Malmo, Sweden later in December.
Dillon Fournier, D, 19
Another top pick developing in the CHL, Dillon Fournier has benefited from playing in all situations for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in 2013-14. He has stepped up as the squad’s leading scorer from the blue line and ranks seventh overall among QMJHL defensemen with 27 points in 32 games.
Fournier is dangerous when the puck on his stick, coming through with 10 goals on the season, including three with the man advantage. What does not show up on the score sheet is his ability to lead the rush or the smart plays that he tends to make when he has the puck. He has a 6'2 frame and will be looking to fill out as he eventually transitions to the pro game next season. Until then, Fournier's ability to read the play and utilize an active stick give him opportunities to make plays in the defensive zone. Despite logging heavy minutes on the blue line for the Huskies, he has maintained a plus-12 rating good for third on the team.
Although not part of Canada's selection camp roster for the WJC, Fournier and the Huskies will still be looking to get on track and build on the squad's strong year in 2012-13. The blueliner is not yet under contract with the Blackhawks, but he could make his AHL debut with the Rockford IceHogs following the end of his junior season.
Brandon Whitney, D, 19
Brandon Whitney is Chicago's lone goaltending prospect in the junior pool this season. As the starter for the Victoriaville Tigres, the 6’5 goalie has appeared in 30 of 34 games for his squad. He has earned a 10-15-2-2 record so far this season along with a 3.46 goals against average and .902 save percentage.
Whitney has excellent size and is a tough goaltender to beat on the first chance. He has been a steady goalie for most of his career in the QMJHL, but it may come down to a numbers game when it comes time to decide whether Whitney has earned a pro contract. With his rights expiring next summer, Whitney's status with the 'Hawks may be unclear into the off-season.
Assuming Antti Raanta establishes himself as Corey Crawford's back-up going into the 2014-15 season, Chicago will still have Kent Simpson, Mac Carruth, and perhaps a veteran depth signing vying for playing time in the minor leagues.
The Blackhawks have called on several prospects at the NHL level in the first half of the 2013-14 season. Brandon Pirri (11 points in 25 games) and Jeremy Morin (five points in 15 games) have seen the most NHL playing time, even if neither has been able to secure his place on the Chicago roster quite yet. With the Blackhawks forward corps getting back to full health, welcoming Michal Handzus back already and Bryan Bickell set to return Tuesday night in Nashville, both Pirri and Morin are currently skating in prominent roles for Rockford. Joakim Nordstrom, playing in his first North American season after playing two-plus years of pro hockey in Sweden, has also skated in Chicago in a fourth line/penalty kill capacity.
Chicago GM Stan Bowman has used his club's enviable depth at pro level in the trade market as well. Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen were traded to the Florida Panthers for Kris Versteeg (at a cost of only 2.2 million per season for the 'Hawks, as Florida kept half of the winger's salary). Bowman also traded Kyle Beach, a frequent healthy scratch in Rockford who even spent a few weeks overseas in the SHL, to the New York Rangers in exchange for rough-and-tumble winger Brandon Mashinter.
At the collegiate level, Notre Dame's transition to Hockey East in 2013-14 has been successful in large part due to a pair of Blackhawks prospects, senior defenseman Stephen Johns and freshman center Vince Hinostroza. Johns has provided his usual physical play as well as contributing 10 points in 18 games, ranking among the defensive scoring leaders for the Irish. Hinostroza, who has 14 points in 12 games, was the team's leading scorer before a knee-on-knee hit knocked him out of the lineup in early November.
Hinostroza is now healthy and will join Hartman at Team USA's WJC selection camp. Other Blackhawks prospects that made the preliminary rosters for their respective countries include Tyler Motte (USA), Robin Norell (Sweden), and Teuvo Teravainen (Finland).