Blackhawks Top 20 prospects, Spring 2009

By Brad Gardner

The Blackhawks continue to ice one of the youngest teams in the league. Three players on the list are currently with the team. There has been quite a bit of shuffling in the ranking, but many of the names are the same. A pair of 2008 draft picks, Kyle Beach and Shawn Lalonde, among the top six prospects.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Kris Versteeg, RW
2. Kyle Beach, LW
3. Troy Brouwer, RW
4. Niklas Hjalmarsson, D
5. Billy Sweatt, LW
6. Shawn Lalonde, D
7. Igor Makarov, RW
8. Jack Skille, RW
9. Petri Kontiola, C
10. Jordan Hendry, D
11. Corey Crawford, G
12. Joe Fallon, G
13. Akim Aliu, C
14. Evan Brophey, C
15. Simon Danis-Pepin, D
16. Colin Fraser, C
17. Josh Unice, G
18. Nathan Davis, C
19. Tony Lagerstrom, C
20. Mike Brennan, D

1. Kris Versteeg, RW – 7.5 B

Versteeg’s wildly successful rookie campaign has Chicago thinking Calder Trophy for a second straight season. In 49 games, his 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points ranks him first among NHL rookies. While fellow rookies like Bobby Ryan (ANA) and Patrik Berglund (STL) are close behind, Versteeg has led the rookie scoring race for much of the season. His role has been a big one for the Blackhawks, as his 17:29 minutes of average ice time ranks first among forwards. Certainly the season has been a nice surprise for the organization, considering he was a fifth-round pick in 2004. Versteeg has also been versatile for the Blackhawks, playing some games at center in addition to his natural wing position.

2. Kyle Beach, LW – 7.5 C

Beach was traded by the Everett Silvertips after posting 30 points and 106 penalty minutes in 30 games. Now with Lethbridge, Beach has upped his production for a team battling for a playoff spot. In 13 games, Beach has 11 goals – two more than his first-half total with Everett – and 10 assists. The agitator garnered some headlines when his flashy empty-net goal drew ire from the opposition. He also earned a three-game suspension for a separate incident, when he shot a puck down the ice after time had expired and the puck cleared the boards and hit a fan. Though it has not been a season one might expect from a first-rounder, Beach has continued to do what is expected of him by keeping his point total consistent and being a difference-maker.

3. Troy Brouwer, RW – 7.5 C

After leading the Rockford IceHogs with eight points in their first five games, Brouwer was called up to the Blackhawks where he has played in 43 games. Though he only has seven goals and 10 assists, Brouwer’s first full-time shot in the NHL has been solid. He has a +10 rating and is averaging over 14 minutes a game playing on the top two lines with some of the Blackhawks’ skilled forwards, Brouwer has had some trouble finding the net so far. The 6’2 213-pound right winger has willingly played the muscle role on his skilled lines, and his physicality has resulted in great chances for his linemates. Brouwer is not the type of player to dominate entire shifts physically, so he needs to continue to score, but he has contributed on the ice in his first significant NHL action. 

4. Niklas Hjalmarsson, D – 7.5 C

The top defenseman-in-waiting, Hjalmarsson has logged 44 games for the IceHogs this season. In addition, the young Swede made a two-game appearance with the parent club. He has accumulated two goals and 13 assists in the AHL so far this season along with a +10 rating. In just his second year in North America, Hjalmarsson has displayed his ability to be dependable defensively while still contributing offensively. Even in a 13-game call-up last season, Hjalmarsson should continue to see lots of ice time in Rockford as he waits for an opening on the Blackhawks blueline. 

5. Billy Sweatt, LW – 7.5 C

Perhaps the most skilled forward in the Blackhawks system, Sweatt is continuing to produce for a good Colorado College team currently ranked fourth in WCHA. Alongside nine assists in 30 games, the speedy winger’s 11 goals have already matched his collegiate high. In his junior season, Sweatt’s ability to make plays at great speed make him a dangerous playmaker. He has been rounding out the defensive aspects of his game. The 20-year-old was selected in the second round, 38th overall in the 2007 draft. Sweatt could feasibly jump to the pro ranks next season, but spending a fourth year at a successful program like Colorado College could help his development.

6. Shawn Lalonde, D – 7.0 C

The Blackhawks traded up to nab Lalonde early in the third round last June and the move is looking like a great call. In his third OHL season with the Belleville Bulls, his 18 goals are twice his total last season and his 23 assists eclipse his previous totals. Along with fellow defenseman P.K. Subban (MTL) and three fellow Bulls, Lalonde represented Belleville at this year’s OHL All-Star event, where he notched an assist. The 6’0 190-pounder is coming off a hot month of January, when he scored eight goals and six assists in 13 games while maintaining a +15 rating. Though his defensive play is still improving, Lalonde’s production will keep his stock on the rise.

7. Igor Makarov, RW – 7.0 C

Following a strong training camp where the Russian prospect was often one of the most visible forwards on the ice, Makarov returned to his St. Petersburg SKA team in the KHL. Despite being buried on a talented and veteran squad, the 6’1 195-pound Makarov has contributed seven goals, six assists, and 55 penalty minutes in 37 games. While Makarov’s situation may not be ideal for the Blackhawks this season, he is playing under former Detroit assistant coach Barry Smith and has progressed. With his great all-around game and great showing in camp, it is expected that Makarov will be one of the top candidates vying for any open forward spots next season.

8. Jack Skille, RW – 7.0 C

Skille began the season with the Blackhawks, but was sent to Rockford soon after Joe Quenneville took over as coach. In his six-game stint, Skille managed just one goal and five penalty minutes. Skille showed uneven play during this stretch, and raised questions about his willingness to play the physical game. While he showed flashes of skill along with his great speed, the former University of Wisconsin Badger was invisible on many shifts playing on the bottom lines. Since returning to Rockford, Skille’s production has improved. The 2005 first-round pick has 15 goals and 20 assists in 41 games in Rockford, already passing last season’s 59-game totals.

9. Petri Kontiola, C – 7.0 C

While fellow international prospect Makarov had a strong training camp to open this season, Kontiola was basically at the other end of the spectrum. Poor conditioning was blamed for Kontiola’s demotion just a few days into camp, despite being one of the top candidates for the open second-line center spot. Despite continuing to fill up the score sheet in Rockford this season with 43 points in 53 games, the parent club has preferred to play Patrick Sharp and more recently Versteeg out of position rather than calling up the 24-year-old Finnish center. His playmaking ability is undeniable, but Kontiola will need to put this frustration behind him if he is to see time with the Blackhawks.

10. Jordan Hendry, D – 6.5 A

Hendry has played in eight games this season for the Blackhawks, ending with a -1 rating. In 36 games as one of Rockford’s top defensemen, Hendry has contributed three goals and three assists with a +4 rating. He has been hampered by injuries recently, but remains one of the steadier hands on Rockford’s blueline. The 24-year-old Saskatchewan native is a well-rounded defensive stopper and is one of the organization’s few sure-fire prospects, as a future on the Blackhawks’ third pair seems to be just around the corner.

11. Corey Crawford, G – 7.0 C

Though he has generally been considered the Blackhawks’ future No. 1 goaltender, Crawford found himself in a full stable coming into this season after the acquisitions of Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet. Niemi began the season on fire, while Crawford started off a little slow for Rockford. Crawford has shined, though, in the new year, notching a 2.34 goals against average and .926 save percentage in January. Though he had a brief call-up to the NHL, Crawford did not see time. Crawford is a known quantity who at age 24 will be a restricted free agent at year’s end, which makes Niemi seem that much more intriguing. However, Crawford’s relative consistency and his ability to carry the load in Rockford are big positives, and he should not be counted out of the goaltending battle.

12. Joe Fallon, G – 7.0 C

Fallon has quietly had a solid start to his pro career, playing mostly in the ECHL. Fallon was with the Fresno Falcons before the team folded, and then was assigned to the Gwinnett Gladiators, earning a 13-8-2 record in 23 total ECHL games, including one shutout. Just a few weeks younger than Crawford, Fallon is a viable prospect. He is currently stationed in Rockford as Crawford’s backup while Khabibulin sits out, but has only seen time in relief. At 6’3 and 202 pounds, Fallon has good size. If his 20 career NCAA shutouts playing for the University of Vermont are any indication, Fallon has plenty of talent to display as he works his way up the ranks.

13. Akim Aliu, C – 7.5 D

An in-season trade from the London Knights to his former team the Sudbury Wolves has been the biggest news for Aliu this year, which is probably a good thing. His feelings for Knights coach Dale Hunter have been well-documented, but Aliu has seemingly handled the difficult situation relatively well, save for an unceremonious return to London near the end of January. The divisive forward has kept his production consistent with last year’s point-per-game numbers, putting up 14 goals and 17 assists in 32 tilts with 64 penalty minutes. Aliu had a productive camp this year, and his slide down the ranks has more to do with other prospects like Versteeg, Lalonde, and Fallon improving their stock than Aliu hurting his own. That said, the jury will likely be out on Aliu until he can put everything together.

14. Evan Brophey, C – 7.0 C

Brophey has had a good year with the IceHogs, scoring 10 goals and 15 assists with a +19 rating in 52 games. These numbers are already well past his 74 game totals last year, which saw only four goals and 15 assists all season. With solid size at 6’2 197 pounds, Brophey is an intriguing prospect up the middle for Chicago. Though center is probably the deepest position in the system, the absence of a surefire prospect leaves the door open for a lot of players. Given Brophey’s prolific OHL numbers, he has as good a shot as anyone. More time in Rockford will aid his development in just his second pro year.  

15. Simon Danis-Pepin, D – 6.5 C

Now a senior for the University of Maine Black Bears, Danis-Pepin has earned a leadership role on the team by serving as alternate captain. Not one to fill up the score sheet, the towering 6’7 defenseman has seven assists in 25 games. Though his greatest assets are his size and hockey smarts, the increased role has helped Danis-Pepin’s confidence in both zones. He has been the best defenseman and a leader on the blueline for the Black Bears, who are currently 12-13-3 overall and stand at seventh in Hockey East. For a 2006 second-round pick Danis-Pepin has flown under the radar to this point, but this could easily change as he prepares for his post-collegiate career.

16. Colin Fraser, C – 6.0 C

The 24-year-old center has spent the entire season with the Blackhawks, centering the fourth line in 52 contests. In his fourth pro season, his first seeing significant time in the NHL, Fraser has provided solid play in both zones as well as an immense amount of energy. He has also paired with graduated prospect Adam Burish to form the team’s steadiest penalty-killing tandem. Fraser has four goals, nine assists, and 44 penalty minutes in 52 games this season. He as been playing good hockey in an essential role for the Blackhawks.

17. Josh Unice, G – 7.0 D

After a stellar season with the Kitchener Rangers which saw the team compete for the Memorial Cup, Unice had a rough start to this year with a 4-10-0 record, 3.84 goals against average, and .880 save percentage. Since being traded to the OHL‘s Western Conference leader, the Windsor Spitfires, Unice has gotten his numbers back on track with a 6-1-0 record, 2.08 goals against average, and .918 save percentage. A positive sign after a troubling beginning to the season, the clean start with Windsor gives Unice another shot at a Memorial Cup. In addition, Unice was a part of the United States’ team at this year’s World Junior Championships. Though he only saw action in one game, it was an impressive start as the 19-year-old made 25 saves in a 3-2 overtime win against the Czech Republic in the fifth-place game.

18. Nathan Davis, C – 6.5 C

Playing in his first professional year after a successful four-year career at Miami University (Ohio), Davis has five goals and five assists in 43 games with the IceHogs. Davis was nearly a point-per-game player for his NCAA career and was a Hobey Baker finalist in his junior season. At just 22 years old, Davis should see more time in Rockford as he develops. With the organization’s depth at center he should be given ample time to adjust to the professional level.

19. Tony Lagerstrom, C – 6.0 C

Lagerstrom has played 39 games this season for Mora in Allsvenskan, Sweden‘s farm-levelleague, and has posted nine goals and 15 assists. A skilled two-way forward with loads of leadership abilities, Lagerstrom has been a mainstay in Sweden‘s junior program throughout his development. The 20-year-old has already seen time in Sweden‘s Elitsieren, generally considered one of the top leagues in Europe, and has put up good numbers throughout his career overseas. Making the switch to the North American game could be a tough transition, but will be a necessary step in evaluating the center’s true potential.

20. Mike Brennan, D – 6.5 D

Another player in his first professional season following a strong collegiate career, Brennan was signed as an undrafted free agent. He has played in 42 games with the IceHogs, contributing three assists and 59 penalty minutes. That was business as usual for Brennan at Boston College, where he captained the Eagles to a national championship his senior season. The 23-year-old New York native is another well-rounded defenseman in the Blackhawks system and will continue to see significant time in Rockford as he develops.