Chicago Blackhawks boast deep prospect pools in Europe and the NCAA

By Brad Gardner
Photo: Ludvig Renseldt is among the top Blackhawks prospects not playing in North America. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Chicago has several top prospects playing in Europe who could be big contributors in the near future, including winger Ludvig Rensfeldt and goalie Alexander Salak. Swedish center Marcus Kruger has already joined the Blackhawks lineup following the close of his SEL season with Djurgarden.

The Hayes brothers headline Chicago’s group of college prospects. A pair of offensive wingers with good size, the duo both had a hand in Boston College’s Hockey East Championship. The elder brother Jimmy has already made his pro debut with the Rockford IceHogs, while Kevin will look to build off a solid freshman season.

The Blackhawks will be well-represented at the Frozen Four in St. Paul week. Two of Notre Dame’s top blueliners, senior Joe Lavin and freshman Stephen Johns, are Chicago draft picks. Minnesota-Duluth center Dan DeLisle and North Dakota defenseman/winger Joe Gleason could also be in their respective team’s lineups when they continue the battle for the National Championship.


Europe

Ludvig Rensfeldt, LW, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 35th overall, 2010

Ludvig Rensfeldt has played at several different levels in Sweden this season as he begins the transition to the pro level. One of the top scorers available at the 2010 draft, the 19-year-old winger spent most of the season at the junior level with stints in Sweden‘s top level, the Elitserien, and second tier league, the Allsvenskan.

Rensfeldt registered 17 goals and 36 points in 26 games with Brynas’ J20 team, earning a look with the big club in Sweden‘s top league. He struggled to get playing time in 16 SEL games and was loaned to Bofors in the Allsvenskan. Against pro competition, Rensfeldt notched five goals and two assists in 11 games for Bofors. He earned a bigger role late in the year for Brynas, skating over eight minutes per game in the club’s first round loss to Farjestad in the SEL playoffs.

A skilled forward with good size at 6’3 and 192 pounds, the Swede has the potential to be a top six, scoring winger for Chicago. He will likely spend at least one more season in Sweden as he continues to add strength and develop his game against pro players.


Marcus Kruger, C, 20
Acquired: 5th round, 149th overall, 2009

Kruger spent his second season with Djurgarden in Sweden’s Elite league. A top line forward who spent time at both center and wing, the 20-year-old Swede led the team in scoring with 35 points in 52 games.

A forward with excellent hockey sense who puts forth a strong effort in all three zones, Kruger served as an alternate captain and helped Djurgarden into the SEL playoffs, where they were knocked out in a seven-game first round loss to Lulea. Kruger missed several games due to illness and added just one assist in three playoff games.

With Chicago missing Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp, who had each lined up at center earlier in the season, Kruger was immediately inserted into the Blackhawks’ lineup after his SEL season ended. While he plays stronger than his 5’11 and 172 pound listing might indicate, the Swede has understandably struggled to make an impact right away in the NHL. Kruger will likely be penciled into a top nine role in the ‘Hawks lineup heading into next season, but could see top minutes in the AHL with Rockford if he struggles out of the gate.


Joakim Nordstrom, C, 19
Acquired: 3rd round, 90th overall, 2010

Nordtsrom continued to play at the junior level in Sweden, scoring nine goals and 20 points in 25 games for the AIK J20 squad. The two-way center got a taste of pro hockey as well, suiting up in 11 Elitserien games with AIK and 12 Allsvenskan games with Almtuna, registering one assist at each stop.

The Swede represented his country at the U19 level, scoring one goal and six points through eight matches. Nordstrom will continue developing in Sweden next season, with the hope of spending more time playing against professional players.


Jonathan Carlsson, D, 22
Acquired: 6th round, 162nd overall, 2008

After spending two seasons in North America in the AHL and ECHL, Carlsson opted to return to Brynas in the Swedish Elite league. With defensemen Nick Leddy, Shawn Lalonde, and Ivan Vishnevskiy joining the pro ranks heading into the season, Carlsson likely saw himself as the odd man out and took the opportunity to play a bigger role in Sweden.

In 46 games in the SEL, Carlsson scored four goals and six points. He is signed through the 2011-12 season, but is unlikely to be in Chicago’s plans for the future with the number of defensive prospects already populating the pro rosters.

Alexander Salak, G, 24
Acquired via trade with Florida, February, 2011

Salak spent the 2009-10 season in the AHL, with Florida’s affiliate in Rochester, where he had a solid rookie season with a 29-14-0 record, .910 save percentage, and 2.89 goals against average. With Jacob Markstrom joining the organization for the 2010-11 season, Salak sought a bigger opportunity back home and returned to Sweden for the year.

In 44 regular season appearances with Farjestad, the 24-year-old netminder registered a .926 save percentage and 1.97 goals against average. He has helped the team to an 8-1 record in the postseason, with a .914 save percentage and 2.15 goals against average. In the club’s second round sweep of AIK, Salak allowed just five goals in his three starts. Farjestad will face off against Skelleftea in the SEL championship series.

The Blackhawks hope to re-sign Corey Crawford heading forward, but Salak is a candidate to share starts with Chicago’s incumbent starter. The Swedish goaltender is expected to sign a new deal with the ‘Hawks and return to North America next season.


NCAA

Kevin Hayes, LW, 18
Acquired: 1st round, 24th overall, 2010

Kevin Hayes showed flashes of his potential as a freshman for Boston College, despite spending the majority of the season in the Eagles’ bottom six. He finished with four goals and 14 points in 31 games, missing almost two months with a knee injury sustained in practice. The injury also kept him out of the United States’ WJC evaulation camp.

Deployed at both wing and center by BC head coach Jerry York, Hayes versatility allowed him to play a variety of roles throughout the year. He was starting to come on just before the injury, but it took time for him to work his way back to full strength after returning to the lineup. The younger Hayes brother finished strong with one goal and four assists in his last five games, helping the Eagles to the Hockey East tournament championship.

A winger with good size at 6’2 and 201 pounds, Kevin is more of a finesse player than his older brother, Jimmy. He is still capable of using his size and hockey sense at both ends of the rink, and will likely have a bigger role on next season’s Boston College squad.


Dan DeLisle, C, 20
Acquired: 3rd round, 89th overall, 2009

DeLisle has played a checking role for much of his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

With a little more consistent playing time than his freshman season, DeLisle scored four goals and six points in 31 games as a sophomore. The center was a healthy scratch for a handful of games during the second half of the season, however, and has been limited in his role by the strength of UMD’s forward group.

The Bulldogs won their first two NCAA tournament games to earn a trip to the Frozen Four, but DeLisle was a scratch in favor of freshman Max Tardy (STL) in both games. With UMD graduating just two forwards at the end of the year, DeLisle will have to play his way into a larger role next season.

Jimmy Hayes, RW, 21
Acquired via trade with Toronto June, 2010

The older Hayes brother was acquired from Toronto during day two of last summer’s draft in exchange for the 43rd overall pick used to select forward Brad Ross. As a junior at Boston College, Jimmy Hayes emerged as one of the team’s top forwards.

The 6’5, 210-pound winger finished second on the team with 21 goals and tied for third with 33 points in 39 games. He also had an excellent finish for the Eagles, scoring five goals and seven points in his last five games, including a hat trick against U-Mass in the opening round of the Hockey East tournament.

A first seed in the NCAA tournament, Boston College suffered a disappointing loss at the hands of a red hot Colorado College. Jimmy Hayes signed his pro contract shortly after and will finish the season in the Rockford IceHogs’ lineup on an amateur try-out contract.


Stephen Johns, D, 18
Acquired: 2nd round, 60th overall, 2010

Stephen Johns made a quick transition to the college game, spending portions of his freshman season on the top pairing alongside fellow-Chicago prospect Joe Lavin. Johns appeared in all 43 games for the Irish, scoring two goals and 13 points. While his minus-seven rating is not terrible, it is the lowest rating for the tight-checking Irish heading into the Frozen Four.

Johns is easily the most physical prospect in the Chicago system, making huge, highlight reel hits seem commonplace. The 18-year-old defenseman is capable of controlling shifts with his physical game, but still has to pick his spots better. He is dependable with the puck at this point and should continue to develop his puck skills as his role with the Notre Dame offense increases.

Notre Dame’s young defensive unit will depend on Johns next season for his leadership and shutdown abilities. The defender likely has at least two more seasons at the NCAA level to develop his overall game, but his physical ability will be a welcome addition to the Blackhawks blue line down the road.


Justin Holl, D, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 54th overall, 2010

The second defenseman drafted from the Minnesota High School ranks at the 2010 draft, Holl’s transition to the college game was a little slow. Part of a veteran blue line at Minnesota, the 19-year-old Edina-native was relegated to a checking role for much of the season.

In 25 games for the Gophers, Holl scored one goal and seven points. An excellent skater with a booming shot from the point, Holl projects as an offensive-defenseman and power play specialist. Minnesota will graduate two seniors in addition to losing junior Aaron Ness, who signed a pro deal with the New York Islanders so Holl will be expected to take on a bigger role next season.


Joe Lavin, D, 21
Acquired: 5th round, 126th overall, 2007

The 21-year-old Lavin emerged as a leader in his senior season at Notre Dame, anchoring the team’s top defensive pairing and seeing some time on both special teams units. He scored six goals and 17 points in 43 games with a minus-five rating. His goal output covered all facets of the game, notching two shorthanded goals and two more on the man advantage.

Lavin is a scrappy defender that is not shy about mixing it up in the corners or in front of the net. He came in as a senior with improved skating technique and more confidence, though he still struggles at times with puck control and keeping the offensive play alive at the blue line.

Chicago has a glut of defensemen at the AHL level, but Lavin remains a likely candidate to receive a pro contract after his college season ends. He will play a big role for Notre Dame at the Frozen Four, where the Irish will face off against Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals.


Braden Birch, D, 21
Acquired: 6th round, 179th overall, 2008

In his sophomore season at Cornell, Birch skated in 30 games with two goals and eight points. He was one of four defensemen to finish with a positive plus/minus rating at plus-two.

A defender with a big frame at 6’3 and 192 pounds, Birch uses that size to his advantage in the defensive zone. He can play the body and use his long reach to keep the puck away from prime scoring chances. Offensively, Birch has a big shot and began to earn more of a special teams role in his second season with the Big Red.

There is no rush for Birch to get to the pro ranks, so he will likely continue developing at Cornell through his senior season. With only one senior defenseman graduating, Birch will likely play a similar shutdown role next season.


Paul Phillips, D, 19
Acquired: 7th round, 195th overall, 2009

In his sophomore season for Denver University, Paul Phillips again played on the third defensive pairing for most of the season. Though not an overpowering presence at 6’1 and 195 pounds, Phillips is a stay-at-home defenseman and solid penalty killer for the Pioneers.

The blueliner registered four assists in 38 games as a sophomore. The Darien, Illinois-native managed a plus-two rating despite some struggles against bigger forwards. He is still willing to stick his nose in the corners and play the body, but will have to add more strength before making the jump to the professional level.

William Wrenn‘s (SJ) departure to junior hockey made more minutes available this season for Phillips. Denver will graduate two more stay-at-home type defenders, so Phillips’ defensive ability will likely be relied upon even more next season.


Joe Gleason, D, 21
Acquired: 7th round, 192nd overall, 2008

Gleason struggled to find ice time among North Dakota’s deep defensive group, which included freshmen Derek Forbort (LAK) and Dillon Simpson (2011-eligible) making strong debuts. When the 21-year-old did get into the Sioux lineup, it was mostly as a bottom-six winger.

A smooth skater with good offensive skill, the Edina-native scored one goal and four points in 22 games. Gleason had two assists in four WCHA tournament games for the conference champions, assisting on a game-tying goal late in the second period against Colorado College.

He did not dress for North Dakota’s two regional games in the NCAA tournament, though he could still see some ice time when the squad competes in the Frozen Four. The Fighting Sioux will graduate three senior defensemen after the season, so Gleason could get another opportunity on the back end next season.


DJ Powers and John Henry Schroeder contributed to this article.