Chicago Blackhawks find quantity, quality in NCAA and European prospects

By Anthony Lyen
Gustav Forsling - Chicago Blackhawks

Photo: Chicago prospect Gustav Forsling hit 100 shots on goal in 48 SHL games this season despite playing second-pairing minutes for Linköping (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

 

 

To say the Chicago Blackhawks have a fondness for developing players in Europe and at the collegiate level is an understatement. 23 prospects laced up either overseas or in college for the 2015-16 season, and a handful had standout seasons for their respective teams. This route of developing talent has become a recent trend in Chicago, with Jonathan Toews, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Teuvo Teravainen being just a few success stories for the Blackhawks.

NCAA

Nick Schmaltz, C, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2014

Nobody in the Blackhawks system had a better 2015-16 season than Schmaltz. In his sophomore season, Schmaltz centered UND’s top line – arguably the best line in college hockey this year. Linemates Brock Boeser and Drake Caggiula certainly had incredibly years in their own rights, but Schmaltz’s gifted playmaking ability and speed made him an important part of North Dakota’s success.

The big question surrounding Schmaltz is his plan for next season. Although NoDak would love to see the 20-year-old center return for his junior year and defend the 2016 NCAA Hockey Championship, there’s speculation the Blackhawks are looking to sign Schmaltz sooner rather than later. If he decides to forgo his junior year and turn pro, Schmaltz could fit into Chicago’s top-nine next season almost immediately.

Luke Johnson, C, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted 5th round, 134th overall, 2013

Joining Schmaltz in celebrating North Dakota’s national championship is Johnson, who spent most of the 2015-16 season centering the second line for UND. While he doesn’t have the flash of Schmaltz, Johnson has proven himself to be a reliable center at the college level. In his third year with North Dakota, Johnson earned 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 43 games. While he may not have the makings of a top-six forward in the NHL, Johnson still has the ability to be a serviceable bottom-six center. He will get a chance to prove it soon, as Johnson signed an entry-level deal with Chicago on April 29.

Beau Starrett, C, Cornell University (ECAC)
Drafted 3rd round, 88th overall, 2014

It was a rollercoaster year for Starrett and the entire Cornell University squad. The Big Red suffered a plethora of injuries to their forwards, which included Starrett. Despite having a single goal in 15 games with Cornell, the numbers aren’t really indicative of the talent and potential Starrett possesses. A healthy 2016-17 season with Cornell would do wonders for Starrett’s confidence and development.

Liam Coughlin, C, University of Vermont (H–East)
Acquired in trade with Edmonton, July 2015

Coughlin had a solid freshman season with the University of Vermont that saw him earn 12 points and a +6 in 35 games for the Catamounts. While he started strong, tallying four assists in his first five games, the 21-year-old forward played some inconsistent hockey near the latter half of the season. Coughlin projects to be a power forward who can use his 6’2, 201 lbs. frame to get the puck to the net in a variety of ways. He is an intriguing collegiate prospect to keep an eye on moving forward.

Dylan Sikura, C, Northeastern University (H–East)
Drafted 6th round, 178th overall, 2014

One prospect definitely deserving to be considered “most improved” would be Sikura. After a sub-par freshman season last year with Northeastern, Sikura stepped up into a bigger role with the Huskies during the 2015–16 campaign. Typically skating on the left side of the second line, Sukura managed 28 points with the Huskies, who went on to win the Hockey East tournament on March 20. Sikura is far from a flashy player, but he has the tools to be an effective one. Some more time at the collegiate level will do nothing but help the 20-year-old forward.

Tyler Motte, LW, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Drafted 4th round, 121st overall, 2013

While the aforementioned Schmaltz had a near-perfect season for North Dakota, Motte’s season was just as dazzling. Motte was a major part of Michigan’s powerhouse top-line, which included J.T. Compher and Kyle Connor. With 56 points in 38 game, Mottle helped lead Michigan to an outstanding 25-8-5 season, but it wasn’t enough to overthrow North Dakota, who ended Michigan’s season in a 5-2 win on March 26.

Though Motte’s size may be of some concern – he’s listed as 5’9 – he has all the hockey skills to be a dangerous scoring threat every shift. In order to make sure his skills continue on a positive path, the Blackhawks signed Motte to a three-year entry-level contract on April 6. This will ensure Motte gets every chance to experience hockey at the professional level. It’s all but certain once the 2016-17 season rolls around, the 21-year-old winger will get an extended look to make the big club.

Anthony Louis, LW, Miami University (NCHC)
Drafted 6th round, 181st overall, 2013

The 2015-16 college hockey season saw Louis, known as a creative playmaker in his own right, get overshadowed by the success of Schmaltz and Motte. And while Louis’ year with Miami was decent enough – he managed 26 points in 36 games – he didn’t seem to take the big leap forward many hoped he would. This should not downplay the skills Louis indeed possesses, as he finished the year as the RedHawks’ leading scorer. With smooth skating and an eye for the puck, Louis has pure offensive abilities. Despite his smaller 5’8 frame, Louis could be a valuable commodity for the Blackhawks in the near-future.

Fredrik Olofsson, LW, University of Nebraska–Omaha (NCHC)
Drafted 4th round, 98th overall, 2014

At the start of the 2015-16 season, it appeared Olofsson was having no problem transitioning to the NCAA. There were certainly expectations for the young forward, who had just put up 60 points in 57 games for the Chicago Steel of the USHL the season prior.

Olofsson started off strong with the Mavericks, posting five points in his first three games. Things cooled off for the 19-year-old winger, but he finished his freshman season at UNO with a solid 17 points in 34 games. With some increased ice-time and consistent play, Olofsson will be due for a bump in terms of production next year.

John Hayden, RW, Yale University (ECAC)
Drafted 3rd round, 74th overall, 2013

There were hopes that Hayden would join fellow prospect Tyler Motte and sign his entry-level contract once Yale’s season came to an end. After all, Hayden was an effective power-forward for the Bulldogs, notching 16 goals and seven helpers in 32 games. Though there are still areas in need of improvement (speed and skating), Hayden could work on developing his game at the pro level. Regardless, Hayden chose to return to Yale for his senior season, leaving many Blackhawks fans – and Blackhawks upper management – wondering what the future holds for Hayden and the club.

Chris Calnan, RW, Boston College (H–East)
Drafted 3rd round, 79th overall, 2012

Calnan had quite an eventful junior year with Boston College. The 21-year-old forward saw limited time with the Eagles due to a dislocated shoulder he suffered in November. Add that to a late season stress fracture in his ankle, and it’s no wonder Calnan only suited up for 29 games during the 2015-16 season. A two-way forward with tons of character and leadership qualities, Calnan helped lead BC to a 2016 NCAA Frozen Four berth, where they were eventually knocked out by Quinnipiac. Calnan will return to Boston College for his senior season as a co-captain with Ian McCoshen.

Matt Iacopelli, RW, University of Western Michigan (NCHC)
Drafted 3rd round, 83rd overall, 2014

Iacopelli was a major offensive threat during his two years with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL. In his first collegiate hockey season, however, Iacopelli experienced some growing pains. With seven points and a –19 in 27 games with Western Michigan, Iacopelli, 21, saw some time on the third line. With a year under his belt and increased playing time, Iacopelli may be able to find a way to use his sharp offensive instincts to UWM’s advantage.

Jack Ramsey, RW, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
Drafted 7th round, 208th overall, 2014

It was a forgettable season for Ramsey, who put up a mere five points in his first year with Minnesota. Though he’s not known for his game-changing offensive capabilities, Ramsey was still given every opportunity to showcase his skill, including seeing time on Minnesota’s top-six early on in the 2015-16 season. Despite this, Ramsey finished the year mostly playing on the right side of the fourth-line. It will be interesting to monitor where Ramsey fits into the Gophers lineup next season.

Luc Snuggerud, D, University of Nebraska–Omaha (NCHC)
Drafted 5th round, 141st overall, 2014

Snuggerud has become a rather underrated – and maybe underappreciated – defensive prospect within the Blackhawks’ system. While the likes of Ville Pokka and Gustav Forsling – more on him in a bit – have become the two of the top blueliners in the system, the potential Snuggerud possesses should not be dismissed. Skating as a top-four defender, Snuggerud led all UNO defensemen in points, with four goals and 14 assists. The 20-year-old defenseman was somewhat of a workhorse for Mavericks, eating a ton of minutes and producing plenty of chances. If Snuggerud has a strong 2016-17 season, he could see himself signing an entry-level contract with the Blackhawks sooner rather than later.

Dennis Gilbert, D, University of Notre Dame (H–East)
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2015

Another defensive prospect who had a respectable year at the collegiate level was Gilbert. In his first year with Notre Dame, Gilbert instantly found a place in the Fighting Irish’s top-four, even seeing time on the left side of the top pairing. Although he failed to register a point in his last 17 games of the 2015-16 season, Gilbert managed a solid 10 points and +5 in 37 games. A smart, strong blueliner, Gilbert is poised to have an even better sophomore season with Notre Dame.

Matt Tomkins, G, Ohio State (Big Ten)
Drafted 7th round, 199th overall, 2012

Things don’t seem to be progressing for Tomkins at the rate he – and presumably the Blackhawks front office – would like. The 21-year-old netminder continued to struggle in Ohio, which saw his junior year post a 5-7-1 record with a .888 save percentage and 3.87 goals against average. There are some positives to mention, though. Tomkins was relied upon frequently at the start of the year, which certainly boosted his confidence, and as the season progressed, his play became slightly more consistent. His last eight games of the season saw Tomkins go 5-2-1, but he still allowed 34 goals in that span. When Tomkins starts his senior season in 2016-17 with Ohio State, it will likely be a make-or-break season for the goaltender.

Europe

John Dahlstrom, RW, Frolunda J20 (SuperElit)
Drafted 7th round, 211th overall, 2015

Despite being the last player – “Mr. Irrelevant” – of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, John Dahlstrom appears driven to prove his ability. In 38 games with Frolunda’s J20 team, Dahlstrom – who finished third on his team in points with 35 – notched 21 goals. A year with defending SHL Champions Frolunda could do wonders for the 19-year-old forward’s development, as it appears Dahlstrom has the tools to become an intriguing offensive weapon.

Carl Dahlstrom, D, Linköping HC (SHL)
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2013

There were questions about Carl Dahlstrom’s future with the Blackhawks organization last season. An inconsistent year with Linkoping had many wondering if the Blackhawks had botched their second round selection in the 2013 draft. Dahstrom bounced back during the 2015-16 season, however, becoming a reliable and effective defenseman for Linkoping. With eight points and a +11 rating in 50 games, Dahlstrom looked big for LHC, and the Blackhawks front office was impressed enough to sign the 21-year-old blueliner to a three-year entry-level contract on April 14. A full year with the Rockford IceHogs would be an excellent audition for Dahlstrom to prove his ability to become a full-time NHL defenseman.

Gustav Forsling, D, Linköping HC (SHL)
Acquired in trade with Vancouver, January 2015

While Carl Dahlstrom served as Linkoping’s stay-at-home defensive defenseman, Forsling shined as LHC’s puck-moving, mobile defenseman. With 21 points and a +21 plus/minus rating, Forsling, despite being just 19, established himself as one of the SHL’s premiere defensive youngsters. There’s plenty of anticipation for Forsling to sign with the Blackhawks, but it’s crucial to his development to let Forsling continue to grow overseas. If all goes according to plan, Forsling could be a Nick Leddy-like top-four blueliner for the Blackhawks.

Robin Norell, D, Djurgårdens IF (SHL)
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2013

Norell joined fellow Swedish defenseman Carl Dahlstrom in signing his entry-level contract with the Blackhawks on March 31, and Norell seemed to fit right in with the IceHogs. After a strong year with Djurgardens in the SHL, Norell transitioned well to North American hockey. In his first eight games, Norell had two assists and a +4 rating, even suiting up for two Calder Cup Playoff games for the ‘Hogs. Though he might need a year or two in Rockford, he’ll certainly get a look during the 2016 training camp and preseason.

Joni Tuulola, D, HPK (Liiga)
Drafted 6th round, 181st overall, 2015

In his second year with HPK, Tuulola saw more time and responsibility with the club. The 20-year-old defenseman posted 14 points in 53 games with HPK, but it was the 2016 World Junior Championships that saw Tuulola truly showcase his abilities as a defenseman. He helped lead Finland to a gold medal, notching an assist for the Finns in seven games. A project for the Blackhawks, Tuulola will return with HPK for the 2016-17 season.

Andreas Soderberg, D, Skellefteå AIK J20 (SuperElit)
Drafted 5th round, 148th overall, 2014

The bulky Soderberg tends to get lost among the rest of the Blackhawks’ European prospects. Though he has good size at 6’4, Soderberg continues to refine his game for Skelleftea’s J20 team. After spending most of the season on loan to Vita Hasten of the Allsvenskan, Soderberg finished his year strong in the postseason with Skelleftea’s junior team. Soderberg, 19, has plenty of time to grow – and stand out – within the Blackhawks organization, but needs a year of progress.

Robin Press, D, Djurgårdens IF (SHL)
Drafted 7th round, 211th overall, 2013

After seeing a major boost in his offensive numbers during the 2014-15 season playing in the Allsvenskan (13 goals and 17 assists), Press took a step backwards throughout the 2015-16 season in the SHL. With just three points in 51 games, Press is not quite ready for the top level of Swedish hockey. Look for the 21-year-old defenseman to use the 2016-17 season as a bounce-back year with Djurgardens, especially if he wants to earn a deal with the Blackhawks.

Ivan Nalimov, G, Admiral Vladivostok (KHL)
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2014

There were rumors earlier in the 2015-16 season that Nalimov might be ready to sign with the Blackhawks and give North American hockey a try. Those rumors were put to rest, however, when Nalimov signed a two-year extension with Vladivostok in March. It makes sense, though, as Nalimov looked more poised in his second season with the team. The 22-year-old netminder went 20-13-3 with a .908 save percentage and a 2.60 goals against average. While his regular season play greatly improved, Nalimov struggled in the postseason, losing all three starts. With his new contract kicking in next season, it will be interesting to see how Nalimov’s future develops, especially considering Chicago’s weakness with goaltending prospects.