Chicago Blackhawks maintain one of the deepest prospect pools in NHL

By Brad Gardner
Photo: Winger Brandon Saad has been among the most prolific offensive players in the OHL this season. Already signed to an entry-level deal, Saad had a two-game cup of coffee in the NHL earlier this season. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The Chicago Blackhawks maintain one of the deepest prospects pools in the NHL after several years of gorging on draft picks in the NHL Entry Draft. Though the organization may not feature any blue-chip prospects, there are a number of players at each position who could eventually step in and complement the core in Chicago.

Once a defense-heavy prospect system, Chicago has taken steps to fleshing out their numbers on the wings and in net in recent drafts. The blue line is still an area of strength with former first round pick Dylan Olsen currently playing with the Blackhawks and collegiate prospects such as Adam Clendening and Stephen Johns making their mark in the NCAA.

A pair of 2011 picks catapulted up the rankings as Mark McNeill and Brandon Saad take over the first and second spots, respectively. While McNeill may be the more versatile of the two forwards, Saad answered for his draft-day slide with a stellar training camp that resulted in two games with the NHL team at the start of the season.

1. (3) Mark McNeill, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2011

Since being drafted with the Blackhawks' top pick in the 2011 draft, Mark McNeill has proven to not only be a prospect with immense offensive talent but also a well-rounded player with a frame that is physically very close to NHL-ready. He had the core strength to compete with the NHLers in Chicago's training camp and uses that size advantage to dominate the boards and high-traffic areas in the WHL.

McNeill is tied for second on Prince Albert with 68 points, including 29 goals, through 64 games for a team that struggled through much of the first half of the season. The consistency that McNeill has brought to the score sheet helped keep Prince Albert alive in the playoff race much longer than their early-season fortunes might have indicated.

Despite being cut from Team Canada's WJC camp in December, the 'Hawks top pick received a consolation prize of sorts in the form of an NHL contract that was announced during the tournament. The 19-year-old center will have another year of eligibility for Canada next year, assuming he has not already carved out a center role with the Blackhawks by that time.

2. (7) Brandon Saad, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2011

Another prospect who will have many eyes on him at next year's training camp is Brandon Saad. With Patrick Sharp missing most of the preseason and Daniel Carcillo suspended for the first two games of the season, Saad grabbed hold of a rare opportunity to not only turn heads in a big workload during the pre-season but also skate with the 'Hawks top line in the first two games of Chicago's regular season. Though he did not crack the score sheet in his first two NHL games, the winger showed that he has ample offensive skills and already has the ability to skate with some of the NHL's premier forwards.

Saad returned to the OHL in October and proceeded to dominate the junior level for Saginaw, notching nine goals and nine assists in his first eight games back. He missed time to injury and was only just returning to game action when he was selected to represent Team USA at the World Juniors. The team as a whole struggled in the tournament to their worst finish in years, but Saad's inconsistent production was especially noticeable. He finished with one goal and six points in six games but four of those points came in the team's relegation round win over Latvia.

Still a prospect on the rise within the Chicago organization, the 19-year-old Saad has returned to form for the Spirit since his return and currently ranks second on the team with 32 goals and 71 points in just 40 OHL games. Just like in his draft year, he has struggled through parts of the season and will need to improve that consistency if he is to develop into the top-six forward he hinted at early in the year.

3. (1) Jeremy Morin, LW, 7B
Drafted 2nd round, 45th overall, 2009 by Atlanta
Acquired via trade June, 2010

Jeremy Morin's development was sidetracked by a concussion he suffered in January 2011. The injury kept him out for nine months, through Chicago's training camp and start of the AHL season. He finally returned to Rockford's line-up on October 14th, but has been unable to equal the scoring pace he established in his rookie season.

Through 52 in his second pro season, the New York-native has scored 13 goals and 31 points. He ranks in a tie for fifth on the 'Hogs in points and is among the team leaders with 95 penalty minutes. Though he scored four goals over six games in late February and early March, he was also held off the score sheet entirely in eight of his 10 February games.

Morin has been among Rockford's better forwards on many nights, creating offensive chances and finishing checks, but has been a non-factor on plenty of occasions as well. Deployed throughout the line-up and on special teams by 'Hogs head coach Ted Dent, the 20-year-old winger will continue to see plenty of ice time in the hopes he can get the goal-scoring numbers back on track.

4. (4) Dylan Olsen, D, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 28th overall, 2009

Playing in his first full season of pro hockey, Dylan Olsen is the only defensive prospect to get a call-up to Chicago as an injury fill-in for a 'Hawks blue line playing without the services of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador. Far from perfect, Olsen has still provided a solid presence in the defensive zone and a big body around the Chicago net. He has killed penalties for the 'Hawks and seen ample ice time for a prospect, skating some games alongside oft-used defenseman Duncan Keith.

The 21-year-old blueliner's foot speed is still an area that could improve, but he has otherwise been a reliable defender and penalty killer in his time with Rockford this season as well. Olsen has a big shot but has focused more on his own zone this season, registering four goals and seven points in 44 games to go along with a minus-five rating.

As Hjalmarsson and Montador continue to miss time in Chicago, Olsen's audition has seemingly become something more permanent. Though he has been dropped down to playing more third-pairing minutes, Olsen has appeared in 17 NHL games this season with his first career assist and only one minor penalty. His physical prowess in his own zone is also a skill set that is not common in the Chicago organization, particularly alongside some of the team's more offensively-oriented blue line prospects.

5. (10) Brandon Pirri, C, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2009

Competing directly with Marcus Kruger in Chicago during training camp, Brandon Pirri actually came out on top of that position battle in his pre-season showings and earned a spot on the opening night roster. He has been called up a couple times since that first game as well, appearing in five NHL games with two assists.

Pirri's call-ups have stemmed from his impressive play during his second season at the pro level. The 20-year-old pivot has been Rockford's top forward this season and has played in all situations for the IceHogs. Pirri leads Rockford with 22 goals and ranks second with 28 assists in 57 games this season. Seven of those goals have come on the power play and five have been game-winners. His 50 points lead the team by a wide margin, the next player, Brian Connelly has only 36 points.

The former standout at RPI has flexed his offensive muscles throughout the year, both in the playmaking department and also displaying his goal-scoring ability particularly on the man advantage. Marcus Kruger's hold on the second line center spot has not gotten much stronger over the course of the season, so the opportunity is there for Brandon Pirri to see more time in Chicago in the 2012-13 season, if not sooner.

6. (6) Adam Clendening, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2011

Offensive-minded defenseman Adam Clendening has managed to surpass his offensive totals in his sophomore season at Boston University, leading the blue line and ranking fourth on the Terriers with 28 points in 34 games.

Clendening's production has been integral to BU's success on the power play this season, where the defenseman's vision and passing ability make him a threat to create a chance each time he touches the puck. He is not shy about pitching in offensively in any situation and can get the puck to the net, ranking third among all of BU's skaters with 96 shots on net. Though known for his offense, Clendening is not afraid to deliver a hit and sacrifice his body, ranking third on the team with 40 blocked shots this season as well.

As he showed in the World Junior Championships with Team USA, though, he can be prone to mental errors with the puck. Clendening finished with five points and a plus-two rating in six games, but was also one of the culprits in the American's leaky defense.

The blueliner is not the best skater in the system, though it has improved this year, and does not possess the ideal size for a defenseman at the pro level, but he does possess perhaps the highest offensive ceiling among Chicago's handful of puck-moving rearguards.

7. (16) Jimmy Hayes, RW, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2008 by Toronto
Acquired via trade June, 2010

Jimmy Hayes is another prospect that has gotten a couple looks in the Blackhawks line-up this season, skating in a total of 24 NHL games this season. Despite limited ice time on many nights, Hayes has scored five goals and four assists in Chicago. The 6'6 winger has shown flashes of his potential as a power forward, dishing out 42 hits and showing a deft set of hands when the puck is on his stick.

In Rockford, the 22-year-old Hayes has played throughout the line-up but produced consistently where ever Dent has put him, accumulating seven goals and 23 points in 33 AHL games. His physical effort has not been as consistent as it could be on some nights, particularly for a forward of his build. Hayes' AHL days may not be completely behind him, but the 'Hawks seem content to let him skate fourth-line minutes most nights for the time being.

8. (11) Stephen Johns, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2010

Stephen Johns' brutal physical game has already put him on the radar of many hockey fans in Chicago as his reputation at nearby Notre Dame has spread to the city. In his sophomore season for the Irish, the defenseman has chipped in some offense as well with four goals and 10 points in 37 games. He has remained a constant physical threat on the ice despite developing a little more discipline. He still ranks second on Notre Dame with 71 penalty minutes but that number is down from the 96 penalty minutes he had as a freshman.

The defenseman was also part of Team USA's blue line at the WJC, where he scored a goal and an assist in six games. Johns brought the physical presence for which he was selected and was one of the team's more consistent blueliners. The confidence that comes with such international experience should only help the 19-year-old defender as he grows into a leader on the Notre Dame blue line on his way to the pro ranks.

9. (8) Kyle Beach, LW, 7C
Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2008

Long a top prospect in the Blackhawks organization since he was drafted, Kyle Beach was finally showing his scoring ability at the pro level early in the season for Rockford with three goals and six points in his first eight AHL games.

Unfortunately for the 22-year-old winger, a fight with Peoria's Stefan Della Rovere (STL) led to a severe shoulder injury that has kept him out of the line-up since that hot start. With Beach unavailable, other prospects like Jimmy Hayes and Andrew Shaw have taken advantage of more ice time and call-ups to Chicago. With only one year left on his entry-level contract, the 2012-13 season is shaping up to be an important one for Beach. He is still hoping to get some games in before Rockford's season ends and is slated for a return in late March.

10. (14) Phillip Danault, LW, 7C
Drafted 1st round, 26th overall, 2011

Chicago's second selection of the first round at the 2011 draft, Phillip Danault may not be a flashy prospect or possess the highest offensive ceiling in the organization. What he does have is a well-rounded game and an unparalleled work ethic on and off the ice.

Danault has worn the captain's 'C' for his hometown Victoriaville Tigres in each of the past two seasons and is one of the team's top centers in every situation. He plays a hard-nosed style but is not without offense, capable of leading the rush as well as breaking one up on the back-check. In 59 games with Victoriaville, the 19-year-old Danault has scored 16 goals and 67 points and has one over 51 percent of his draws as the team's ace on faceoffs.

Like McNeill, Danault was another late cut from Team Canada at their selection camp but was nonetheless rewarded with a pro contract from Chicago in December. Danault may not be as close as his fellow first round pick to competing for a roster spot with Chicago in 2012, but his versatile abilities and work ethic will certainly give him a chance to compete in camp.

11. (NR) Andrew Shaw, C/RW, 6.5B
Drafted 5th round, 139th overall, 2011

Andrew Shaw made a quick impression in Rockford, eventually working his way up to a top six role with the IceHogs before he was called up to Chicago. He made an even bigger splash with the big club, notching a goal and a fight in his first NHL game against the Flyers. He finished his first NHL stint with five goals and four assists in his first 19 NHL games and has played another five games, scoring two more goals, since being recalled after the trade deadline.

The 20-year-old forward still ranks ninth in Rockford with 12 goals to go along with 11 assists in 38 AHL games. Despite being listed at 5'10, Shaw is a fearless player and has commanded respect at both levels this season for his willingness to work around the net, finish his checks, and drop the gloves against players who are often much bigger. He is also an aggressive skater on the forecheck and in his own zone, giving him the ability to impact a game in a variety of ways. That versatility helped him earn the opportunity in Chicago, where he may have carved out a role for the rest of the year.

12. (12) Kevin Hayes, C, 7C
Drafted 1st round, 24th overall, 2010

Kevin Hayes is another college sophomore starting to put things together at the NCAA level, scoring six goals and 24 points in 37 games this season for Boston College. He has been strong in conference play with 21 of those points and a plus-seven rating coming in 27 Hockey East games.

At 6'2 and 201 pounds, Kevin is not quite as big as his older brother Jimmy, but he still brings size to the table. He has learned to use that size more effectively in protecting the puck and that has also helped him develop a stronger defensive game as well. The younger Hayes brother took some time to acclimate himself to the college level, at least in part due to a rather limited opportunity in his freshman season, but he has shown how well he can contribute on a scoring line in recent weeks.

He attended Team USA's summer orientation camp but did not earn an invite to the December selection camp, which was something of a disappointment for the first round pick. The 19-year-old Hayes will play at least another year in the NCAA and have time to continue working on his skating and overall game with one of college hockey's premier programs.

13. (13) Ben Smith, RW, 6.5B
Drafted 6th round, 169th overall, 2008

Despite gaining some momentum late last season with a strong playoff performance, Ben Smith was forced out by the numbers game early in the season in Chicago. He was recalled in mid-November when Rostislav Olesz passed through waivers, but did not find the same success in Chicago. In 13 NHL games in Chicago this season, he has managed just two goals and a minus-five rating in mostly bottom six ice time.

Smith has remained a dependable option in Rockford with 15 goals and 31 points in 38 AHL games this season. Despite spending some time with the big club, Smith still ranks third on Rockford in goals and leads the team with eight power play markers. His nonstop motor and hockey IQ allow him to succeed in a variety of roles and he has earned a prominent role on each of the 'Hogs special teams units. Another call-up to Chicago is not out of the question for the 23-year-old Smith this season as he remains one of the organization's prospects best-suited for a bottom six role.

14. (5) Shawn Lalonde, D, 7C
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2008

The biggest faller in these rankings, Shawn Lalonde has struggled to take another step forward in his second AHL season with Rockford. As a defenseman who primarily makes his living in the offensive end, Lalonde's production has fallen off this season with just two goals and 13 assists in 50 games for the 'Hogs.

Decision-making has always been an area of emphasis for the 21-year-old blueliner, but he is still prone to turnovers. Though not afraid to take the body in the defensive end, Lalonde is not likely to ever be known for his play in his own zone. He is still more than capable of getting the puck on net and pushing the pace offensively, two areas where he will be needed even more after the departure of Brian Connelly via trade to Calgary, but Lalonde has not been playing with a ton of confidence for much of his sophomore season with the IceHogs.

15. (17) Justin Holl, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2010

Yet another high draft selection on the defensive end, Justin Holl has had a more quiet college career than the likes of Clendening and Johns. That should not take away from his development, particularly in the defensive end, in his two seasons at the University of Minnesota.

This year, Holl has played a more consistent role, scoring three goals and 10 points in 38 games for the Gophers. He is again primarily used in more of a checking role for the Gophers playing with Seth Helgesen on the team's primary shutdown pairing. Though skating remains perhaps his best asset, Holl has adjusted well to the defense-heavy role and has been leaned on as one of the team's primary penalty killers in his second season. Given his puck-carrying ability and hockey sense, the 20-year-old blueliner may also have more offense in him if his role increases at Minnesota.

16. (9) Alexander Salak, G, 7C
Acquired via trade from Florida in February, 2011

Despite coming into Chicago's camp with the hopes of earning the back-up job behind Corey Crawford, it has been a relatively quiet season for the club's top goaltending prospect, Alexander Salak. Much of that was due to a leg injury that kept him out of Rockford's line-up for two months.

Salak has since returned from the injury and brought a couple solid performances to the table in his first weekend back. In 17 appearances with Rockford, he has earned a 4-9-0 record with a 2.80 goals against average and .900 save percentage. He is not the most composed goaltender, particularly with fans in Rockford used to seeing the calm demeanor of Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford in recent years, and has let things go downhill quickly on occasion.

Carter Hutton earned an NHL deal from Chicago after performing well in Salak's absence and has been the more consistent goaltender since his return. The 25-year-old Salak has another year left on his contract with the Blackhawks, but he may have more opportunity to play overseas for the 2012-13 season if his slide down Chicago's depth chart this year is any indication.

17. (15) Ludvig Rensfeldt, LW, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2010

Ludvig Rensfeldt made the transition to North America, debuting with Sarnia of the OHL this season. He has notched 20 goals and 41 points in 53 games for the Sting and is one of only nine skaters in the black with a plus-four rating.

A winger with a sizable frame at 6'3 and a quick release, Rensfeldt has not exactly lit the OHL on fire but still ranks in a tie for sixth on the team in goals. With prodigious talents on the wing like Nail Yakupov (2012), Reid Boucher (NJD), and others carrying the club's offense, Rensfeldt has not been depended on as a go-to scorer. He has been deployed on the power play and has a three goals on the man advantage to his credit.

Drafted out of Sweden in 2010, Rensfeldt will need to be signed this summer if the Blackhawks are to maintain his rights.

18. (NR) Nick Mattson, D, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 180th overall, 2010

Making his debut among the Blackhawks' top 20 prospects, Nick Mattson has enjoyed a strong freshman year at the University of North Dakota. After opting for a second year with the USHL's Indiana Ice in 2010-11, Mattson was able to step right into the Sioux line-up and make an impact in his first NCAA season.

Through 36 games with North Dakota, Mattson leads the team's defense in goals (six) and points (18). He has played in every situation and garnered comparisons to former Fighting Sioux captain Chay Genoway in terms of his role style of play. The 20-year-old Mattson can skate and move the puck with aplomb, making him effective on the team's power play where he has scored twice. He has even played some penalty kill minutes and has one shorthanded tally on the year.

19. (18) Philippe Paradis, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 27th overall, 2009 by Carolina
Acquired via trade from Toronto in June, 2010

With a slew of junior prospects joining the organization's affiliates this season, it has been difficult for any of them to stand out. Aside from Andrew Shaw, none of the rookies have found consistent ice time and have been shuffled in and out of the line-up. Even winger Philippe Paradis, who earned some games on Rockford's top line early in the season with his energetic play, has been a healthy scratch at times among the crowd of bottom six forwards at Ted Dent's disposal.

When he is on, however, Paradis brings a physical presence and creates offensive chances on the forecheck. In 43 games with the 'Hogs this season, Paradis has two goals and nine points to go along with a team-low minus-12 rating. He may never be a big-time scorer at the pro level, but Paradis can still contribute at both ends of the ice. Likely destined for a bottom six role in the NHL with some more pro games under his belt, his role in Rockford should increase heading into his second season.

20. (19) Joakim Nordstrom, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 90th overall, 2010

Just cracking these rankings is another mid-round Swedish draft pick whose stock is on the rise in Joakim Nordstrom. He is playing in his first full season in Sweden's top professional league, the Elitserien, but is playing in a limited role for AIK. The center has notched three goals and three assists in 47 SEL games while averaging around 12 minutes of ice time per game.

Nordstrom represented Sweden at the World Juniors and served as one of the club's alternate captains during the country's first gold medal run since 1981. His highlight of the tournament came when he scored the game-winner against Russia in the preliminary round and he finished in a tie for second with four goals and five points in six games for Sweden.

Two years removed from being drafted, Nordstrom will have to be signed this summer if he is part of Chicago's plans. Listed at 6'1 but 160 pounds, the 20-year-old Swede still has some filling out to do if he is to compete at the AHL level in 2012-13.