Chicago Blackhawks depth analysis, Fall 2010

By Brad Gardner

The Blackhawks’ prospect system is as deep as it has ever been following last summer’s purge. Chicago GM Stan Bowman acquired depth at forward as well as on the blue line through trades and selected ten more prospects through the draft. While the system does not boast the top end talent of previous years, the Blackhawks have a good mix of pro prospects that can help soon and higher upside players who will help retool down the road.

Left Wing

Left Wing is quite possibly the best position in the system in terms of top-shelf talent. Kyle Beach leads the group with his combination of size, grit, and offensive potential. The 20-year-old winger is getting ice time with the Rockford IceHogs in his first pro season. A 50-goal scorer last season in the WHL, Beach’s shot may be NHL ready. His play away from the puck and in the defensive end needs to improve before he gets a long look in Chicago.

Jeremy Morin, added over the summer from Atlanta, was one of the big surprises at the Blackhawks’ training camp. The former second round pick of the Thrashers displayed a great offensive game and a much-improved skating ability. The 19-year-old sniper fit right in with the big boys at camp and made the organization give him a much harder look than originally expected. He was ultimately assigned to Rockford to begin the season where he has gotten top-six ice time and plenty of power play opportunities, but expect him to suit up for Chicago at some point during the season.

Former Maple Leaf Viktor Stalberg, another summer addition, has had a decent start with the Blackhawks in his first season with the club. Though he was relegated to fourth line duty for the first handful of games, he has started to earn time with higher lines because of his excellent skating and tenacious effort. The ‘Hawks might like a more physical presence out of the Swede, but early returns show offensive potential that will earn him a long look.

If those three prospects have yet to prove the strength of the left side, the ‘Hawks also have two 2010 draft picks at the position. Kevin Hayes, selected 24th overall, and Ludvig Rensfeldt, selected 35th overall, both have good size and top six potential. Kevin Hayes, a freshman at Boston College, brings good offensive skills to the table. He is also able to use his size and length to his advantage in controlling the puck and creating room for linemates. Rensfeldt, currently playing with Brynas’ junior club, is also able to use his size and strength well to find space in the offensive zone. The Swede possesses an excellent shot and is willing to work in the tough areas to use it. Rensfeldt may not be too far away from pro hockey, in Sweden this year and then North America in the near future.

Another Toronto acquisition, Philippe Paradis, currently plays for Prince Edward in the QMJHL. A former first round pick of Carolina, Paradis is enjoying a productive start to his fourth year in the Quebec league. While he projects as more of a bottom six energy player, his intriguing blend of size and solid puck skills make him a prospect to watch as he continues to mature.

Free agent signings Brandon Bollig and Rob Klinkhammer fill out the ranks at left wing. Bollig is in his first pro season in Rockford, bringing energy and physical play to the line-up. He can also chip in goals for the ‘Hogs. Similarly, Klinkhammer is a grinder with solid offensive skills. The 24-year-old winger is in his third season with Rockford and is tied for third on the team with six points through the first eight games of the season.

Center

While the pivot position may not have the top-end talent of other positions in the system, the ‘Hawks have excellent depth down the middle. Brandon Pirri and Marcus Kruger headline the position, bringing loads of talent and playmaking ability to the group. Pirri is in his rookie pro season after lighting it up for RPI as a freshman last season. He made his NHL debut early in the year for Chicago, but was clearly over matched so soon into his professional career. His excellent vision and stick work make him a dangerous offensive player. Likewise, Kruger is a natural playmaker at the pivot position, currently playing for Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League. The 20-year-old’s hockey sense and passing ability are phenomenal. He is also gaining valuable experience against pro players this year in Sweden and is expected to cross the pond next year.

Several center prospects are currently playing in the CHL. Byron Froese is in his first season with the Red Deer Rebels after he was traded by Everett for Landon Ferraro (DET). Froese is a responsible and hard working center. While he does not project as much of a scorer at the pro level, he is more than willing to battle in front of the net for goals.

David Pacan and Rob Flick are in the OHL this season. Pacan was dismissed from the University of Vermont team and joined the Niagara IceDogs, who held his rights in the OHL. The 19-year-old has been productive since the switch as one of the IceDogs’ top centers. Flick is in his third season with Mississauga St. Michael’s and has started to flex his offensive muscle. He is near the team lead in both points and penalty minutes for the Majors.

David Gilbert is another prospect in the QMJHL this season, skating with Acadie-Bathurst. Gilbert turned in good performances at both Chicago’s prospect camp and the main training camp, displaying good skills with the puck and offensive awareness. He should get plenty of ice time with the Titan this season to prove he can produce consistently.

Chicago added two more pivots to the position at the 2010 draft in Swedish center Joakim Nordstrom and German-born Mirko Hoefflin. Nordstrom is a two-way forward who spent time with AIK in the Elitserien and the AIK junior club before getting loaned to Almtuna in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second tier pro league. Hoefflin is a speedy pivot and a good goal scorer. The 18-year-old was a top pick in the CHL Import Draft and is skating with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL.

In the AHL, Chicago has prospects Evan Brophey and Chris DiDomenico manning the middle. Brophey is in his fourth professional season, now a grizzled vet on a young Rockford team. Though he took a step back offensively last season, his two-way ability still makes him key player for the ‘Hogs. He even earned his first call-up to Chicago and skated in his first NHL game already this season, though he was held scoreless in just over seven minutes of ice time. DiDomenico has played mostly in a fourth line role for the IceHogs in his first pro season. Known for his heart and work ethic, DiDomenico projects as a prototypical bottom six NHLer: strong in all three zones and capable of chipping in occasional offense.

Right Wing

On the right side, Jack Skille finally looks like he could stick in Chicago for the season. Chicago’s seventh overall pick in 2005, the 23-year-old has displayed his outstanding speed and a willingness to finish his checks. While the production has not been great to start the season, Skille has created chances and his ability to skate and control the puck puts him among the team leaders in penalties drawn.

Igor Makarov and Ben Smith are both in the first season with Rockford. Makarov had his moments at training camp at both ends of the ice, scoring goals and playing a responsible game defensively. The 23-year-old winger is one of a handful of possible call-ups to Chicago, benefiting from his pro experience in Russia. Smith has already gotten the call and made his NHL debut this season. The Frozen Four MVP for Boston College last season, he began the season in Rockford, where he was able to get ice time in all situations. Smith, 22 years old, is a hard-working forward, able to play both wing and center, with the skill to play anywhere in the line-up.

Right wing may be short in numbers, but Jimmy Hayes rounds out a solid group. In his junior season at Boston College, Hayes will be looking to build on his strong finish during the Eagles’ National Championship run last year. The elder Hayes brother is a bruising power forward at 6’5 210 pounds. He could join the rest of the right wingers at the pro level as soon as next year.

Defense

Defense is another position with both top talent and depth for Chicago. At the pro level, the ‘Hawks boast a group of talented, offensive blueliners in Nick Leddy, Shawn Lalonde, Ivan Vishnevskiy, and Brian Connelly. With Brian Campbell out of the lineup for the first few weeks of the season, Leddy stuck with the big club out of camp. While it was plain to see he would need to continue to bulk up and add more strength, the 19-year-old’s poise with the puck and in his own end was impressive in his brief stint. He will be able to get a lot more ice time and play in every situation for Rockford as he works to improve for his next shot in Chicago.

Lalonde is playing in his first pro season out of the OHL. An excellent skater, the 20-year-old is an adept puck carrier and is not shy about pinching into the offensive zone. While he will need to improve in his own end, Lalonde’s offensive instincts will someday fit perfectly with the Blackhawks’ attack.

Vishnevskiy and Connelly bring even more offensive punch to the Rockford blue line. Vishnevskiy is with his third team since being drafted in the first round by Dallas in 2006. The Russian has battled consistency problems every step of the way, but his upside makes him a prospect to watch. Connelly, now in his second season with Rockford, is one of the young leaders for the ‘Hogs. Despite his smaller stature, the 24-year-old is solid in all three zones. His vision and passing ability make him a regular on the team’s power play.

Simon Danis-Pepin and Ryan Stanton are also in Rockford. Danis-Pepin is notable for his excellent size and length, which he can use effectively on defense. He has a pretty strong shot from the blue line as well. Stanton also plays well at both ends of the ice. A free agent signing last spring out of the WHL, Stanton is in his first full pro season.

Chicago’s NCAA-heavy draft approach the last few years has padded the depth defensively, giving the prospects time to develop at their own pace. Dylan Olsen heads the group and brings more of a two-way game than any of the prospects at the pro level. The 19-year-old plays an aggressive, physical game. Although his style of play can pull him out of position, his improved mobility helps him make up for it. Olsen possesses a heavy blast from the blue line and has also improved his play with the puck in general.

Two second round picks from 2010 draft picks are now freshman in the NCAA this season. Justin Holl is in his first year at Minnesota, conveniently stepping into the same sort of role held by Nick Leddy last season. Holl is another excellent skater who likes to play with the puck on his stick. A bit of a late riser at the draft, the 18-year-old will likely have plenty of time to grow into his considerable frame. Stephen Johns is also in his first year of college hockey for Notre Dame. The USNTDP product brings excellent size and leadership to the table. His physical game is one of his best assets, as he understands how and when to go for the hit.

Several more prospects are defending blue lines at the college level. Braden Birch is a two-way defenseman at Cornell. Much like Olsen, Birch uses his size and physicality to his advantage. While he did not get much power play opportunity as a freshman, he is solid with the puck and makes good decisions. Joe Lavin is in his final year of college hockey, playing alongside Johns at Notre Dame. The 21-year-old is a tough, physical defender who can contribute at both ends.

A pair of late round picks, Paul Phillips and Joe Gleason, both play in the WCHA. After getting a decent amount of ice time as a freshman at Denver University, Phillips is expected to play a similar role this season. A mobile and dependable defender, the Darien, Illinois-native he has been in and out of the lineup due to chronic nosebleeds so far this year. Gleason is in his second season at North Dakota, but has yet to carve out a role on this year’s team. With the return of captain Chay Genoway and the addition of first round pick Derek Forbort (LAK), Gleason has yet to play a game on the blue line this year. His lone game so far early in the year was actually at forward.

Nick Mattson, a sixth round pick last summer, is spending another year with the Indiana Ice in the USHL. Yet another offensive-minded defenseman in the Chicago system, Mattson is expected to join North Dakota next season.

Goaltending

The team added a pair of goaltenders to what was unquestionably Chicago’s weakest position heading into the 2010 draft. WHLers Kent Simpson and MacMillian Carruth are no more than question marks at this point in their development, but at least provide some more options in net down the road.

Simpson, selected in the second round, is Everett’s starter in net this season. The 18-year-old has good size in net at 6’3 and is technically sound. He struggled in his camp showing in Chicago over the summer, but he should have plenty of opportunities in the next couple seasons to sharpen his game.

The other goalie added by the ‘Hawks at the draft was Carruth, who was selected in the seventh round. Carruth finished last season with the Portland Winterhawks, but did not see a lot of action. He has played well to start this season for Portland, allowing just 10 goals on 201 shots to start the year, and has entered into a timeshare situation with Keith Hamilton and Ian Curtis also in the picture.

Alec Richards is playing his first full AHL season, splitting starts with Hannu Toivonen. While both have struggled to start the season, Richards has emerged with three wins in his first five appearances. He is another big goalie who can take away the lower portion of the net. With no other organizational depth at the pro level behind Marty Turco and Corey Crawford, Chicago needs both of Rockford’s goalies to stay sharp in case they are needed.