In the inaugural edition of our Blackhawks prospect awards, Hockey's Future takes a look at some of the standouts within the Chicago organization. From skill categories such as "Hardest Shot" and "Fastest Skater" to season-specific awards for players exceeding and not meeting expectations, this piece will sift through the crowded prospect pool for players who stand out above the rest. The winner for each category was determined by the team writer with assistance from the HF staff.
A strong finish to his rookie season in 2010-11 carried over for Brandon Pirri this season. The center led Rockford in scoring with 56 points in 66 games and played a noticeably more confident game in his second season, relishing the role as offensive cornerstone and eager to create chances for his linemates. Long a skilled playmaker, Pirri's physical development has also had an effect on his success at the pro level. Drafted at 160 pounds, the 21-year-old center is now listed at 6'0 and 183 pounds and is able to hold his own against the bigger players at the pro level in terms of battling for position and protecting the puck. Though his action in Chicago was limited to five games this season, Pirri will be in the mix for a center spot when camp rolls around next fall.
In addition to his howitzer from the point, Olsen is also the best all-around defensive prospects in the Chicago organization. He developed into one of Rockford's top options on the blue line at even strength and on the penalty kill in his first full season with the club and was eventually recalled as Chicago dealt with multiple injuries on the defensive side. Olsen thinks the game well and can read plays in his own zone. At 6'2 and 214 pounds, he can also play the body and use his strength to dictate the action in his defensive end.
Prospect of the Year: Brandon Saad, LW, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)
One of the biggest steals of the 2011 NHL Draft, few expected Brandon Saad to have the massive success he has in 2011-12. He worked on preparing for training camp over the summer and wound up making a shorthanded Blackhawks lineup to begin the season. Though he was assigned to the OHL after two NHL games, Saad continued to exert his dominance, registering nine goals and nine assists in his first eight games back with Saginaw. He missed some time to injury prior to the World Juniors tournament, but was still chosen to represent the U.S. at the tournament. It was a disappointing showing for the entire American team and especially for Saad, who was held off the score sheet entirely in three games and scored just one goal in the team's four losses.
Nonetheless, he returned to Saginaw and kept up his production, helping the team make the playoffs. He continued to pour it on in the postseason with eight goals and 17 points through 12 games but the Spirit were unable to get past the London Knights in their second round series. An early playoff exit in the OHL however meant an appearance in the NHL playoffs for Saad, as he played 13 minutes in game four of Chicago's first round match against Phoenix.
Saad's early showing in Chicago and manhandling of the OHL have the 19-year-old forward poised for a roster spot with the 'Hawks heading into the 2012-13 season.
Skating has long been the strongest point of Mirko Hoefflin's skill set and he has only accentuated that speed with a stronger all-around game in his two years in the Quebec league. As an all-situations player for Acadie-Bathurst this season, Hoefflin grew into a reliable defensive forward and penalty killer in addition to a creative player with the puck on his stick. The German winger's blazing speed is the main reason he has been able to find open space and compete at both ends despite his slight stature at 6'0 and 166 pounds.
The nod for hardest shot, one of the more difficult categories to judge, goes to Dylan Olsen. The defenseman's cannon of a slap shot from the blue line has been seen and heard in both Rockford and Chicago this season and was one of his strong points dating back to his draft year in 2010. Shot accuracy may not be a strength yet as Olsen registered 53 shots in 44 AHL games and hit the net only 16 times in 28 NHL games this year, but he also plays with patience and doesn't try to force the puck on net very often. Though he may never develop into a big scorer on the blue line, Olsen's booming shot still gives him a valuable asset in the offensive zone.
Andrew Shaw has been one of the feel-good stories of the Blackhawks season. Drafted in the 5th round in his third year of eligibility, Shaw began the year on an AHL contract with Rockford. He stormed up the depth chart with the IceHogs, scoring 12 goals and 21 points in his first 33 AHL before being signed to a pro contract by Chicago and recalled in January. Though he was returned to Rockford for a couple weeks in February, Shaw has been with the 'Hawks for a majority of their stretch run. He has scored several important goals en route to 12 tallies and 23 points in 37 NHL games. His eagerness to get his nose dirty around the net and continually plugging away on the forecheck have been valuable additions to the 'Hawks lineup. In the playoffs, Shaw's edgy style has already impacted the team's first round series against Phoenix as an early hit on Radim Vrbata knocked out one of the Coyotes best scorers and his collision behind the net with Mike Smith has been a hot topic for supplementary discipline.
For all of his success this season, the 20-year-old Shaw is still a complementary forward rather than someone who will carry a line. Though his hands in around the net will always allow him to score goals, he will likely struggle to sustain the .62 points per game mark he established this season. At 5'10 and 180 pounds, his aggressive style will also not be kind on his body.
Underachiever: Shawn Lalonde, D, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
After 32 points in 73 games in 2010-11, his rookie year, Lalonde managed just two goals and 13 points in 64 games this season. The 22-year-old finished fifth in points among defensemen in Rockford behind such players as stay-at-home blueliner Ryan Stanton as well as rookies Joe Lavin and Ben Youds.
While the production may speak for itself, Lalonde's play was just not at the same level as he had previously shown. He appeared to lack confidence at times throughout the season and continued to make ill-advised plays with the puck on his stick, leading to less trust from the coaching staff and a decreased role. Despite his willingness to jump into the play and his normally aggressive play with the puck, Lalonde finished the season with 101 shots on net, 40 fewer than a year ago. He also racked up the penalty minutes with an even 100 and was one of only four IceHogs to crack the 100 penalty minute mark. Like Beach, Lalonde is entering the third and final year of his entry-level contract and may be down to his last shot at standing out within the organization in 2012-13.
Highest Risk/Reward prospect: Kyle Beach, LW, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
As mentioned earlier, Beach showed an ability to produce in bunches in his limited appearances during the 2011-12 season. He opened the season with four points in three games and added another four points in his first six games back from the shoulder injury. A former 50-goal scorer in the WHL, there is no shortage of offensive potential in Beach's game. Between missed time and questionable decisions on the ice, however, he is still working towards that ceiling.
The Chicago organization is flush with complementary forwards, so there is no shortage of work ethic in the system. That said, few prospects have displayed such an unrivaled eagerness to improve as Phillip Danault, taken in the first round, 26th overall, in 2011. The 19-year-old forward was named captain of his hometown Victoriaville team at the age of 17, before he was even drafted into the NHL. That was in large part because of a non-stop motor and willingness to do the little things to make his team successful. From his work at the faceoff dot to his eagerness to work in the dirty areas, Danault shows an eye for the details of the game and the nonstop motor to make it all happen.
Breakout player for 2012-13 season: Kyle Beach, LW, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
If not for a shoulder injury that kept him out of action for nearly five months, Kyle Beach may have had a much larger impact on the Chicago organization this season. Now that he is set to enter the third and final year of his rookie contract in 2012-13, it is do or die time for the power forward. Beach had a quick start to his season with three goals and six points in his first eight games before injuring his shoulder in a fight with Peoria's Stefan Della Rovere (STL). While prospects such as Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes were called up to Chicago to support the forward corps, Beach was rehabbing his injury and out of the mix. That will not be the case next year if he can stay healthy and the 22-year-old winger can be expected to make some noise, either on the score sheet or with his cantankerous style of play.