Center, defense depth plentiful in Chicago Blackhawks system

By Anthony Lyen

NHL: SEP 13 Rookie Tournament - Blackhawks v Maple Leafs

Photo: Stephen Johns is one of Chicago’s many hulking defensemen who likely have a future in the NHL (courtesy of Mark Spowart/Icon Sportswire)

 

For years, one of the key concerns plaguing the Chicago Blackhawks was the lack of a quality second-line center. While general manager Stan Bowman is hoping his big free agent acquisition, Brad Richards, is a temporary solution for the 2014-15 season, the answer for future seasons may come from within the organization. Bowman and Co. have taken it upon themselves over the past few years to draft a plethora of centers.

Besides being relatively deep down the middle, the Blackhawks have an impressive group of young guns on the blueline as well. With Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival set to be unrestricted free agents this offseason, the Hawks will most likely look to help fill out the back end with some of their young talent waiting in the wings.

Left Wing

Jeremy Morin split time between the Rockford IceHogs and the Blackhawks throughout the 2013-14 season, but he was fairly impressive no matter which sweater he had on. The 23-year-old winger had 47 points in 47 games with the IceHogs, showing his ability to be an effective goal scorer. Morin entered the 2014-15 season hoping to earn a permanent spot with the Hawks, and thus far, he has done so. With the free agent signing of Daniel Carcillo on Oct. 4, however, Morin may find himself continuing to prove his worth.

One prospect who seems to fly under the radar is Garret Ross. He showed tremendous growth during his time with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, and in his first full pro season with the IceHogs Ross tallied 34 points in 74 games, earning a plus/minus rating of plus-12. The 22 year old has managed to cement a role on the top line in Rockford, using his tenacity and versatility to his advantage.

Matt Carey signed with the Blackhawks on March 20 after a successful season with St. Lawrence University (ECAC). Although he only appeared in two games with the Hawks, Carey was able to score his first NHL goal against the Nashville Predators on April 12. He starts off the 2014-15 season in Rockford, bouncing between the third and fourth lines.

Now sporting an “A” on his sweater, Fredrik Olofsson begins his first full season as a member of the Chicago Steel of the USHL. He has already tallied seven goals and five assists in the first 11 games of the season.

Center

It really is not a matter of will Teuvo Teravainen be an impact player for the Chicago Blackhawks but when. Teravainen, ranked tenth in HF’s Prospect Rankings, can be a perfect complement to the Hawks’ top-six, possessing elite puck-handling skills and dynamic play-making abilities. Due to an already loaded roster in Chicago, however, Teravainen starts his first full pro season in North America with the IceHogs. The 20-year-old Finn is an NHL-ready prospect, but he is guaranteed top-line minutes in Rockford, allowing him time to perfect the few parts of his game that need improvement.

While he may not have the hype of Teravainen, there is plenty to be excited about with Nick Schmaltz. The 2014 first-round pick showed off his enormous potential during the Blackhawks’ prospect camp in July, with his speed and puck-handling skills on full display. After a 63-point campaign last season with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL, Schmaltz joins the University of North Dakota in the NCAA ranks. The 18-year-old center, who typically centers the second or third line, has already earned seven points (one goal, six assists) in as many games, making him one of the better point producers for UND.

Joakim Nordstrom has had quite a year. After seeing some playing time in the NHL the previous season, the 22-year-old Swede was named captain of the IceHogs for the 2014-15 season, and for good reason. With a high hockey IQ and soft hands, Nordstrom is an effective scorer in Rockford. His smart defensive play was noticeable with both the IceHogs and the Blackhawks. Do not be surprised if he gets a call-up should an injury arise.

Joining Nordstrom in Rockford are Philip Danault, Alex Broadhurst and Drew LeBlanc. IceHogs coach Ted Dent compared Danault to current Blackhawk Marcus Kruger, and Danault took that as high praise. The 2011 first-round pick has the speed and hands necessary for an NHL-caliber center. While last season left something to be desired, Danault’s game has picked up over the past few months, earning eight points in eight games so far in the 2014-15 season. Next season could see him in Chicago.

Broadhurst has become an effective scorer in Rockford despite hitting a bit of a slump lately. After a 45-point season last year, Broadhurst has a single point in eight games thus far. The talented center’s game will likely pick up, and he could even be a surprise call up later in the season.

As for LeBlanc, his play has been rather lackluster since his Hobey Baker Award-winning season in 2012-13. In 80 career games with the IceHogs, LeBlanc has just 22 points and is a minus-six. The 25-year-old center has the playmaking ability and vision to be effective at the pro level. He just needs to find some consistency to make that happen.

The Blackhawks have centers of all shapes and sizes within the NCAA too. While John Hayden is certainly one of the biggest bodies the Blackhawks have, he has the skill to back up his hulking physique. At 6’3, Hayden is definitely a physical presence on the ice, using his aggressive style to deliver hits and create havoc for opposing teams. In his debut season with Yale University, Hayden registered 16 points in 33 games. He was a standout, however, during the Blackhawks prospect camp this summer, so a strong year with the Bulldogs should solidify his position at the top of the depth chart.

Joining Nick Schmaltz at UND is Luke Johnson, who has mostly been seen on the top two lines. Johnson is still developing and has been in the system for over a year now, the focus may tend to shift towards Schmaltz on behalf of the Blackhawks brass in terms of pure skill and potential.

Tyler Motte (University of Michigan), Vince Hinostroza (University of Notre Dame) and Anthony Louis (Miami University of Ohio) may lack the size of an NHL center, but the trio has the natural goal-scoring abilities coaches desire. As all three players mature physically and mentally, they will become even more dangerous on the ice.

Dylan Sikura (Northeastern University/NCAA) and Beau Starrett (South Shore Kings/USPHL Premier) were both selected by Chicago in the 2014 NHL Draft, and both will be projects for the club. Starrett has size (6’5) and excellent playmaking abilities, while Sikura is smaller at 5’11 but can still use his quick hands to put the puck in the back of the net. The two will need a few years to develop before the Blackhawks take a serious look.

Right Wing

Although Nordstrom and Ross tend to share time on the top line’s right wing, there are two wingers below them who have tremendous skill. Mark McNeill may have been drafted as a center, but the amount of center depth within the Blackhawks organization moved the 21 year old to the right wing. After a decent 2013-14 season that saw him earn 37 points in 76 games, McNeill is poised for a big season after his first full year in the pros.

Despite being drafted for his ability to aggravate the opposition, Ryan Hartman has become an effective player in many more aspects. The 20-year-old winger saw plenty of success with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, and he has found himself becoming an offensive contributor with the IceHogs, tallying five points in 10 games this season. He is also effective in his own zone defensively, making him dangerous at both ends of the ice. Should Hartman have a successful season in Rockford, it will be hard for Stan Bowman to keep him out of Chicago at the start of the 2015 season.

After Hartman and McNeill, there’s a slight drop at right wing, but there are a few long-term projects who could be ready to make an impact a couple years down the line. After an average 2013-14 season with Boston College, Chris Calnan is off to a much better start this season, having earned two goals and one assist in the first five games of the 2014-15 campaign.

Matheson Iacopelli enters his second season with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL. The 20 year old is an effective goal scorer, having scored 41 goals in 58 games last season with the Lumberjacks. He already has eight goals in just 12 games this season, but he is still a couple years away in terms of development.

Rounding out the position is Jack Ramsey, who was taken near the end of the 2014 draft. The 18-year-old winger of the Penticton Vees of the BCHL is not a dynamic player, but there is certainly offensive upside for Ramsey.

Defense

When defenseman Nick Leddy was traded to the New York Islanders on Oct. 4, many fans found the move a tough pill to swallow. Still, Stan Bowman hopes recent acquisition David Rundblad can help fill the void. The 24-year-old defenseman has suited up for 4 games with the Blackhawks thus far in the 2014-15 season. He is still young and needs to make more adjustments to his game. He is not quite as promising as Leddy was over the past few seasons, but there’s hope he can grow into an important part of the Hawks’ back end.

Luckily for the Hawks, there was also a plethora of young talent to fill the void left by the Leddy trade. Many assumed one of the top young defensive prospects within the organization (more on them in a bit) would take on the role this season.

Instead, an unlikely newcomer won the job: Trevor van Riemsdyk. The 23-year-old defenseman signed with the Blackhawks on March 24, having played with the University of New Hampshire, earning 75 points in 102 games with the Wildcats. After several solid outings during the preseason, he earned a roster spot in Chicago, suiting up for every game of the season thus far.

In return for Leddy, the Blackhawks received the ever-improving T.J. Brennan and 2012 second round pick Ville Pokka. While Brennan’s road to the NHL has been full of ups and downs, it is Pokka who may end up being the highlight of this transaction. At just 20 years old, Pokka had a standout season with Karpat in the SM-liiga, registering 27 points in 54 games with a plus/minus rating of plus-32. He made his North American debut with the IceHogs on Oct. 26, registering one shot and 15:51 of ice time. With a year or two of regular playing time in the AHL, he could become a very important blueliner for the Hawks.

Despite the van Riemsdyk promotion and the addition of Pokka, Adam Clendening, Klas Dahlbeck and Stephen Johns are the top promotional candidates should a roster spot open up in the foreseeable future. Clendening led the IceHogs in scoring last season, tallying 59 points (12 goals, 47 assists) in 74 games. His natural offensive instincts, including his ability to quarterback the power play, make the 22 year old a threat every time he is on the ice. Should the Blackhawks require a defenseman who can put the puck in the net and generate chances, look for Clendening to get the call to the Windy City.

Dahlbeck, on the other hand, plays his best hockey in his own zone, although he is no amateur in terms of offensive production either. The 6’2 Swede was incredibly reliable during the preseason, with many assuming he would be on the opening day roster. Dahlbeck would eventually return to Rockford, but his first NHL game is likely not far away.

The final member of the trio is Johns, who joins the IceHogs for his first full pro season for 2014-15. During his time with the University of Notre Dame, Johns only got better, using his massive 6’4 frame to his advantage. His strength, smart play and leadership abilities make him a shoe-in for opening night of the 2015-16 season.

Getting lost amongst the many defensemen in Rockford is Viktor Svedberg. Standing at 6’8, Svedberg’s size make him a physical force on the ice. His mobility is gradually improving, as his two-way game. He still needs some work, but he’s certainly on the right path.

Due to a logjam in Rockford, several defensemen made their way to the Indy Fuel of the ECHL. Justin Holl, a 2010 second-round pick, had success at the University of Minnesota. His puck-moving ability and solid play in his own zone will make Holl a welcome addition to the Fuel.

Dillon Fournier also finds himself attempting to rise through the ranks of the Blackhawks system. A successful 2013-14 season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL saw Fournier become a dynamic offensive contributor, earning 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 36 games. The 20-year-old blueliner will look to utilize his first pro season as a way to transition from the juniors to the big leagues. Fournier is joined by fellow Husky Mathieu Brisebois, who joined the Blackhawks organization as part of the Rundblad trade. While he experienced plenty of offensive production during his time in the QMJHL, Brisebois has had trouble transition to the pros. His offensive skill is all there, but he will need playing time with the Fuel to enhance his game.

The Blackhawks are rich with defenseman at the collegiate level. Michael Paliotta highlights the group, who enters his final year with the University of Vermont. Selected in the third-round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Paliotta is poised for a big year with the Catamounts. He has already earned seven points in six games with Vermont, and his smooth skating and towering 6’4 frame will only add to his point totals. 

Luc Snuggerud of the University of Nebraska-Omaha could be set for an impressive rookie season as well. Equipped with strong hands and a high ability to read the play, the 19 year old has a goal and an assist with the Mavericks.

Nick Mattson and Sam Jardine round out the college-level defenseman. Mattson begins his fourth and final year with the University of North Dakota, while Jardine sports an “A” on his jersey with Ohio State. Mattson is hoping to replicate his offensive production from his previous three seasons. Jardine, on the other hand, would like to show improvement from two rather average years with the Buckeyes.

Carl Dahlstrom, playing for Linkoping of the SHL, may be considered by many to be the best European defensive prospect in the system given his solid positioning and good hands, but it is Robin Press who is having an impressive beginning to the 2014-15 season with Sodertalje. The “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2013 draft is putting up some rather relevant numbers, with 18 points in 21 games.

Robin Norell, a member of Djurgarden in the SHL, has four points in 18 games and sports a plus/minus rating of minus-nine.

Andreas Soderberg is the most recently drafted Swedish defenseman in the system, having been selected in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft. Dressing for Skelleftea of the SuperElit league, Soderberg is a bit of a project but the skill set is certainly there.

Goaltender

Arguably the weakest area in the Blackhawks system is between the pipes. With Antti Raanta, the Blackhawks have an agile and effective backup to Corey Crawford. Raanta was called upon sooner than thought when Nikolai Khabibulin went down with an injury, sporting a save percentage of .897 and 2.71 goals against average. His numbers were not impressive, but his play showed plenty of potential. Despite a strong showing from summer free agent signing Scott Darling, the backup job is still Raanta’s to lose.

After Raanta, things drop quite drastically. Mac Carruth is the next prospect in line. The 22-year-old netminder has been unable to replicate the success he had from 2010 to 2013 with the Portland Winterhawks on the WHL. Currently with the Indy Fuel, Carruth is not a lost cause just yet, but he will need to improve his play if he wants to stick with the organization.

Matt Tomkins starts the 2014-15 season with Ohio State hoping to be the number one goalie for the Buckeyes. The 20 year old has the size and athleticism needed for a goaltending prospect, but he needs time to work on his game. As does Ivan Nalimov, who is playing in the KHL with Admiral Vladivostok. Like Tomkins, consistency has been an issue for Nalimov, who boasts a .898 save percentage and 2.87 goals against average. Nalimov will be a project over the next few years, but he has the agility and size to help him going forward.

Follow Anthony Lyen on Twitter at @aclyen