Chicago Blackhawks possess massive amount of NCAA defensive prospects

By Brad Gardner
Photo: Adam Clendening has been one of the top two-way defensemen in college hockey this season, managing 33 points in 38 games. (Photo courtesy of Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI)

The Blackhawks have an extensive amount of prospects playing in either the NCAA or European levels of hockey. The organization has a particularly large amount of defensive prospects at both levels, with a combined 11 blueliners among the group.

NCAA

Adam Clendening, D, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2011

Offensive-defenseman Adam Clendening managed to surpass his impressive freshman point totals in his second year with Boston University. As a sophomore, Clendening led the Terriers blue line with 33 points in 38 games. Active at both ends of the ice, he ranks second on the team in shots on goal and ranked third on the team with block shots.

Clendening added strength to his 5'11 frame coming into his second college season and has shown improvements in his skating, particularly when it comes his quickness in transitioning between offense and defense. Though known for his offensive awareness and passing ability, the defenseman is not afraid of playing a scrappy style and has learned to pick his spots better for fewer bad penalties.

His offensive prowess earned him a spot on Team USA at the World Junior Championships, where he scored one goal and five points in six games. His strong play continued to push BU after he returned, despite the turmoil surrounding the team with the departure of several high-profile players, and eventually earned Clendening his first Hockey East First Team All-Star honor.

Stephen Johns, D, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA)
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2010

Stephen Johns continued to play a key role for the University of Notre Dame as a sophomore, managing 10 points in 39 games in his second season. His minus-1 rating was the best mark of any regular defenseman for Notre Dame and he also contributed in the offensive end with four goals.

He has never been known for his offensive game, but rather for his aggressive physical game. Despite still being among the team leaders with 71 penalty minutes, Johns has gotten smarter in chasing the big hit and knowing when to keep his positioning.

His ability to punish opponents earned him a spot on Team USA along with Clendening. Johns scored a goal and an assist in six games and provided steady play in his own zone during the American's uneven performance at the tournament.

Notre Dame finished with a rather disappointing 19-18-3 record after getting off to a strong start. They finished outside of the NCAA tournament field, but Johns should continue to be a major factor in a variety of ways for the Irish heading into his junior season.

Kevin Hayes, C, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Drafted 1st round, 24th overall, 2010

After paltry production in limited action as a freshman, Kevin Hayes emerged as a key center for Boston College in his sophomore season. Skating in the top six for much of the season, and more recently playing alongside one of the Eagles' best players in junior winger Chris Kreider (NYR), Hayes upped his scoring considerably in his second season. In 40 games, he scored six goals and 25 points as a sophomore.

While the increase in ice time and being surrounded by more skilled players contributed to those numbers, the 19-year-old Hayes has done his own part in developing his game. His skating has improved and he is able to use his body more effectively to protect the puck. His body positioning is still a work in progress, but if he is able to wield his big body in addition to the soft hands, he could develop into an effective two-way center.

Hayes helped BC capture their third consecutive Hockey East tournament championship and a first seed in the NCAA tournament.

Justin Holl, D, Minnesota Gold Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2010

Although Justin Holl may not have earned the national recognition of collegiate defensive prospects like Clendening or Johns, he remains a coveted blueliner who has continued to improve his game in the NCAA. In a largely defensive role for the University of Minnesota, Holl scored three goals and 11 points playing in all 41 regular season and WCHA tournament games.

The 6'2 defenseman played much of the season on the Gophers' top shutdown pairing alongside Seth Helgesen. Drafted as a puck-moving defenseman out of Minnetonka High School, Holl's defensive game has improved vastly in his two years with Minnesota and he has become one of the team's top penalty killers. His skating ability is still a strength, as is his hockey sense and ability to move the puck up ice.

Nick Mattson, D, North Dakota Fighting Sioux (WCHA)
Drafted 6th round, 180th overall, 2010

After a second season with Indiana of the USHL in 2010-11, Nick Mattson joined the University of North Dakota in 2011-12 ready to make an instant impact. He did just that, leading the team's defensemen with six goals and finishing second among blueliners with 19 points in 41 games in his first taste of college hockey.

Mattson played a top four defensive role throughout the year for the Sioux and established himself on the second pairing alongside stay-at-home defenseman Andrew MacWilliam late in the season. The 20-year-old Mattson's skating ability, vision, and skill with the puck on his stick was a perfect compliment for the veteran MacWilliam and also earned him time with North Dakota's power play unit.

North Dakota enters the NCAA tournament as one of the country's hottest teams after winning the WCHA tournament. Mattson's play, particularly on North Dakota's top-10 power play unit, will certainly be a factor down the stretch for the Sioux.

Michael Paliotta, D, Vermont Catamounts (Hockey East)
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2011

Like Johns, Vermont freshman defenseman Michael Paliotta has a reputation for playing with an edge. The 6'3 and 198 pound blueliner was among the Catamount's most physical players during the 2011-12 season and played with a mean streak in his own zone. He chipped in elsewhere as well with a role on both special teams units and a total of four goals and six assists in his first college season. He ranked third among Vermont's defensemen with his 10 points in 30 games as a freshman.

Vermont struggled mightily this season as a team, but both the team and Paliotta's play picked up later in the season. He began playing with more patience with the puck on his stick and making better decisions as a result. His minus-20 rating is more a reflection of the team than his play alone; only one Vermont player with over 20 games managed a rating better than minus-10.

It was a disappointing season for a relatively young Vermont squad in 2011-12, but Paliotta and the rest of the Catamounts will have some solid experience under their belt as they look to bounce back next season.

Braden Birch, D, Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2008

The number of higher defensive draft picks in the college ranks has overshadowed some of the older prospects, such as stay-at-home defenseman Braden Birch. At 6'3 and 192 pounds, the blueliner plays the body and uses his length effectively in the defensive end. He drew the opposition's top offensive lines all season for Cornell and was a mainstay on the penalty kill, registering one goal and six points in 30 games.

Despite playing the tough minutes, Birch maintained one of Cornell's top plus/minus ratings at plus-11. His steady play and leadership was a key for the young upstarts from Cornell and earned Birch a nomination as one of three finalists for the ECAC's Best Defensive Defenseman Award.

Cornell drew a four seed in the NCAA tournament after coming within one win of the ECAC regular season title and a third place finish in the conference tournament. They eventually lost to Ferris State in the Regional Finals.

Paul Phillips, D, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted 7th round, 195th overall, 2009

Another late-round pick who has developed into a dependable college defender is junior Paul Phillips, who skated alongside Scott Mayfield (NYI) on Denver University's top pairing and on the penalty kill during his junior season. The native of Darien, Illinois finished the regular season and conference tournament with one goal and eight assists in 40 games played, good for fourth in scoring among the team's defensemen.

The 6'1 and 195 pound Phillips thinks the game well and does not shy away from the physical aspects of the game. He led the Pioneers with 56 blocked shots in the regular season, showing the fearlessness and work ethic that led to him being named one of Denver's alternate captains this season.

DU ranked among the top teams in college hockey throughout the season, so it was at least mildly disappointing to see them get bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Ferris State.

Joe Gleason, D/W, North Dakota Fighting Sioux (WCHA)
Drafted 7th round, 192nd overall, 2008

Joe Gleason played a variety of roles for North Dakota as junior, skating games at both forward and on defense in his 40 appearances in 2011-12. He also earned some power play time and registered four of his 14 assists on the man advantage.

An offensive-minded defenseman when he was drafted out of Edina High School in 2008, Gleason's versatility got him into more games as a junior than he had in any prior season for the Sioux. Late in the season, he even began to establish himself in a third line checking role alongside captain Mario Lamoureux for a North Dakota team that has been crippled by injuries.

North Dakota is currently in the NCAA tournament regional finals, facing off against the University of Minnesota.

Dan DeLisle, LW/C, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (WCHA)
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2009

A productive player at the high school level with Totino-Grace, Dan DeLisle has yet to fulfill that promise in the NCAA. He has been limited by a lack of ice time for the powerhouse Minnesota-Duluth team and plays largely on the fourth line when he does get into the lineup.

DeLisle's 19 games as a junior is the lowest total of his college career. He managed two goals and two assists in that time, but has not suited up for the Bulldogs since mid-February.

Europe

Joakim Nordstrom, C, AIK (SEL)
Drafted 3rd round, 90th overall, 2010

In his first full season of SEL hockey, Joakim Nordstrom has seen rather limited action for AIK. He managed three goals and three assists in 47 games but averaged only around 12 minutes of ice time per game.

Nordstrom earned recognition on the world stage as part of Sweden's gold medal winning squad at the 2012 World Junior Championships. He finished in a tie for second on the team with four goals, one of which was the game-winner in Sweden's preliminary round victory over the defending champion Russian squad.

As a 2010 draft pick, Nordstrom will need to be signed this summer if the Blackhawks intend to maintain his rights. If signed, he could play in Rockford or the more-likely scenario may see him continue working his way up the ranks with AIK in Sweden until he can get his feet under him at the pro level.

Klas Dahlbeck, D, Linkoping HC (SEL)
Drafted 3rd round, 79th overall, 2011

Undrafted in 2010, Dahlbeck's 2010-11 SEL season with Linkoping put him on the Blackhawks' radar heading into the 2011 draft. A reliable, stay-at-home defender, Dahlbeck again played a considerable role with 18:28 of ice time per night for Linkoping in 2011-12. He scored two goals and four points in 55 games and ranked second among the team's defensemen with a plus-3 rating.

The Swedish defenseman's skill set is not unlike current Blackhawks blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson. Dahlbeck has solid size at 6'2 and 194 pounds and is not afraid to sacrifice his body in the defensive zone. While he may not be a flashy player, his mobility and hockey sense have still made him an effective defenseman at the pro level in Sweden.

Dahlbeck will likely make another appearance at Chicago's summer prospect camp and is expected to attend training camp with the Blackhawks as well. Though he may not be a favorite heading into camp, his steady game and pro experience may give him a shot at a third pairing role.

Maxim Shalunov, RW, Belie Medvedi Chelyabinsk (MHL)
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2011

Winger Maxim Shalunov skated in his second season in Russia's junior league, the MHL, for Belie Medvedi Chelyabinsk. He led the team in both goals (30) and points (60) in 48 games. Despite being the team's top scoring option, he also displayed his feisty style by ranking fourth on the squad with 60 penalty minutes on the season.

At 6'3 and 185 pounds, Shalunov plays with considerable skill for a power forward. He can use his large frame and considerable length to effectively protect the puck and fight for position. He also has a nose for the net, evidenced by the fact he has led his MHL team in goals now for two consecutive seasons.

His KHL rights are owned by Traktor Chelyabinsk and he may get an opportunity to make that team in 2012-13 given his consistent dominance of the MHL.

Ivan Vishnevskiy, D, Moscow Oblast Atlant (KHL)
Acquired via trade with Atlanta July, 2010

Like Makarov, Vishnevskiy skated in Rockford in 2010-11 but chose to skate in a top-four role in the KHL this season with Atlant Moscow. He tied for second among the team's defensemen with 11 points, three of which were goals, but also had a team low minus-11 rating in 54 games. He continued to be active offensively and was one of seven players on the team to finish with over 100 shots on net.

Although his rights are still owned by Chicago, Vishnevskiy's return to North America is not imminent. He is not yet under contract for the 2012-13 season.

Jonathan Carlsson, D, Brynas IF Gavle (SEL)
Drafted 6th round, 162nd overall, 2008

Jonathan Carlsson is now two seasons removed from his stint in North America with Rockford and Toledo in the ECHL. He again skated with Brynas in 2011-12, appearing in 51 games but registering just one assist.

Another stay-at-home Swedish defensive prospect, Carlsson was often the odd man out in Rockford and made the decision to return to his home country. Given the depth of the Blackhawks system on defense, he is likely to play out his career in the SEL.

DJ Powers contributed to this article