Blackhawks Top 20 prospects, Spring 2008

By John Jaeckel

While some might argue the graduations of Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien have weakened the Blackhawks Top 20, all 20 prospects will most likely see time in the NHL (if they haven’t already).  The depth of this pool is its greatest strength.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Jonathan Toews, C
2. Petri Kontiola, C
3. Dave Bolland, C
4. Jack Skille, RW
5. Troy Brouwer, RW
6. Niklas Hjalmarsson, D
7. Igor Makarov, RW
8. Akim Aliu, C/RW/D
9. Jordan Hendry, D
10. Tony Lagerstrom, W
11. Billy Sweatt, LW
12. Simon Danis-Pepin, D
13. Danny Richmond, D
14. Corey Crawford, G
15. Evan Brophey, C
16. Josh Unice, G
17. Nathan Davis, C
18. Joe Fallon, G
19. Bryan Bickell, LW
20. Kris Versteeg, LW

1. Jonathan Toews, C

6’1, 205 pounds
Drafted Round 1, 3rd overall, 2006
Born: 4-29-88

How much more can be said about this NHL Calder Trophy candidate who routinely draws comparisons to Steve Yzerman? And one must bear in mind, those comparisons are as much based on actual performance as a 19-year-old in the NHL as on potential. Toews suffered a fairly serious knee injury at midseason, missing 18 games. During that time, the Hawks struggled and essentially fell out of playoff contention. After Toews’ return, the team turned their season around and made a serious push for the last post-season spot, missing it by just three points. An even-keeled leader, Toews is generally recognized as the Hawks’ next captain. And while teammate Pat Kane and Washington’s Niklas Backstrom might have had more overall rookie points than Toews, Toews had more points per game with 24 goals (leading NHL rookies) and 30 assists in 64 games. He was also a stellar +11, indicative of his solid play in all zones.

2. Petri Kontiola, C

6’0, 200 pounds
Drafted Round 7, 2004
Born: 10-4-84

Some eyebrows might be raised at this former late-round draft pick’s ascendance to the No. 2 spot in the Hawks’ rich talent pipeline. Yet when one assesses actual production, both in the AHL and in the NHL, Kontiola compares favorably to the more highly-acclaimed Dave Bolland, Jack Skille and Troy Brouwer. At 23, Kontiola is older than the other prospects mentioned. However, 2007-08 was the Finn’s first season in North America, playing on a smaller ice surface with a different style of play. In 12 games with the Blackhawks, Kontiola notched 5 assists. Yet what was perhaps most impressive was his tenacity in all three zones and his ability to play with highly-skilled linemates such as Martin Havlat, or in a checking role. At Rockford in the AHL, he put up outstanding numbers, with 18 goals and 50 assists in 66 games and +17. The key aspect of Kontiola’s game is, in fact, his passing. He is a very clever set-up man with a likely NHL future as a second or third line center.

3. Dave Bolland, C

6′, 175 pounds
Drafted Round 2, 2004
Born: June 5, 1986

Promoted to the Blackhawks early in the season, Bolland grew steadily into the role of a third line NHL center. Toward season’s end, he centered Byfuglien and Rene Bourque in a highly disruptive and effective combination. Some within the Blackhawk organization consider the gritty Bolland to be the team’s future second line center. He is small, but fast and highly competitive. Bolland is a player who simply wins. Though on the small side, he always seems to come out of scrums with the puck, win key face-offs and deliver with deceptively soft hands. Bolland is also a very good penalty killer. In 16 games with Rockford, he had six goals and four assists and was +2. With Chicago, he garnered four goals and 13 assists in 39 games and was +6.

4. Jack Skille, RW

6′, 205 pounds
Drafted Round 1, 2005
Born: May 19, 1987

In 16 games with the Blackhawks in 2007-08, Skille showed both the skill and holes in his game that have always divided observers alike on his potential. In those contests, he had three goals, two assists and was +1. Without question, he is blazing fast and has a nose for the offensive transition game. However, Coach Denis Savard rightly questioned Skille’s commitment to work on the boards. His defensive zone play and positioning on the breakout were sloppy and inconsistent. The former Wisconsin Badger has always been touted as a power forward, with a stout 205-pound frame, yet he seems to play the game more as a finesse winger, preferring to prowl for breakaway opportunities and fat rebounds. At Rockford, Skille was marginally more productive, with 18 goals and 16 assists (-3) in 59 games.

5. Troy Brouwer, RW

6’2.5 220 lbs.
Drafted Round 7, 2004
Born: August 17, 1985

Yet another power forward around whom opinions differ is rugged Troy Brouwer. However, one thing cannot be disputed about Brouwer: consistent goal production. Over the last three seasons in the AHL and CHL, he has averaged 41 goals. Brouwer can do a lot of good things with and without the puck. He has a deceptively quick, hard shot, outstanding hands and moves for a big man and can also pass the puck. The weak link in his game has been his skating and back-checking. However, he has worked hard on both and by season’s end, Savard cited Brouwer’s size and skill as characteristics that give him a bright future in Chicago. Brouwer appeared in two games with the Hawks, registering a well-earned assist. At Rockford, he was devastating to opposing defenses, with 35 goals (many earned on the power play) and 19 assists. He finished -8, but perhaps more importantly with 154 PIM. Brouwer is part of that increasingly rare breed who can skate and contribute offensively, yet also drop the gloves and protect teammates.

6. Niklas Hjalmarsson, D

6’3, 195 pounds
Drafted Round 4 2005
Born: June 6, 1987

Perhaps the fastest-rising prospect in the Blackhawk organization in 2007-08 is Swedish defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. A surprise star of the 2007 World Junior Championship, Hjalmarsson played 13 games with the Blackhawks this season as a 19-year-old newcomer to North American hockey. He had an assist and was -2 with the hawks. In 47 games at Rockford, he had four goals, nine assists and was -8. Hjalmarsson is a smart, two-way defenseman who brings an added dimension of extreme physicality. He is already very good at initiating the rush by controlling the puck effectively in his own zone and sending a solid outlet pass. He attends to his coverage responsibilities diligently. But, unlike most other European players, the lanky Swede will overcommit in order to deliver one of his signature body checks. Hjalmarsson is clearly a bit raw at this point for regular NHL action. This is clearly a very intriguing prospect.

7. Igor Makarov, RW

6’1, 187 pounds
Drafted Round 2, 2006
Born: September 19, 1987

A high second-round pick in 2006, the speedy, ultra-competitive Russian winger was in some ways a forgotten man last season, largely due to the resurgence of the Hawk franchise, the AHL affiliate’s move to Rockford and the play of North American prospects like Josh Unice and Akim Aliu. Makarov’s Russian Super League numbers will not blow anyone away: four goals and 12 assists in 50 games (+2). But the Blackhawks remain very high on Makarov, who played at SKA St. Petersburg under former Red Wing assistant Barry Smith. Just the fact that, as a 20-year-old, Makarov saw extensive ice time under Smith indicates that he is playing the game responsibly. Further, his skill is being integrated into a team concept. He also put up solid numbers in the playoffs, with two goals and an assist (+3) in nine games. In light of Makarov’s positive developmental situation and the ongoing transfer agreement issues, it is likely the Hawks will let him stay at SKA for one more season.

8. Akim Aliu, C/RW/D

6’3, 220 pounds
Drafted Round 2, 2007
Born: April 24, 1989

Yet another big, right-hand shooting, boom or bust prospect for the Hawks, Aliu had a relatively quiet season at London in the OHL under coach Dale Hunter. Relatively quiet — for him. Dogged by controversy the previous two seasons at Windsor and Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL, Aliu had a fairly productive season for the powerful Knights with 28 goals and 33 assists in 60 games (+10). Again, the back story tells more. Aliu not only contributed as a forward, he played extensive minutes (especially as the season went on) at defense. He also had 133 penalty minutes, ejections and a suspension. Still, Aliu has reportedly matured and is channeling his aggression onto the ice. This is good news because his size and skill can make him a very good NHL player.

9. Jordan Hendry, D

6’0, 196 pounds
Signed as a free agent, 2006
Born: 2-23-84

Emerging seemingly from nowhere this season, the steady defenseman from Nokomis, Saskatchewan has nailed down a role on the Blackhawks’ third pairing. Hendry’s solid, stay at home style will remind some of Steve Poapst or his own partner Brent Sopel. Yet Hendry has better mobility than Poapst and, like Sopel, the occasional knack for jumping into the play and contributing offensively. In 40 games with Chicago, Hendry registered a goal and three assists and was even in plus/minus. In 45 contests with Rockford, he had three goals, four assists and was -3.

10. Tony Lagerstrom, W

6’1, 189 pounds
Drafted Round 3, 2006
Born: 7-19-88

Further evidence of some insightful recent scouting of the Swedish secondary leagues by the Hawks, Lagerstrom made a stellar North American debut at the WJCs in 2007, helping lead a very competitive Swedish squad. The highly-skilled winger had three goals and three assists in six games and was +2. At Huddinge IK in the Swedish Second League, Lagerstrom had eight goals and four assists in 30 games and was -10. Like fellow Euro Makarov, Lagerstrom is clearly on the Hawks’ radar as a future signee and NHL contributor.

11. Billy Sweatt, LW

6′, 180 pounds
Drafted Round 2, 2007
Born: 9-21-88

When Sweatt flies past opposing defenders, creates and finishes a breakaway with a deft stick-handling move, he looks a lot like a left-handed Patrick Sharp. Then again, the college sophomore from Elburn, IL will need to work and grow a great deal to equal Sharp’s all-around, three-zone play. Scouts were divided on Sweatt leading up to the 2007 draft. Without question the fastest player in the draft, Sweatt’s issues playing through contact caused his stock to drop a bit. Still, he showed improvement in his second season at Colorado College with 10 goals and 17 assists in 37 games (+13).

12. Simon Danis-Pepin, D

6’7, 210 pounds
Drafted Round 2, 2006
Born: 4-11-88

Towering Danis-Pepin made significant strides as the youngest player on the University of Maine squad this past season. In addition to statistical improvement over the previous season (four goals and eight assists in 34 regular season games), Danis-Pepin has stepped up as a leader in the locker room and is considered a future captain of the Black Bears. The Quebec native also excels academically with a 3.33 GPA.

13. Danny Richmond, D

6′, 192 pounds
Acquired in trade 2006 from Carolina
Born: 8-1-84

A classic case of a forgotten man, Richmond started the 2007-08 season with the Blackhawks but was farmed out to Rockford after seven games, and allowed to pass through waivers in the process. He remains an enigma: an above average skater and passer who can play positionally sound defense, he is adequate in a lot of areas, but not really outstanding in any. He is a tough, dedicated player who will drop the gloves for teammates, in spite of his small stature. He battled through injury (ruptured spleen) at Rockford, appearing in 40 games with two goals and 12 assists (+8) and 156 PIM.

14. Corey Crawford, G

6’2, 190 pounds
Drafted Round 2, 2003
Born: 12-31-84

Opinions vary on Crawford’s potential. Some see him as a future No. 1 goalie for the Blackhawks. Others remain skeptical. One thing is certain; Crawford showed during a late call-up with the Blackhawks this season that he can be, at least, an effective backup in the NHL. In five games with the Blackhawks, Crawford posted a 2.14 GAA with a .929 save percentage and a shutout. With Rockford, he appeared in 55 regular season games, with a 2.83 GAA, .907 save percentage and five shootout losses.

15. Evan Brophey, C

6’1, 203 pounds
Drafted Round 3, 2005
Born: 12-3-86

After a breakout season as an overage junior at Plymouth (OHL) Brophey had an inauspicious debut in pro hockey at Rockford. Cited by Coach Mike Haviland as having all the tools, Brophey seemed to be feeling his way with four goals and 15 assists in 74 games (-9). A big, physical center who can both pass and take the puck to the net, Brophey has at times been accused of not working hard enough. However, Haviland has shown a unique ability to get the most of his players. Expect 2008-09 to be a critical year for Brophey to continue his development in Rockford.

16. Josh Unice, G

5’11, 175 pounds
Drafted Round 3, 2007
Born: 6-24-89

In the summer of 2007, Unice passed on a commitment to attend Bowling Green (CCHA) and instead went to Kitchener (OHL). Once there, the graduate of the U.S. National Program was on fire, leading the OHL in numerous statistical categories. However, Kitchener subsequently went out and acquired top prospect Steve Mason (CLB) and Unice was relegated to backup duties. Unice posted a 2.45 GAA and .908 save percentage in 42 regular season games. Adding insult to injury, he was not invited to play for the U.S. team at the 2008 World Juniors, losing out to fellow Blackhawk prospect Joe Palmer. A small but instinctive and quick net minder, Unice is viewed by many to be perhaps the top threat to overtake Crawford on the organizational depth chart.

17. Nathan Davis, C

6’1, 195 pounds
Drafted Round 4, 2005
Born: May 23, 1986

Recently signed by the Blackhawks, Davis played in only 21 games during his final season (2007-08) at Miami University (CCHA) due to injuries. Nonetheless, Davis had eight goals and nine assists for 17 points (+3). Were it not for the injuries and related lack of production, Davis would have been rated much higher by HF. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in 2006-07, leading Miami deep into the NCAA playoffs. He also led the NCAA in scoring for much of the season. He is a fast, competitive center who excels in all facets of the game: face-offs, penalty-killing, scoring and passing. While center was a position of weakness for the hawks for much of the last decade, Davis is further evidence this is no longer the case. If he can stay healthy, his long-term potential with the Blackhawks would seem to place him in competition with Kontiola, Bolland and Brophey.

18. Joe Fallon, G

6’3, 190 pounds
Drafted Round 6, 2005
Born: 2-1-1985

Another recent signee, Fallon is perhaps the dark horse in the Hawks’ stable of goaltending prospects. Like former Hawk prospect Michael Leighton, Fallon is a big, rangy goaltender, but he is perhaps more disciplined and positionally sound than Leighton was at the same stage. He has also consistently produced solid numbers at Vermont in Hockey East. During his senior campaign, he appeared in 33 regular-season games with a solid 2.38 GAA and .915 save percentage.

19. Bryan Bickell, LW

6’4, 226 pounds
Drafted Round 2, 2004
Born: 3-9-86

Bickell’s undeniable package of size and skill keeps him a top prospect, though one has to wonder for how much longer. With Rockford, he appeared in 73 games and had 19 goals and 20 assists (+1). Bickell possesses a hard, accurate shot and can skate well for a big man, yet his production never seems to match his talent. In four games with Chicago, he did not score and was -1.

20. Kris Versteeg, LW

5’10, 179 pounds
Acquired in trade from Boston, 2007
Born: 5-13-86

Versteeg has rightly drawn some comparisons to former Hawk Steve Sullivan. While not quite as fast or skilled as Sullivan, the diminutive Versteeg is highly competitive, tough and productive. The Alberta native appeared in 13 games with the Hawks, putting up two goals and two assists (-1). With Rockford, he notched 18 goals and 31 assists in 56 games (+6), with proof of his fiery demeanor provided by 174 PIM and many incindiery incidents. Though somewhat buried on the depth chart, Versteeg should not be counted out of the Hawks’ future. During his call-up to the Hawks, there were games where he was clearly the best forward Chicago had on the ice.