The Blackhawks are stockpiled with young talent, especially down the middle and on defense. Six of those prospects got a look at some point during the 2014-15 season, the most notable being Finnish phenom Teuvo Teravainen.
However, with Chicago having eliminated the Minnesota Wild in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s quite evident head coach Joel Quenneville feels more comfortable playing his seasoned veterans in the postseason as supposed to the rookies. Teravainen and Joakim Nordstrom only dressed for two games in the first round series against the Nashville Predators, while defenseman Michael Paliotta has been a healthy scratch.
When the 2015-16 season rolls around, however, there will be some fresh new faces on the Blackhawks. With the ever-lingering concern of being pressed against the salary cap, it’s likely general manager Stan Bowman will fill the void of departed skaters by turning to his young group of prospects, some of whom have been developing for the past four years. And if the 2014-15 season has been any indication, we can expect to see an exciting young group don the Indian Head sweater in the foreseeable future.
Hardest Worker: Anthony Louis, C, Miami University (Ohio) (NCHC)
Standing at just 5’7, Anthony Louis doesn’t appear to be the most intimidating of opponents. What the 20-year-old center lacks in size, however, he certainly makes up for in skill and heart. In his sophomore season with the RedHawks, Louis notched 36 points in 37 games while sporting a +15, tying him for third on the team in plus/minus rating. Ever since he was drafted 181st overall in 2013, Louis has been a consistent offensive threat, whether it’s with Miami or the United States World Juniors team. Only time will tell if he can translate this success to the pros, but the determination Louis displays game in and game out are definitely a good sign of things to come.
When the IceHogs announced their 2014-15 season team awards, it was hardly surprising to discover Pokka earned the honor of Rookie of the Year. Since joining the organization as part of the Nick Leddy trade on October 4th, Pokka gradually became a key member of Rockford’s blue line. In the 20-year-old Finn’s first year in North America, he had 8 goals, second among IceHogs defensemen, while sporting a 6.4 shooting percentage, leading all defenseman on the team. It’s no question Pokka is able to put up solid numbers because of his booming shot, which makes him a consistent offensive threat, despite being a defenseman. Because of his successful rookie campaign in the AHL, Pokka is considered a frontrunner for an open D position on the Blackhawks roster during the summer.
Best Defensive Prospect: Stephen Johns, D, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
In a Blackhawks system lush with prospect on the backend, it’s difficult to name the single best prospect at that position. Michael Paliotta had a great season with Vermont and has the potential to be a top-four defenseman in the foreseeable future, whereas the aforementioned Pokka, fresh off an impressive North American debut, could be rewarded with a Blackhawks roster spot at the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
In the end, it’s pretty difficult to ignore Stephen Johns, who is arguably the best defensive prospect in the system. In fact, it really seems as if Johns is the full package. With his hulking 6’4 frame, reliable two-way play and respectable character, Johns was one of the IceHogs’ best defensemen during the 2014-15 season, even if he missed some time due to injury. Nonetheless, the 23-year-old blueliner notched 21 points (4 goals, 17 assists) in 51 games while also sporting a team-high plus/minus rating of +30. Johns has yet to slow down in the postseason: his overtime goal on April 29th helped the ‘Hogs complete the sweep against the Texas Stars in a 3-2 win.
Fastest Skater: Vincent Hinostroza, C, University of Notre Dame (Hockey East)/Rockford
After a standout 2014-15 season with Notre Dame, Hinostroza signed an entry-level contract with the Blackhawks on March 21st. Drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Hinostroza always used his excellent skating and speed to his advantage during his time with the Fighting Irish, so it was a no-brainer to get the 21-year-old center to the pros as soon as possible. Although he has only appeared in five regular season contests with the IceHogs, Hinostroza has been able to demonstrate his flashy skating and skill, tallying two assists during his brief time in Rockford. He may not have the size/strength just yet – he measures at just 5’9, 181 lbs. – but the swift skating is absolutely there, and with some time to develop, Hinostroza has the tools to be a dynamic player in some capacity in the NHL.
Prospect of the Year: Mark McNeill, C/RW, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
There may be some slight controversy with the recipient of the Prospect of the Year award. Ever since the 2014-15 season began, all eyes were on Teuvo Teravainen, the flashy Finn whose potential for top-six stardom has had Blackhawks fans eagerly awaiting his full-time arrival to the NHL. While Teravainen did join the Blackhawks at the last half of the season and looked quite good, there was another former first-round pick who had a stellar year in his own right.
The IceHogs have had a phenomenal 2014-15 season, and they can partially thank Mark McNeill for that. The 22-year-old forward was one of Rockford’s most consistent point producers throughout the season, earning 44 points (23 goals, 21 assists) in 63 games for the IceHogs. McNeill continues to earn the trust of head coach Ted Dent, who has used McNeill on both the power play and penalty kill units. There has been some chatter about McNeill’s future with the Blackhawks, seeing as how he was never one of the club’s call-ups throughout the year. Don’t be surprised, however, if McNeill earns a roster spot with the Blackhawks come opening night.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Teuvo Teravainen, C, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)/Chicago
Though McNeill may have had the more successful overall season, Teravainen proved this year why he’s the number one prospect in the organization. Teravainen split time this year between the AHL and NHL, posting solid number in both leagues. Using his high hockey IQ, elite passing ability and creative playmaking skills, Teravainen tallied nine points and a +4 plus/minus rating in 34 games with the Blackhawks during the regular season. Furthermore, the 20-year-old Finn has improved his defensive game, earning the praise of head coach Joel Quenneville. Teravainen has even earned more responsibility in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, dressing for six games and earning three points. It’s becoming clear Teravainen is the kind of skilled forward he was assumed to be, and he is an almost certain lock to earn full-time duty with the Blackhawks next season.
Most Improved Prospect: Phillip Danault, C, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
The 2013-14 season wasn’t awful for Danault, but there may have been some higher expectations from the 2011 first-round pick. In his defense, Danault was playing in his first pro season for the IceHogs, and he was able to earn 26 points with a +11 rating in 72 games. In addition, Danault showcased his speed and versatility.
This season, however, saw Danault step up as one of Rockford’s most important skaters. The 22-year-old forward was used in a variety of situations, proving to be effective on both the power play and penalty kill (Danault led the team in shorthanded goals with three). Danault’s improved play earned him a two-game stint with the Blackhawks in late November, but he was sent back to Rockford soon after. Still, Danault continues to be an exciting player to watch as he helps lead the IceHogs in the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs.
Overachiever: Garret Ross, LW, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Ross is an incredibly frustrating hockey player. In this case, however, that’s not a bad thing. The feisty winger is known for his aggravating style of play, often being the kind of player to get under one’s skin. This season, however, Ross found a way to balance his aggressive style with a more sound offensive game. In fact, the 22-year-old winger became somewhat of a leader for the IceHogs, earning 43 points – third on the team – in 69 games, which includes three on the power play. A fifth round pick in 2012, Ross is starting to look more and more like a real possibility for a promotion come next season, where he could fit right in as a bottom-six checking line-type of player with some offensive flare.
Underachiever: Drew LeBlanc, C, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
When Drew LeBlanc signed with the Blackhawks on April 12th, 2013, there was a ton of excitement throughout Chicago. The former St. Cloud State University captain was fresh off a Hobey Baker Award winning season, and several teams were in heavy pursuit to sign the young center, with the Blackhawks eventually earning LeBlanc’s services.
Since then, however, LeBlanc has been easily the most disappointing Blackhawks prospect. Dressing for 41 games during the 2014-15 season, LeBlanc put up a meager six points and was unable to crack the IceHogs’ top-six. At 25 years old, time is running out for LeBlanc to make any kind of positive impact with the Blackhawks organization as a prospect.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Trevor van Riemsdyk, D, Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)/Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
It may be hard to believe, but the Blackhawks prospect who garnered the most attention at the start of the 2014-15 season was defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. Earning a roster spot after an impressive preseason, TVR made an impact as a responsible and effective sixth defenseman, averaging 13:32 of ice time during his 18 appearances with the Blackhawks. He even managed to earn his first NHL point, an assist, on November 9th.
Van Riemsdyk’s season took an unfortunate turn on November 16th, when the 23-year-old blueliner fractured his left patella in a game against the Dallas Stars. He had a similar injury in college, injuring his left ankle while with the University of New Hampshire. After roughly four months of recovery, van Riemsdyk was sent to the IceHogs for a brief conditioning stint, hoping to return to the Blackhawks. That hope was dashed, however, when it was announced on April 3rd van Riemsdyk would require surgery on his wrist after suffering an injury with the IceHogs.
The 2015-16 season will see the young defenseman attempt to overcome not one but two separate injuries and return to his previous form. The Blackhawks need van Riemsdyk as a reliable bottom-pairing defenseman, but the constant worry regarding his extensive injury history will always be there.
Prospect of the Month
It’s important to go into the Calder Cup playoffs on a hot streak, and nobody on the IceHogs has looked better over the past month than Ryan Hartman. In April, he was arguably Rockford’s best skater, earning 11 points and a +7 in 10 games. The 20-year-old winger has a bit of an edge to his game, never backing down from a challenge. Nonetheless, Hartman has offensive upside while still being a relatively reliable skater in his own end. At the time of this writing, Hartman has two points in five Calder Cup playoff games for the IceHogs.