Blackhawks organizational depth analysis, Fall 2009

By Brad Gardner

The Blackhawks have been able to maintain a solid group of prospects despite icing one of the NHL’s youngest teams over the last couple seasons. The center and defense positions have been restocked in recent drafts and both groups offer a variety of prospects. Each wing has a couple prospects who are sure to get long looks at the NHL level but are far from sure things. Depth in net is a major issue as is the pipeline’s overall talent level.

Left Wing

Two of Chicago’s top forward prospects headline the group at left wing in 2008 first -round pick Kyle Beach and 2007 second-round pick Billy Sweatt. At just 19 years old, Beach was too young to join Chicago’s AHL affiliate in Rockford and therefore returned to the WHL with the Spokane Chiefs, his third junior team. It has been business as usual for Beach with the new squad, as the power forward has five goals, two assists, and 36 PIMs in eight games on the year. Beach has the size at 6’3 202 lbs and mean streak to add some grit to the Blackhawks line-up in the next couple years.

Sweatt, 21, returned to Colorado College for his senior season and currently leads the team in scoring. The speedy winger potted three goals and added seven assists in leading the Tigers to a 4-1-1 record to start the season. In addition to his blazing skating, the 6’0 190 lbs Sweatt creates energy with his willingness to get physical. While his game may be best suited to a third or fourth-line energy role, he certainly has top-six potential if his hands can keep up with his feet.

Depth is brought to the left side by Rob Klinkhammer and Bryan Bickell. Both are skating with the Rockford IceHogs to start the year, and either could be a candidate for a call-up. In fact, both Klinkhammer and Bickell were recalled to the Blackhawks during the preseason, accompanied the team overseas, and appeared in the team’s exhibition matches. Klinkhammer brings a well-rounded skill set and good size to the table at 6’3 206 lbs. The 23-year-old signed in June, 2009 but has already shown glimpses of the energy and hard work he could bring to one of Chicago’s bottom lines.

Bickell, a second round pick in 2004, is a hulking forward. He plays strong on the puck in the offensive zone and can dominate the physical game. He is also willing to drop the gloves, which actually resulted in a broken hand and only 42 games last season. While the 23-year-old’s point-per-game production has fallen over the last two seasons, it is ultimately Bickell’s physical toughness that could earn him a shot in Chicago.

Kyle Greentree is a new addition to the organization after acquiring the 25-year-old in exchange for defenseman Aaron Johnson. He brings size at 6’3 215 lbs and scoring depth to the Rockford line-up. He is a proven scorer at the AHL level after 39 goals and 76 points in 79 games last season for the Quad City Flames. He has one goal and four assists in eight games so far for Rockford.

Filling out the left side is Adam Hobson, Peter MacArthur, and Karel Hromas. Hobson, now 22, has moved to the wing from his natural center position. He still was unable to find a spot in Rockford, though, and was assigned to Chicago’s ECHL affiliate Toledo Walleye. The 24-year-old MacArthur, now in his third pro season out of Boston University, was signed by the ‘Hawks after a solid season under contract with Rockford. He provides some skill and versatility for the IceHogs. Hromas, 23, remains in his home Czech league with Sparta Praha after playing two years in the WHL from 2004-06.

Center

The Blackhawks drafted six forwards in the 2009 draft, all of them with experience at center. While they may eventually end up on the wing, the 2009 draft class really bolstered the organization’s depth up the middle. Yet there are three older prospects who could be closer to joining the parent club in Evan Brophey, Nathan Davis, and Jacob Dowell. The 22-year-old Brophey was a third rounder in 2005 and has developed into a balanced centerman. While his production may not blow anyone away, he has the size and ability to become a dependable two-way pivot. Although he has yet to skate in an NHL game, Brophey could be a cheap option for a checking line role over the next couple seasons.

Davis, in his second season out of Miami (Ohio), brings great versatility to Rockford. The 23-year-old has had some success on the wing already this year having already matched his power-play output from last year with two goals in the first eight games. After being limited to 49 games last season, Davis seems primed for some major improvements this season in Rockford.

Dowell, 24, has made 22 appearances for the Blackhawks over his first three pro seasons. Two of those games have come this season, where he has centered a few shifts but has mostly played on the fourth line wing. He dropped the gloves during his second game in Chicago, which is indicative of his gritty style of play. A tireless worker, the 2004 fifth-round pick was also producing at high level in Rockford before being called up with one goal and six assists in eight AHL games.

The Blackhawks added a wealth of talent and potential up the middle with the 2009 draft class. Brandon Pirri, Byron Froese, Marcus Kruger, Dan DeLisle, David Pacan, and David Gilbert were all added in the 2009 draft. Pirri was Chicago’s second selection and 59th overall out of the Junior A level OJHL. He now skates at RPI, where he is off to an impressive start with three goals and three assists in the club’s first six games. At 6’0 160 lbs the 18-year-old Pirri will definitely need to add some bulk. His skill though is still readily apparent with his quick skating and brilliant puckhandling. He is likely years away, but his production and potential put Pirri at the top of Chicago’s second tier of younger center prospects. 

In the fourth round, the ‘Hawks grabbed Froese from the Everett Silvertips. At 18, he has claimed the top-line center spot for the ‘Tips. Already established as a dependable two-way center, he is also producing at a higher clip in his second year with five goals and 11 points in 10 games thus far. Froese played with Canada’s U-18 team last year.

Kruger, drafted in the fifth round, has had one of the most impressive starts out of any Chicago prospect. While centering the top line for Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League, Kruger has already had time to cool off after exploding out of the gate. Still, through the first 14 games of the season the 19-year-old is ranked fourth in the league in points with 16, including five goals. He is an extremely skilled pivot with great hockey sense. He also has some experience with the Swedish junior program. Kruger will likely continue to gain valuable experience in his home pro league for another couple years but could be brought over sooner if he can build on his hot start to the season.

The three other centers from the 2009 class could all potentially add valuable depth down the road. DeLisle was drafted in the third round as a bit of a project. His 6’4 222 lbs and strong skating are certainly an intriguing combination and it will be important to see how he develops at the college level. In his freshman year at Minnesota-Duluth, DeLisle has been primarily used as a center on the Bulldogs’ fourth line. Pacan, drafted in the sixth round, is another prospect with size at 6’3 187 lbs. He is currently playing his freshman season at the University of Vermont. Seventh-round pick Gilbert is in his third season as member of the Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL.

Rounding out Chicago’s center position are Tony Lagerstrom, Chris Auger, Jakub Sindel, and Peter Leblanc. Lagerstrom, another center playing in Sweden, is in his second season with Mora in Sweden‘s farm-level Allsvenskan league. He has proven to be a solid two-way center as he has climbed the ladder in his home country. Auger is a senior for UMass-Lowell looking to rebound after just 14 games last season due to injury. Sindel has returned to the Czech league with HC Kometa Brno after finishing last season in Finland. Leblanc is another senior on the college circuit. In five games for the University of New Hampshire, the 21-year-old has five assists.

Right Wing

Though he was drafted as a center, Akim Aliu moved outside and has taken the top spot at right wing. Still a work in progress, Aliu has already shown glimpses of the force that he can be with the puck. At 6’3 224 lbs, he is also effective with his size and strength along the boards. While questions about his behavior and mindset have been a constant, some on-ice success with the IceHogs this year could really distance Aliu from his checkered past. The 20-year-old has scored three goals and an assist in eight games. The opportunity is there in Rockford for Aliu to continue developing into one of Chicago’s top forward prospects.

Jack Skille‘s slide down the rankings is due as much to Aliu’s development as Skille’s own trouble nailing down a spot on the big club. The seventh overall pick in 2005 earned the first call-up of this young season. He skated on Chicago’s fourth line for five games and showed flashes of the speed and physical play of an effective checking-line player. However, uneven performances held him back at other points and he was unable to establish a role. Even with a couple of injured wingers, Skille has most recently remained in Rockford in favor of Dowell. He likely remains near the top of the list should more injuries occur and, to his credit, the 22-year-old has handled his shifting situation well.

Twenty-two-year-old Russian prospect Igor Makarov did not attend training camp this season, but could join the Blackhawks in the 2010-11 season. This season is his fourth with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL. He brings a skilled offensive game, including strong skating and puckhandling, while holding his own in the defensive end. Makarov’s role on the team is limited and he has been unable to climb up the veteran-laden lineup despite developing into a promising prospect.

Dan Bertram and Ben Smith round out the depth at right wing. The 22-year-old Bertram has yet to make his debut in his second season out of Boston College. Smith is a current BC Eagle in his senior season. He has appeared in both of BC’s games, scoring one goal. 

Defense

A strong performance during the playoffs last spring has carried over into the new season as Niklas Hjalmarsson continues to bring his dependable play to the Blackhawks’ blue line. The Swede has displayed a well-rounded game, from his ability to jumpstart the rush to his masterful stick that he effectively uses to separate the puck in his own zone. His steady play has him firmly entrenched on Chicago’s second pairing alongside Brian Campbell. The 22-year-old Hjalmarsson is nearing graduation with 45 NHL games under his belt. He will be a restricted free agent after the season. 

The organization’s blue line has been strengthened with early draft picks over the last two years. 2009 first-round pick Dylan Olsen and 2008 second-round pick Shawn Lalonde have each shown promise so far in their careers. Olsen was selected with the 28th overall pick and brings a well-rounded game. The 18-year-old Calgary native is dependable in his own zone and at 6’2, 206 lbs can play with an edge in the physical game. He skates well and carries a hard shot from the point, so he is also capable offensively. Olsen has two assists in his first five games as a Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog.

One of the principle veterans for the OHL‘s Belleville Bulls this year, Lalonde is second on the team in scoring with five goals and eight assists in nine games while the Bulls have struggled to a 4-10-1 start. A third-round pick in 2008, Lalonde’s offensive capabilities make him one of the most intriguing prospects on the back end. He is a smooth skater who sees the ice very well. He also has the strong hockey sense that seems to characterize many of Chicago’s current players and prospects. While he could improve his consistency in the defensive zone and in the physical game, the 19-year-old Lalonde seems to be a perfect fit in the near future for Chicago’s up-tempo attack.

A trio of Chicago’s defensive prospects have made their pro debut with Rockford this season. Simon Danis-Pepin joined Rockford after a four-year college career. The 6’6 blueliner is able to use his size to his advantage in the defensive zone. The opportunity will be there in Rockford for the 21-year-old Danis-Pepin to develop into a dependable defenseman. 

Jonathan Carlsson, a sixth-round pick in 2008, joined Rockford after spending last season on the blue line for Brynas in the Swedish Elite League. The 21-year-old is a sound, balanced defenseman. Having skated in just four games out of 10 for Rockford, Carlsson may be used as AHL depth as he gets acclimated to the North American game.

After three years at Colorado College, Brian Connelly is now skating with Rockford and has already seen time on the top power-play unit. Another smooth-skating offensive defenseman, Connelly possesses great skill with the puck and excellent awareness in the offensive zone. The 23-year-old is a bit undersized for a defenseman at 5’10, 167 lbs and has to rely on his quickness defensively. Connelly should continue to see big minutes as one of Rockford’s main sources of offense from the blue line.

Recent late-round draft picks have been used on other promising blueliners, such as Teigan Zahn, Braden Birch, and Paul Phillips. Zahn, a fifth-round pick in 2008, excels in the defensive zone and in the physical game. The 19-year-old is in his fourth season with the Saskatoon Blades where he is one of the veteran leaders on the blue line. Birch, a sixth-round pick in 2008, is set to begin his collegiate career with Cornell University, where he’ll bring good size at 6’3 192 lbs and capable play in both ends. Phillips is also a freshman, having tallied one assist in five games with University of Denver. A 2009 seventh round pick, Phillips has spent the early part of the season on the Pioneers’ second pairing.

Filling out the defensive ranks are Mike Brennan, Joe Gleason, Joe Lavin, and Jean-Claude Sawyer. Brennan has brought consistent defensive and physical play to the IceHogs blue line and has appeared in all 10 games for the club with two assists and 25 PIMs. Gleason is yet another freshman on the organization’s blue line. The offensive-minded defenseman has three assists in his first six games for the University of North Dakota. Lavin has suited up in seven games for his USHL team the Omaha Lancers, scoring one goal and three assists. Sawyer opened the season with the Walleye in the ECHL and has three goals in the team’s first five games.

Goalie

The organization’s biggest weakness is depth in goal. A pair of solid prospects in Joe Fallon and Alec Richards is all that remains. While both should see plenty of opportunities this season, neither goalie comes with the "future franchise goalie" tag. Fallon is playing in his second pro season as the backup in Rockford behind Corey Crawford. Fallon is a steady goaltender who moves quickly in the crease. He also has the size at 6’3 to cover a lot of net. Though it won’t be the timeshare Crawford and Antti Niemi used last season, the 24-year-old Fallon should still be given his fair share of opportunities in Rockford.

Meanwhile, the former Yale netminder Richards is beginning his first pro season in the ECHL with Toledo, where he will share goaltending duties with Detroit prospect Jordan Pearce. Another goalie with good size at 6’4, the 22-year-old Richards’ butterfly style effectively takes away the lower portion of the goal. While neither will likely be in the picture in Chicago this year, they bring solid depth to the minors and both offer upside after finding some success during their college careers.

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