It was well-advertised the 2015-16 season would be a transitional season for the Chicago Blackhawks. After losing several players through trades and free agency, there was no doubt the defending Stanley Cup champions would need their rookies to contribute big time at the NHL level. Not only have these prospects been contributing, but they have become important pieces in Chicago’s title defense, some in unexpected ways.
Forward Teuvo Teravainen and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk, who both won the Stanley Cup last season with the Blackhawks, have graduated from Hockey’s Future prospect status, as both have become full-time skaters for Chicago.
Artemi Panarin, LW, 24
After an explosive season with SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, Panarin signed a two-year contract with the Blackhawks on April 29, 2015. The signing made sense for the Blackhawks, as general manager Stan Bowman knew left winger Patrick Sharp would likely have to go in the offseason.
What the Blackhawks front office may not have expected was just how impressive Panarin would be in his rookie season. With 57 points in his first 62 NHL games, Panarin is second on the team in points and first among NHL rookies. While playing on a line with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov surely helps boost his numbers, there’s no question the 24-year-old Russian has some jaw-dropping skills. Panarin’s creativity, vision, and speed make him more than a complementary part of Chicago’s top-six. There’s every reason to believe Panarin could see himself earn some hardware this season, either in the form of the Calder Trophy or the Stanley Cup.
Dennis Rasmussen, C, 25
After initially signing with the Blackhawks in the summer of 2014, the Blackhawks liked Rasmussen’s season with the Rockford IceHogs enough to give him a one-year extension on July 9, 2015. The 25-year-old Swede was seen as a solid bottom-six option, and that’s exactly what he’s been for the Blackhawks during the 2015-16 season. After being recalled on December 7, Rasmussen has given the Blackhawks some consistency, earning eight and a plus-seven rating in 37 games. Rasmussen has certainly made the absence of Marcus Kruger, who was lost to injury earlier in the season, an easier pill to swallow.
Phillip Danault, C, 22
Danault, like Rasmussen, was also seen as an option to fill in for Kruger. While Danault has always been seen as another Kruger-like center (defensive-minded with some offensive flare), however, he went above and beyond with his play for the Blackhawks. After being recalled by the Blackhawks on December 18, Danault has consistently been one of Chicago’s hardest-working skaters. While his numbers won’t put him in the Calder hunt – he’s tallied five points in 30 games – Danault was effective in his own zone while still generating scoring chances. Danault’s line, which often saw Andrew Desjardins and Teuvo Teravainen on his wings, was a constant threat and solid third-line for the Blackhawks. His strong play turned into a showcase, and Danault was sent to the Montreal Canadiens (along with a pick) in exchange for veteran forwards Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann.
Viktor Svedberg, D, 24
Svedberg has always been a solid and consistent defender with the IceHogs, traits the Blackhawks needed for an open spot on the bottom-pairing. The 24-year-old blueliner definitely has the size – he measures at 6’8 – to be a physically imposing defender, but he is also not a game-changer for the Blackhawks. Nonetheless, Svedberg has earned two call-ups this season, and it’s apparent he earned some trust of head coach Joel Quenneville. Svedberg has averaged 16:51 of ice time in 19 games with the Blackhawks while notching four points for good measure.
Tanner Kero, C, 23
When Kero was recalled by the Blackhawks on October 27, he had already amassed seven points in his first seven games of the season with the IceHogs. The Blackhawks were hoping he could bring that offensive power to the NHL, and while he only managed three points in seventeen games, Kero was noticeable during his time with Chicago. He could get another opportunity during the 2015-16 season should the Blackhawks get hit with the injury bug, but it’s more likely he’ll get another look next season.
Marko Dano, C/RW, 21
Much like Teravainen the past two years, Dano was the big name to watch at the beginning of the 2015-16 season. The highly-gifted forward was an important returning piece for the Blackhawks in the Brandon Saad trade, and many were thrilled to see Dano put his skill set to good use, particularly on the top-line with Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews.
To the surprise of many, however, Dano was sent down to Rockford to further refine his game. He eventually got a look with the Blackhawks, seeing 13 games and notching a goal and an assist. At just 21 years old, the Blackhawks could afford to let Dano develop with the IceHogs, where he had been one of their best players. However, his inability to find a next level also made him expendable, and the young Slovakian was sent to the Winnipeg Jets in the Andrew Ladd deal, where he should see consistent NHL time the remainder of their season.
Ryan Hartman, RW, 21
Hartman continues to be a main part of the IceHogs’ success, and it has become apparent the Blackhawks think he may have a future in the NHL. After seeing five games last year, Hartman had a brief three-game stint with the Blackhawks during the 2015-16 campaign. After tallying an assist in the trio of appearances, Hartman was sent back to Rockford, where his two-way game continues to grow.
Mark McNeill, RW, 22
This 2015-16 season, as it has been noted, is a bit of a make-or-break season for McNeill. A first-round selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, McNeill continues to be an offensive contributor with the IceHogs. The Blackhawks brass, however, don’t seem too thrilled with the 22-year-old forward’s development. McNeill made his NHL debut on January 26 in a 5-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, but he was reassigned the next day. He continues to dominate in the minors, but whether he’ll get another shot with the Blackhawks remains to be seen.
Vincent Hinostroza, C, 21
When Hinostroza signed his entry-level contract last year with the Blackhawks, it was expected the former Notre Dame standout would need at least a full season with the IceHogs to prepare himself for part-time NHL duty. As injuries made spots available, however, Hinostroza got the call, though he has spent the majority of the 2015-16 campaign with Rockford. He’s been held scoreless in seven games with the Blackhawks, though his slick skating has been on display.
Kyle Baun, RW, 23
When Baun made the Blackhawks opening night roster, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Joel Quenneville raved in the 2015 offseason about Baun’s skillset, and the 23-year-old forward had a decent preseason. After two mediocre regular season games, however, Baun was sent back to the IceHogs for further conditioning, where he struggled to regain his form. An injury kept Baun out for an extended period of time, but since returning on February 6, he’s begun to show signs of promise yet again at the AHL level.
2016 World Junior Championships
The Blackhawks were well-represented at the 2016 World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland. Nick Schmaltz had a much-improved WJC, notching eight points in seven games for Team USA, who would go on to capture the bronze medal in an 8-3 decision over Sweden.
Speaking of Sweden, one of the Blackhawks’ top defensive prospects, Gustav Forsling, continued to be an effective blueliner for the Swedes. Though Forsling’s 2015 tournament was more productive, the 19-year-old defenseman still managed two goals and a helper in six games for the Swedes.
2015 sixth-round selection Radovan Bondra stayed relatively quiet during the tournament, netting a single goal in five games for Team Slovakia.
Joni Tuulola left the WJC with the big prize, helping Finland to its fourth gold medal with an overtime win over Team Russia. Tuulola skated on the top pairing, tallying an assist and plus-five rating in seven games.
Prospect of the Month
A handful of Blackhawks prospects have been having wonderful starts to the new year. While players like Tyler Motte and Dylan Sikura certainly deserve honorable mentions, it’s no question Mark McNeill has been an absolute force for the IceHogs in the AHL. While he couldn’t stick with the Blackhawks in his one-game stint with the club, McNeill has gotten things going in Rockford. The forward had eleven points in January and nine more points in ten February games as well. McNeill’s 31 points in 42 games tie him for second among his teammates.