The Blackhawks manage to keep an above average system after graduating five prospects during the team’s turnaround 2007-08 season.
The Blackhawks dipped into their prospect pool generously during the 2007-08 season, resulting in a total of 18 prospects seeing time in the NHL. The team was one of the youngest in the league and managed to ride a roller coaster regular season to within three points of the playoffs. The turnaround season yielded five graduates from the prospect pool. Top-shelf prospects Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Cam Barker were main components to the Blackhawks’ first winning season since 2001-02. Dustin Byfuglien and Adam Burish also contributed to the team’s success. With these five graduations, there were gaping holes left in the organization’s prospect pool. GM Dale Tallon and company were fortunate to reload in the 2008 draft with two top prospects in Kyle Beach and Shawn Lalonde. Combining the new class with an already impressive collection of talent spread across minor, junior, European, and collegiate leagues, the Blackhawks were able to maintain much of their organizational strength despite valuable losses.
One of the biggest weaknesses of the Blackhawks’ overall prospect pool is the lack of depth at left wing. With the addition of Beach, though, the small group gains a big punch. The Blackhawks’ 11th overall pick in the draft is considered to have top-line potential. The 6’3 206-pound power forward led a compelling campaign to make the team out of training camp. Though he has returned to Everett for another season, the 18-year-old Beach began his season with three goals, six assists in the first five games. With his bruising ship headed in the right direction, it is feasible that Beach could be playing the wing alongside Toews and Kane in the near future.
Another valuable prospect at left wing is Billy Sweatt, currently skating at Colorado College. A second-round pick in 2007, the Chicago-area native combines dazzling speed with a solid, all-around skill set. As part of the U.S. National Team Development Program, he gained valuable experience playing against international talent during the gold medal run at the 2006 U-18 World Junior Championships and the bronze medal finish at the 2007 U-20 WJC. In two seasons at Colorado College, Sweatt had 19 goals, 34 assists in 67 games. By gaining experience at multiple levels and, of course, adding size and strength, the 20-year-old Sweatt could be a potent playmaker on one of the Blackhawks’ top lines.
Also on the left wing are two solid power forwards in Brian Bickell and Adam Berti. Bickell has been a steady scorer in a pair of AHL seasons with the Rockford IceHogs. He has played a total of seven games in Chicago in those two years as well, though he didn’t register a point in his most recent call-up. The 6’3 205-pound Bickell was a second-round pick in 2004. Unfortunately, the power forward position is a deep one for Chicago and Bickell will probably remain buried beneath better prospects. Even farther down the depth chart at power forward, Berti has been unable to find his scoring touch in the AHL after putting up respectable numbers for Oshawa and Erie in the OHL. Berti contributed seven points in 42 games with Rockford last season but failed to score during a brief two-game call-up.
The center position is one of the deepest in the organization, containing a total of 16 players. The absence of a blue-chip center prospect drops this position’s grade down, but there are several good prospects. Petri Kontiola was first in line for the vacancy left by the trade that sent Robert Lang to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a 2009 second-round pick. The Finnish center failed to impress, however, and was one of the earlier cuts from the training camp roster. Kontiola will begin this season in Rockford, where he put up a point per game in his first pro season in North America last year. Kontiola’s playmaking ability has never been questioned, but he appeared overmatched at times during the Blackhawks’ preseason games. Kontiola should see more action in Chicago this season as one of the first options should the parent club need a call-up.
Though David Bolland was also unable to grab the second line center job, he has firmly entrenched himself as the center for the third line. Bolland’s solid speed, physical play, especially for a smaller forward, and playmaking skills give him a balanced attack. He is a responsible skater in his own end, and could contribute to the team’s penalty kill throughout the year. Though he only had 4 goals, 13 assists in 39 games with the Blackhawks in 2007-08, Bolland has the potential to score points in bunches. If he can continue to improve toward his potential, Bolland should be providing the Blackhawks with much needed scoring from the bottom two lines.
One of the most intriguing prospects in the entire system is Akim Aliu, a 6’2 207-pound power forward currently on the London Knights. He had his most successful junior season last year, putting up 28 goals, 31 assists in 60 games. He also collected 133 penalty minutes. Much like Beach, Aliu’s past issues are well-documented. Also like Beach, Aliu was one of the final cuts from the Blackhawks’ training camp roster and seemed to make a positive impression on the organization. If he can continue to keep his head on straight, he has the size, speed, and offensive skills to make an impact in the NHL.
There are still more prominent prospects in this deep group of centers. Colin Fraser has gotten opportunities on the fourth line for Chicago already this season. Twenty-year-old Swedish center Tony Lagerstrom has found success in his home country with fantastic intangibles and solid two-way play. Nathan Davis, a fourth-round pick in 2005, will be making the jump from college at Miami University to the professional ranks in Rockford. Evan Brophey and Jake Dowell will also be gaining experience with the IceHogs.
Similar to the center position, the right wing group is characterized by several good prospects rather than any elite players. Headlining the right wing position is Troy Brouwer, yet another top power forward prospect. The Blackhawks’ seventh-round pick in 2004, the 23-year-old Brouwer is possibly the best pure scorer prospect in the organization. In the last two seasons playing in the AHL, he totaled 41 goals and 35 goals. Unfortunately, in 12 games with the Blackhawks over the past two seasons, he has only managed one assist and seven penalty minutes. Brouwer failed to make the team out of camp but his recent call-up could be the chance he needs to produce in the NHL.
Another right wing prospect currently playing in Chicago is Kris Versteeg. Despite being a smaller forward at 5’10 180 pounds, Versteeg’s energy and versatility give him opportunities to make a big impact. He has been deployed on the first line (the coveted wing spot alongside Toews and Kane), the third line, and special teams so far this season, scoring six points in the first six games. At just 22 years old, Versteeg will have a difficult time sustaining that scoring pace. For now he leads rookies in the league. As long as he can be a steady contributor in his several different roles, though, Versteeg may be one of the most indispensable prospects on the Blackhawks.
The other winger to make the team out of camp was Jack Skille, who made the Blackhawks’ opening roster in only his second full pro year out of the University of Wisconsin. The much anticipated Skille was the seventh overall selection in the 2005 draft. The ability to produce in the NHL is there, as illustrated in Skille’s 16 games with the Blackhawks last season where he put up a solid 3 goals, 2 assists. At only 21 years old, Skille was recently sent to Rockford where he should gain valuable experience skating top-line minutes.
The organizational depth at right wing is evident in the form of prospects like Igor Makarov. The 21-year-old Russian prospect showed promise in his first NHL training camp, but will spend at least one more year with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL this season. Dan Bertram was a top forward on Boston College’s national championship team least season and is beginning his professional career with the IceHogs. The offensively-minded right wing prospect Ben Smith will be entering his junior year at Boston College, hoping to build on his 25-goal, 25-assist performance last season when he saw significant time as the Eagles’ top-line center.
The loss of Barker took away the only possible blue-chip prospect from the defensive system. The group does still have Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jordan Hendry, two prospects who saw playing time last season and have stayed on the roster with the big club. In his first season playing hockey in North America, Hjalmarsson, a 21-year-old Swedish blue-liner, showed willingness offensively and delivered a number of huge hits for both Rockford and Chicago last season. Limited so far this season by a rib injury, Hjalmarsson should see time on the second or third pair when healthy. Hendry will also earn playing time for the Blackhawks this year based on his reliability in the defensive zone. Despite not having as high a potential as Hjalmarsson, Hendry proved to be a solid player in both zones with the ability to battle and shutdown opposing forwards in 40 games with the big club. At 24, Hendry provides great stability and reliability for the Blackhawks’ third pair.
The depth on defense was addressed in this year’s draft, so the group remains largely unproven. The Blackhawks traded up in the third round to get Shawn Lalonde, who the organization had ranked in its top 30 draft prospects. Though he’ll need time to improve his strength and gain experience, the 18-year-old Lalonde should be the headline of defensive prospect in the next couple years. The Blackhawks drafted four more defenders: the defensively minded Teigan Zahn, a two-way Swede in Jonathan Carlsson, Canadian blue-liner Braden Birch, and Minnesotan Joe Gleason. With Mike Brennan, a captain for Boston College last season, making his pro debut in Rockford, the Blackhawks’ corps of defensive prospects has potential but does not have much experience.
Corey Crawford will be 24 this year and will literally be playing for his job, considering the depth the organization at goal. Having been considered by many to be the franchise’s future No. 1 goaltender, Crawford will have to prove he can be more than a steady backup at the NHL level to keep his spot in the organization. Hot on Crawford’s heels is 19-year-old Josh Unice. A third round pick in 2007, Unice opted out of his commitment to Bowling Green to play in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers. He posted 30 wins in 42 games last year as Kitchener captured the J. Ross Roberson Cup (awarded to the OHL Champion) and a spot in the Memorial Cup final at home in Kitchener. Unice should see a lot of playing time with Kitchener again this year.
Joe Fallon will begin his career with the Blackhawks’ organization this year with the ECHL affiliate Fresno Falcons. The 23-year-old Fallon started four seasons with the University of Vermont, where he amassed 20 shutouts – second most in NCAA history. Fallon will not be hurried along and should be given plenty of time to progress through the system if he continues to show promise. Another collegiate goalie in the system is Joe Palmer, who will see playing time at Ohio State.
In the beginning of the 2007-08 season the Blackhawks’ system contained three of Hockey Future’s top 15 prospects in Toews (2), Kane (7), and Barker (15). All three of these players were top three picks for the Blackhawks, beginning with Barker third overall in 2004, Toews third overall in 2006, and Kane first overall in 2007. Tallon, Assistant GM Stan Bowman, and the rest of the organization deserve a good deal of credit in making their high draft picks count. The three prospects of this caliber graduating in the same season illustrate the organization’s ability to evaluate and develop their top-shelf talent.
Also important is the graduation of Byfuglien and Burish. Byfuglien began last year as a defenseman but made a mid-season switch to wing. Playing mostly on the second and third line Byfuglien scored 19 goals, providing needed scoring from the bottom lines. Burish proved himself to be not only an aggressive fourth-liner and penalty killer last season, but he also became a bit of a fan favorite for his eagerness to drop the gloves. Though he contributed little in terms of production last season, Burish filled an important energy role for the team.