Chicago Blackhawks Depth Analysis, Fall 2011

By Brad Gardner
Photo: In his freshman season for Vermont, Michael Paliotta brings a lot of physicality to the Blackhawks organization. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Blackhawks are re-stocked and loaded with talent after a couple summers of auctioning established players for picks and prospects. Chicago has added a number of high-profile prospects, including nine top-60 picks from the last two entry drafts. The results are some exciting prospects at the top of the rankings and solid depth across the board.

Chicago's strength is on the blue line, where the organization is loaded with smooth-skating offensive-defensemen. They have also added some bulk and physicality to the group in recent years, which is something that has been emphasized at all levels of the organization recently.

Not to be outdone, the forward ranks also boast several top prospects. The left wing position may be the strongest at the top having already seen a pair of prospects exceed expectations and get some NHL time under their belt as teenagers. The center position is strong as well, though the strength there is more in the depth and variety of skills of the prospects.

Though goaltending continues to be a weak spot for the Chicago organization, it is not for lack of trying. Alexander Salak strengthens that club's depth in net behind the NHL tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery. The 'Hawks also have several junior goaltenders who will be looking to make a good impression this season in the hopes of earning a pro contract.

Left Wing

The Blackhawks have strengthened the talent level at the left wing position over the last two summers. Jeremy Morin was acquired as part of the Dustin Byfuglien trade in the summer of 2010 and played nine NHL games with Chicago in his first season with the club last year. The 20-year-old winger was knocked out of the Rockford lineup in January when an open-ice check sent him head-over-heels and he suffered a concussion. Morin was out of game action for about nine months before making his 2011-12 debut with Rockford on October 14th. With a goal in each his first two games back and a fight in his fourth game, Morin is showing no ill effects of the injury and certainly not thinking twice about fighting his way back to the NHL any way he can.

Brandon Saad made a similar splash in this year's training camp as Morin did a season ago. Drafted in the second round, 43rd overall at last summer's draft, Saad played well in camp and took advantage of ample playing time in pre-season games to earn a spot on the opening night roster with the Blackhawks. The 18-year-old winger lined up on the first line alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp in his first two NHL games. Though he was eventually returned to Saginaw in the OHL, Saad has net let up. He has already climbed to third in points for the Spirit with eight goals and six assists in just six games.

Although these new additions have debuted in the NHL sooner, Kyle Beach remains a notable prospect trying to take the step up to the NHL. The 21-year-old winger was not among the black aces for the Blackhawks in the 2011 post-season and not part of the "early camp" group, which included prospects like Jimmy Hayes, Marcus Kruger, and Dylan Olsen, that attended training camp with Barry Smith's HC Lugano club in the Swiss league prior to Chicago's camp opening. Beach still has the tools to develop into a productive NHL player and is playing some of his best hockey at the pro level with Rockford early in the 2011-12 season, registering a goal in each of his first three games of the season.

Chicago has even more high draft picks at the position with 2011 first-round pick Phillip Danault and 2010 second-round pick Ludvig Rensfeldt. Danault is a hard-working winger and was named captain of his hometown Victoriaville Tigres club last season when he was still 17 years old. He is also a quick skater and creative playmaker, which allows him to play a variety of roles and be effective in all situations at the QMJHL level. Danault has had a relatively slow start following his stint at Blackhawks camp, but still has 12 points in his first 15 games back with the Tigres.

Rensfeldt is making his CHL debut with Sarnia in the OHL for the 2011-12 season. His size and scoring ability form a potent combination and he could put up a lot of points among Sarnia's talented group of forwards. The 19-year-old Swede will be in the mix for a spot on Sweden's WJC entry this year as well.

Philippe Paradis and Brandon Bollig round out the organization's left wing position. Paradis missed a chunk of training camp with a concussion but made his debut with Rockford on October 21, 2011. He lined up on the fourth line wing, a spot that had been filled by Bollig. In his second season with Rockford, Bollig provides a strong, physical presence when in the IceHogs lineup.

Center

The center position features top prospects Marcus Kruger and Brandon Pirri, two players who had one of the more compelling battles at Blackhawks training camp this season. Kruger made his North American debut late in the 2010-11 season and in the playoffs with Chicago and was assumed to be the safe bet for a roster spot this fall. Instead, Pirri was the more dynamic player in pre-season games and earned a spot on the opening night roster while Kruger was assigned to Rockford. The Swede was not long for the AHL, though, and Chicago swapped the two centers prior to the second game of the season. Kruger has since centered Chicago's fourth line, playing a reliable defensive game but not producing much on the score sheet yet. To his credit, Pirri showed major strides against NHL competition compared to his NHL debut at the same time last year, improving his strength and creating a bevy of offensive opportunities.

Two recent first-round picks are farther away from making an impact in Chicago but bring size and ability at both ends of the rink to the organization's center depth. Mark McNeill was picked 18th overall in the 2011 draft and was physically among the more pro-ready players in the draft. A right-handed center who can play in any situation, McNeill showed promise in his first pro training camp but was ultimately returned to Prince Albert in the WHL. He will serve as the Raiders captain and is already producing around a point-per-game pace.

Kevin Hayes, selected 24th overall in 2010, is entering his sophomore season at Boston College. He possesses a sizable frame for the center position at 6'2 and 201 pounds and should see an expanded role for the Eagles in his second season. He has had a productive start to his season on a line with Chris Kreider (NYR) and Bill Arnold (CAL), scoring seven points in his first six games.

Beyond the top picks, the organization has another group of depth prospects. Joakim Nordstrom made a good impression in his prospect camp appearance and for Team Sweden in exhibition games at this summer's U.S. evaluation camp. A capable center at both ends of the rink, Nordstrom sees the ice well and has good hockey sense. The 19-year-old Swede is making his SEL debut this year with AIK and could continue to see his stock rise if he can secure a spot on the WJC club.

Byron Froese and Chris DiDomenico have seen time as bottom six centers in Rockford this season. Froese is in his rookie season out of the WHL. DiDomenico has carried over his strong finish last season into this one, playing with a little more confidence with the puck and bringing a more consistent effort shift-to-shift. David Gilbert is also a rookie pro and has notched a goal and an assist in his first three games in the ECHL with Toledo.

In the QMJHL, speedy Mirko Hoefflin made an impression offensively at training camp and could be a break-out candidate in the Quebec league for Acadie-Bathurst.

Alex Broadhurst is playing his second season in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers. He started off quickly with six points in seven games playing in a big offensive role for the club. Committed to the University of Nebraska-Omaha, he will unfortunately miss the opportunity to play with his older brother, Terry, who is in his senior season at UNO.

Dan DeLisle is in his junior season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. A third round pick in 2009, DeLisle has been unable to contribute much in the offensive end and is still not a fixture in the Bulldog line-up.

Right Wing

Chicago may not have much depth at right wing, but there still exists several prospects of note. Ben Smith is the closest to a full-time NHL role of the wingers. He burst onto the scene late last year with three goals in the Blackhawks' first-round series against the Canucks. The versatile forward might have made the roster out of camp if he had not been knocked out of the lineup by a headshot delivered by Detroit's Brendan Smith. With an already full roster by the time he returned, Smith opened his season in the AHL with the IceHogs on October 21st.

Jimmy Hayes is another right wing prospect with NHL aspirations. The older brother of center prospect Kevin Hayes, Jimmy is a rookie pro with Rockford this season. He has had an uneven start after a good showing over the summer, seeing time in Rockford's top six and bottom six and even being a healthy scratch for one game after Smith and Paradis returned from injury. The 6'6 winger already has the size to compete with professionals. Once he adjusts of the speed of the pro level, he has the soft hands and mobility to be a dangerous power forward.

Right wing is also home to a pair of Russian prospects. Maxim Shalunov was a 2011 draft pick in the fourth round. He has yet to make an appearance in Chicago for prospect camp, but is a highly-regarded prospect in his home country. He is off to a fast start in the MHL, Russia's junior league, with nearly a goal-per-game pace through the first 14 games of the season. With a 6'3 frame and a nose for the net, Shalunov could push for a spot on Russia's national team in the coming years.

Igor Makarov made his long-awaited North American debut in the 2010-11 season with Rockford. Despite playing much better as the season wore on and potentially earning a bigger role in his second year, Makarov opted to return to Russia for the 2011-12 season with SKA St. Petersburg and was released from the second year of his NHL deal.

Defense

Long the strength of the Blackhawks' organizational depth, the blue line has continually been addressed via trades and with multiple selections at recent drafts. One such acquisition, Nick Leddy, has already solidified his role in Chicago after playing most of the second half with the Blackhawks during his rookie season in 2010-11. The smooth-skating, 20-year-old defenseman has had a large role in the early-going of 2011-12 on the team's top defensive pairing alongside Duncan Keith.

The organization's AHL squad also boasts several top defensive prospects. Dylan Olsen is perhaps the organization's most well-rounded blueliner, combining size, mobility, and offensive ability. After splitting his 2010-11 season between the NCAA level and Rockford, Olsen came into Blackhawks training camp and hung in there with the big boys. At 6'2 and 214 pounds, he already has the body to compete at the pro level. The 20-year-old Olsen should play in all situations for the IceHogs this year with an eye towards another push towards the Chicago roster next season.

Also in Rockford is Shawn Lalonde, who has made noticeable strides over the course of his rookie season in 2010-11 and the following summer. He has always been a defenseman with excellent skating and offensive skills, but Lalonde is beginning to develop into a more consistent player at both ends of the rink. Lalonde's physical play sets him apart from other more offensive-minded blueliners, but his defensive zone play is still developing.

Rockford is also home to several veteran prospects. The 25-year-old Brian Connelly is in his third season in Rockford and had the highest point total in 2010-11 of any returning player. At just 5'10, his size and lack of strength have kept him from a look at the NHL level, but Connelly has developed into a leader on the IceHogs' blue line. Among the more defensive-minded blueliners in Rockford, the Blackhawks count Ryan Stanton and Joe Lavin among the prospect ranks. Stanton, 22, is a physical, stay-at-home defenseman that finished last season on Rockford's top pairing alongside Connelly. Lavin, also 22, is in his first pro season out of college, where he was a versatile defender capable of playing in any situation.

In addition to the crowded pro level, Chicago has five defenseman drafted in the second or third round of recent drafts who are still developing at lower levels. Adam Clendening, selected 36th overall at last summer's draft, is entering his sophomore season at Boston University. The 19-year-old defenseman has some of the best offensive instincts of any prospect in the system and is already leading the Terriers blue line with four assists in his first four games of the season.

Stephen Johns is also playing in the NCAA as a sophomore at Notre Dame. A second round pick in 2010, he is perhaps the most-anticipated defensive prospect in Chicago because of his dominating physical play. Though he plays with an edge, Johns can also skate and is solid with the puck. He is in position to be one of the main defenders for the Irish this season.

Justin Holl was taken six picks ahead of Johns at 54th overall, but did not make such an immediate impact at the University of Minnesota as a freshman. With several veterans moving on after that season though, Holl's role has increased as a sophomore in 2011-12 and should allow him to display more of his offensive skills than he did in his first year.

Michael Paliotta adds size to the defensive depth at 6'3. Selected in the third round in 2011, Paliotta is entering his freshman season at the University of Vermont following a stint at the U.S. National Team Development Program. Chicago also added 19-year-old defenseman Klas Dahlbeck at the 2011 draft. The defensive-defenseman is in his second season of professional hockey in Sweden with Linkoping in the Elite League.

Many more later draft picks are developing in the college ranks. Sam Jardine, in his second AJHL season with Camrose, and Nick Mattson, an early-season surprise in his freshman year at North Dakota, are the two most recent examples of project picks that will have plenty of time to develop at the NCAA level. The organization also has steady junior Paul Phillips at Denver University, who has been paired with the dynamic Scott Mayfield (NYI) so far this season. Braden Birch and Joe Gleason are also in their junior years at Cornell and North Dakota, respectively.

Finally, Chicago retained the rights to Ivan Vishnevskiy over the summer even though he returned to Russia for the 2011-12 season after falling out of favor in Rockford last year. Former second-round pick Simon Danis-Pepin is also still in the organization but opened the 2011-12 season with the Toledo Walleye, his third-straight season that included a stint in the ECHL. He could still see time in the AHL this season, as he was recalled to Rockford on October 24th as an injury replacement. Jonathan Carlsson returned to the SEL with Brynas in 2010-11 and does not seem to have any further intention of returning to North America.

Goaltending

The Blackhawks are strong in number at the goaltending position, but they are still relatively unproven at the pro level. Alexander Salak is the most-seasoned goalie prospect, currently playing his second AHL season after playing with Rochester in 2009-10 as part of the Florida organization. Between his AHL seasons, Salak was the best regular season goalie in the SEL for Farjestad in 2010-11. Though he came away with much better numbers in limited pre-season action, Salak was beaten out by the more experienced Ray Emery for the backup job in Chicago during training camp.

While the Czech will likely handle a lot of Rockford's starts, he will be spelled by former Yale goalie Alec Richards. Now in his third pro season, Richards was solid in a time share last season for the 'Hogs. Though he is not likely to get a look in Chicago anytime soon, Richards will nonetheless give Rockford a chance to win most nights he gets the call and could carry the load for awhile should Salak be needed with the Blackhawks.

Chicago also has three goaltending prospects developing in the CHL. Kent Simpson, selected 58th overall in 2010, is in his second season as the primary netminder in Everett. The 'Tips are once again near the bottom of the WHL standings so far this season, but Simpson should continue to see a lot of game action and a ton of shots. He is a goalie with size at 6'2 and solid technique.

Also in his second year as a starter is Mac Carruth, a 19-year-old goalie for the Portland Winterhawks. Carruth also has the big frame many NHL teams are looking for in net at 6'2 but relies less on technique and more on his athleticism and competitiveness to make stops.

The third CHL prospect is Swedish goalie Johan Mattsson, who was the very last player selected in the 2011 draft at 211th overall. He is in his first North American season with the Sudbury Wolves and should carry the load for the team this season. With all three junior goalies at 19 years old, they will be playing for a pro contract this season and a spot in the pros in 2012-13.

 

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