Blackhawks Top 20 prospects

By Guy Flaming

The following Top 20 list is a snapshot in time of the prospect depth pool currently held by the Chicago Blackhawks. Comments from the players or anonymous scouts from around the leagues were collected over the last few months and while they appear in this project, they were not necessarily given for it at the time.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Cam Barker, D – 19 – Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
2. Brent Seabrook, D – 20 – Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL)
3. Anton Babchuk, D – 20 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
4. Corey Crawford, G – 20 – Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
5. Craig Anderson, G – 23 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
6. Michal Barinka, D – 20 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
7. Dave Bolland, C – 19 – London Knights (OHL)
8. James Wisniewski, D – 21 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
9. Rene Bourque, LW – 23 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
10. Matt Ellison, RW – 21 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
11. Pavel Vorobiev, RW – 23 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
12. Mikhail Yakubov, C – 23 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
13. Lasse Kukkonen, D – 23 – Karpat (SM-Liiga)
14. Matt Keith, RW – 22 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
15. Mike Brodeur, G – 22 – Greenville Grrrowl (ECHL)
16. Jonas Nordqvist, C – 22 – Lulea (SEL)
17. Colin Fraser, C – 20 – Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
18. Bryan Bickell, LW – 19 – Ottawa 67’s (OHL)
19. Duncan Keith, D – 21 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
20. Jakub Sindel, C – 19 – Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)

The Top 20 is based on long-term impact on the organization and is not a reflection of who is closest to making the NHL. Players are assigned a grade (HF Prospect Rating) based on the projections and comments from both inside and outside the organization. Other factors that help determine ranking order to varying degrees include: player age, draft position, current league and team quality, location (North America or Europe) and foreseeable opportunity. Players are removed from the prospect list when they no longer meet the HF Prospect Criteria.

Key: Current Rank, (previous rank), Name, (position), age, 2004/05 team (league)

Draft Position, Grade, Projection.

1. (2) Cam Barker, D – 19 – Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL)
Draft: Round 1 (3rd Overall) 2004 Grade: 8B Projection: Top pairing power play quarterback

Cam Barker, Chicago’s first of many choices in 2004, has skated for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL for the past four seasons and is considered one of the best defensemen his age in the world.

In 2003-04 the smooth skating Barker racked up 65 points including 21 goals, which surpasses the best season former teammate Jay Bouwmeester ever had in the league (61 points in 2001-02). During this past regular season, Barker totaled 48 points in 52 games, a pace that would have beat own personal best in a full season.

There were two reasons Barker did not play a full 72 schedule with the Tigers, the first being his involvement with Canada’s gold medal winning World Junior squad. While the Winnipeg born rearguard only played three games in the tournament before sitting out due to a bout with mononucleosis, he had a positive impact on the team, scored a goal and enjoyed the experience completely.

“I took a lot of pride in trying to make that team and when I did, I learned a lot,” Barker told Hockey’s Future in February. “In the three weeks I was there I learned a ton of stuff and a lot of tips that I can keep with me so it was great.”

Unknown to most people this year was the fact that Barker played with the illness long before it was diagnosed in North Dakota. Tigers head coach Willie Desjardins felt that in hindsight, his premier defenseman had been sick for quite some time before the tournament began.

“He played with it for awhile, I think he fought through with it for a long time where he just wasn’t very good,” said Desjardins. “You could see it in his color. He played for a month where he was just white and didn’t have any color in his face so I think he had it for a while before it was caught. He looked slow and people made comments on it but he was still playing and playing a lot and since he came back he just kept getting better and better.”

“I got rid of it in about three weeks, I just had to wait another three weeks for my spleen to come down,” explained Barker. “I’ve heard of guys who have been out for a year so I was pretty fortunate.”

Medicine Hat is currently locked in a second round playoff series with the Prince Albert Raiders and had to go through seven games with the Red Deer Rebels in round one. Playing the Rebels means going against fellow Chicago prospects Colin Fraser and Jared Walker, but don’t think for a second that registered much with Barker.

“Off the ice we’re all pretty good buddies,” he said. “But when it comes to game time, there are no friends.”

Barker picked up five points in the series against Red Deer and was named as a game star twice.

2. (3) Brent Seabrook, D – 20 – Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL)
Draft: Round 1 (14th Overall) 2003 Grade: 8B Projection: Top pairing power play quarterback

There are a lot of similarities between Cam Barker and Brent Seabrook and the way each defenseman plays the game. Both are the offensive go-to guys for their WHL teams, lead their power plays and even have similar mannerisms on the ice. Seabrook is another smooth-skating defenseman who plays with a lot of patience and moves the puck extremely well, like his counterpart in Medicine Hat. And like Barker, Seabrook also represented Canada at the WJC this past winter.

After sitting out much of the pre-tournament exhibition schedule with a shoulder injury, Seabrook made it into five games in North Dakota and recorded three points, second best amongst Canadian defensemen.

“Brent had a shoulder injury and it took him a while to get back because there was nerve damage,” Lethbridge head coach Lindsey Hofford told Hockey’s Future in March. “Even though he played, he wasn’t at 100 percent because he didn’t have all his strength and it took a while to get it all back.”

Seabrook finished the WHL regular season campaign with 54 points for the Hurricanes, which was good enough for sixth in the league for defensive scoring. Along the way he received rave reviews from Hofford.

“Obviously he’s our quarterback back there, he’s solid defensively, and he’s got a great offensive presence out there as well,” said Hofford. “I think if you’re a first round draft pick as high as he went you’re going to have poise as a defenseman otherwise you’re not going to get picked. He can pick up guys and make the right play. He’s just the full package.”

With the duo of Barker and Seabrook, the Chicago backend is perhaps the best defensive prospect unit of all NHL teams. And that’s just two of the Hawks’ future players.

Seabrook has joined the Norfolk Admirals in the past few days on an amateur tryout contract.

3. (1) Anton Babchuk, D – 20 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: 1st Round (21st Overall) 2002 Grade: 8C Projection: Top pairing offensive defenseman

At 6’5 and 202lbs, Anton Babchuk is a physically imposing defenseman for forwards to try and beat one on one. The Russian born rearguard spent his second season with the Norfolk Admirals, Chicago’s AHL Affiliate, but saw his offensive production stagnate. Babchuk notched 22 points in his first AHL campaign and followed that up with 21 points in 63 games, not really a step back but certainly not one forward either. Considering he ended up fourth on the team in scoring by defensemen and was a team-worst -16, it would be accurate to describe Babchuk’s season as simply average, disappointing for someone of whom more is expected. He did deal with a shoulder injury this spring.

The sky is the limit in regards to Babchuk’s potential and the fact that the Russian is already playing in North America means the Hawks won’t have to worry about trying to convince him to come over from Europe. When the NHL returns to normal operations, Babchuk could be vying for a roster spot.

Babchuk was selected to play in the AHL’s All-Star game and dressed for the PlanetUSA side.

4. (8) Corey Crawford, G – 20 – Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
Draft: 2nd Round (52nd Overall) 2003 Grade: 8C Projection: NHL starting goaltender

There are scouts who will say that Corey Crawford was the best goaltending prospect in the QMJHL this past year. The Montreal born Crawford played in 51 games for the Moncton Wildcats and completed the year with an impressive 2.47 goals against average and a shiny .920 save percentage, both solid stats in the offensive league.

Crawford has spent four years with the Wildcats and has improved on his statistical markers every year. At 6’2, the 20-year-old has abundant size but it does not affect his speed. Some have called Crawford a game stealer and the fact that Moncton had the second least amount of goals against while only finishing sixth in points, there is some evidence to back up that claim.

At the midpoint of the year there were whispers that the Moncton goalie could be in the running for the league MVP although that distinction was eventually given to Sidney Crosby. However, Crawford did earn a nomination to the Second All-Star team at the conclusion of the QMJHL season.

5. (4) Craig Anderson, G – 23 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: 3rd Round (73th Overall) 2001 Grade: 6.5A Projection: NHL goaltender

Goaltender Craig Anderson was originally drafted by the Calgary Flames back in the third round of the 1999 Entry Draft. After failing to come to terms with the Flames, Anderson went back into the draft and was subsequently selected by the Blackhawks, again in the third round but four positions earlier than the time before.

Having played less than half of the Guelph Storm’s games during his first two years with the OHL club, Anderson knows what being part of a tandem system of goalies is all about. Following his tenure with Guelph, Anderson turned pro and played just 28 games with Norfolk in 2001-02 and only 32 the following year. That second professional outing did see a brief six-start call-up to the NHL though due to injuries.

Anderson split time again last year between the NHL and the AHL and played 58 games between the two leagues, slightly more than half a season.

Unfortunately, Anderson’s luck would run out and he would only play in 13 games for Norfolk during the lockout year due to a hip injury. Even worse news for Anderson is the fact that the Hawks have a plethora of goaltending prospects, most of whom appear to have higher top end potential than he does.

6. (10) Michal Barinka, D – 20 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: 2nd Round (59th overall) 2003 Grade: 6B Projection: Depth defenseman

At 6’3 and 200lbs, Michal Barinka is yet another big defenseman that the Hawks drafted to anchor their future blueline. The Czech born Barinka is a defensive defenseman completing his second year in Norfolk with Chicago’s AHL affiliate.

In 59 games Barinka has scored just once and added 11 assists while collecting 77 penalty minutes. He is –3 on the season. It’s been a step back for him from last season when he played well as a rookie and spent nine games with the Blackhawks.

7. (11) Dave Bolland, C – 19 – London Knights (OHL)
Draft: Round 2 (32nd overall) 2004 Grade: 7C Projection: Second line forward

As a member of the London Knights, Dave Bolland has helped rewrite the record books. The winning streak London enjoyed from the start of the year, the longest in CHL history, was just the beginning of a magical year for all the Knights including Bolland. By hosting the Memorial Cup in May, Bolland is guaranteed an appearance at the prestigious junior tournament, which should be a perfect cap to the year.

Bolland followed up last season’s 67-point effort with a terrific 85-point performance in 2004-05. A well-balanced player, Bolland was considered a possible first round pick last year and so the Hawks consider themselves fortunate to have been able to grab him early in the second round.

One scout commented last year that “I don’t look at him as little because he doesn’t play small; He looks and plays bigger than 5’11 and that style has not changed this year.”

A character player with a big heart, Bolland is a player that Chicago fans will quickly take to.

8. (9) James Wisniewski, D – 21 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: 5th Round (156th Overall) 2002 Grade: 6.5C Projection: Offensive defenseman

After a four-year junior career with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers that featured an impressive 70-point season in 2003-04, James Wisniewski turned pro and made the AHL roster in Norfolk. Notching a respectable 24 points and +5 thus far in the year, the 5’11 rearguard has delivered on any expectations placed on him at the beginning of the year.

His 105 penalty minutes are a career high and are almost equal to his last two seasons in Plymouth combined. The feisty blueliner has a strong shot and good mobility but is mired in an organization that has a plethora of better offensive defensemen prospects. Behind Barker, Seabrook and Babchuk already, there doesn’t appear to be much room for the native of Canton, MI.

9. (NR) Rene Bourque, RW – 23 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: Free Agent 2004 Grade: 6.5B Projection: Two-way forward

The Chicago Blackhawks deserve a lot of credit for one of the best free agent signings of the summer of 2004. By inking undrafted Wisconsin Badger Rene Bourque, the Hawks picked up the player who was just named AHL Rookie of the Year for 2004-05. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how a 6’2, 205lb winger that never scored less than 10 goals in any of his four college seasons, can slip through the cracks at draft time, but Chicago rectified the oversight.

To say that Bourque had a good season would be an understatement. His 33 goals thus far in 2004-05 have set a new franchise rookie record for Norfolk and not only was he named to the All-Star game but he came away winning the hardest slapshot competition clocking in a 99.8 mph blast.

The 23-year-old native of Lac La Biche, Alberta currently sits tied for third in the overall rookie-scoring race but leads the way when it comes to his eight game-winning goals.

10. (12) Matt Ellison, RW – 21 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: 4th Round (128th Overall) 2002 Grade: 7C Projection: Second line forward

Winger matt Ellison was a -10 player in his rookie year with the Norfolk Admirals but so far in his sophomore season the pride of Duncan, B.C. has turned that blemish completely around and can smile at his +8 rating.

Ellison played a single season in the WHL as a 20-year-old with the Red Deer Rebels where he amassed 96 points including 40 goals. After totaling 35 points last season for Norfolk, Ellison has already reached the 50-point plateau this year.

The 6’0 192lb forward is a bit of a sleeper considering he was a fourth round selection for the Hawks back in 2002. With Chicago’s rebuilding well underway, there might be room for a hardworking two-way player like Ellison with the big club.

11. (7) Pavel Vorobiev, RW – 23 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: Round 1 (11th Overall) 2000 Grade: 7C Projection: Second line forward

One player who has continued to slide down Chicago’s top 20 list is former ‘sure thing’ Pavel Vorobiev. After shooting up the rankings during his draft year the talented winger has had one good campaign with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in 2002-03 but followed that up with a pair of average seasons in Norfolk.

As an AHL rookie, Vorobiev scored 29 points in 57 games after getting into 18 NHL games with Chicago to start the year. The demotion was humbling for the native of Kazakhstan and onlookers felt that it affected the rest of the 2003-04 season.

This year started slowly for Vorobiev but the talented winger has picked up his game in the second half on the schedule. While his 42 points is nothing to get ecstatic about, he is approaching the 20-goal mark, which would be a notable accomplishment.

Still, more is expected from a first round pick, especially one chosen with the 11th overall selection, and Vorobiev will have to make an impact soon because his ‘prospect’ label has started to look more like ‘suspect’.

12. (6) Mikhail Yakubov, C – 23 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: 1st Round (10th Overall) 2000 Grade: 7C Projection: Second line forward

Much more has been expected of Mikhail Yakubov than what the 23-year-old Russian has delivered for Chicago so far in his North American pro career. After large chunks of three AHL seasons, the former first round pick of the Hawks has only managed to score 64 points and in no year did he reach the 30-point mark. In the 30 games the Hawks gave him in 2003-04, the 6’3 210 lb center only managed to light the lamp once and finished with just eight points.

After an 89-point season with the Red Deer Rebels in 2001-02, there were many who thought Yakubov might be able to slip right into a NHL jersey but having accomplished very little since then, some have begun to wonder if he is ever going to live up to those lofty expectations. This season he has 26 points in 56 games and is +1.

Like Vorobiev, Yakubov could probably make a lot of money playing in Russia and might consider that option rather than toil in the minors for much longer.

13. (13) Lasse Kukkonen, D – 23 – Karpat (SM-Liiga)
Draft: 5th Round (151st Overall) 2003 Grade: 6.5C Projection: Third pairing defenseman

Drafted as a 21-year-old blueliner out of the Finnish Elite League, the Hawks were likely hoping Lasse Kukkonen could step into their professional ranks in North America to help with their rebuilding process. Kukkonen played ten games for the Hawks last year, recording a single assist, and spent the rest of the season in the minors with Norfolk. In 59 games with the Admirals, the Finn totaled just 14 points.

Having spent the lockout back in Finland with Karpat, Kukkonen has been getting a lot of experience as his club team pushes its way through the post season. His 18 points in 55 games so far equals his best previous year mark back in 2002-03, has draft year.

At 6’0 and 187lbs, Kukkonen might be a little light for the NHL but he has good defensive zone habits and is a reliable player at any point in a game.

14. (17) Matt Keith, RW – 22 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: 2nd Round (51st overall) 2001 Grade: 6.5C Projection: Role-playing forward

Now in his sophomore year as a pro, Matt Keith has continued to develop as the Hawks had hoped. With 17 goals and 48 points in 77 games this year, Keith has nearly doubled his previous AHL totals. Having played 20 games for Chicago in 2003-04 is a clear indication that the organization feels the B.C. native has the ability to play at the highest level.

The 6’2 forward can play on either the wing or at center and is capable at both ends of the rink. Keith played parts of five different seasons for the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL but ended his career in Red Deer during the 2002-03 campaign.

15. (15) Mike Brodeur, G – 22 – Greenville Grrrowl (ECHL)
Draft: 7th Round (211th Overall) 2003 Grade: 6C Projection: NHL backup

As a junior in the WHL, Mike Brodeur helped backstop a strong Moose Jaw Warriors team to the third best record of 2003-04. The year before that, the Calgary product carried the Camrose Kodiaks to a Tier II AJHL title. Now as a 22-year-old, Brodeur is tending twine for Greenville in the ECHL as a rookie member of the Grrrowl. He has split time mostly with Mike Morrison, property of the Edmonton Oilers.

“[Brodeur]’s playing very well,” Greenville head coach John Marks told Hockey’s Future in February. “I think he’s got a real future. I know Chicago thinks he does too. He has a very good work ethic.”

With a 19-15-1 record, the lanky Brodeur had a regular season save percentage of .927 and a goals against average of 2.68. The Grrrowl are in the midst of a first round playoff series against the Pensacola Ice Pilots.

16. (NR) Jonas Nordqvist, C – 22 – Lulea (SEL)
Draft: 2nd Round (49th Overall) 2000 Grade: 6C Projection: Third line forward

On the positive side of the ledger, Jonas Nordqvist is a gifted playmaker with ability to score and has good hockey sense. His downside is that he’s no better than an average skater and isn’t nearly as physical as one would expect a 6’2, 200lb center to be.

Nordqvist is arguably among the top 20-25 Swedish prospects right now after scoring an impressive 16 goals and 16 assists in 49 games in his second consecutive season with Lulea of the Swedish Elite League.

Nordqvist turns 23 on April 26th.

17. (20) Colin Fraser, C – 20 – Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Draft: 3rd Round (96th Overall) 2003 PHI Grade: 6C Projection: Two-way center

As captain of the Red Deer Rebels and a representative of his country at the WJC, Colin Fraser has had a lot of character-building moments this year. The gritty two-way center was the inspirational leader of the Rebels again this year and was near the top of the team in a statistical meaning as well. His 67 points in 63 games were a personal high and for the fourth consecutive year Surrey, B.C. native registered well over 100 penalty minutes as well.

“Playing with Fraser you see what it takes every night,” complimented former teammate and 2005 draft eligible Blair Jones. “He’s a gritty player and he always comes to play; playing with guys like that can only help you.”

At the most recent World Junior Championships in North Dakota, Fraser was some what of a surprise addition to the team but with Red Deer coach Brent Sutter heading up Canada’s entry, he brought his captain along for the ride. Fraser exceeded all expectations and quickly put to rest any criticisms of Sutter’s hand-picking of him by scoring five points in the six games Canada played.

In the first round loss to Cam Barker and the Medicine Hat Tigers, Fraser notched seven points including three in the pivotal seventh game, a clear indication that Fraser has the ability to deliver when under pressure.

Fraser has joined the Norfolk Admirals in the past few days on an amateur tryout contract.

18. (NR) Bryan Bickell, LW – 19 – Ottawa 67’s (OHL)
Draft: 2nd Round (41st overall) 2004 Grade: 6C Projection: Two-way role player

The OHL’s Ottawa 67’s always seem to have some good prospects in their line-up each year, in large part thanks to legendary Head Coach and General Manager Brian Kilrea. When Chicago took Bryan Bickell in the second round, 41st overall, in last summer’s draft, they knew that the young power forward had another two years to work with “Killer.” The Hawks had had success with former 67’s star Mark Bell, a remarkably similar player to Bickell.

Bickell put up 20 goals and 36 points in a largely inconsistent sophomore season in 2003-04. This season he increased his production to 22 goals and 54 points, but once again failed to show any sort of consistency.

The Bowmanville, Ontario native has some fantastic tools and his upside rivals that of any forward in the system. A big and thick winger at 6’4 and 215 lbs, Bickell is a great skater with good top end speed. His hands are also very a major weapon offensively, which allows him to either go around or through a defender. While his offensive game was woefully inconsistent all season, his physical game was more constant. Not only is he a punishing hitter, but does not need a lot of speed to lay out players. Bickell’s shot could use some work, and there are questions about his hockey sense, but that is common with young power forwards.

Next year is an important year for Bickell, as he will be asked to play more of a leadership role on a younger team.

19. (19) Duncan Keith, D – 21 – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Draft: 2nd Round (54th Overall) 2002 Grade: 6C Projection: Depth defenseman

Talented defenseman Duncan Keith has good offensive upside, but at 6’0 and 182 lbs, is not a big physical specimen. After being drafted by Chicago in 2002, Keith returned to Michigan State for his sophomore year, which would eventually be his final NCAA outing. Partway through that season, Keith switched to the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL and recorded 46 points in just 37 games.

That offensive showing hasn’t translated to Keith’s professional career though. Now completing his second year in Norfolk, Keith has tallied two consecutive 25-point seasons. In an organization as deep on the blueline as Chicago is, it is hard to imagine Keith turning into much of a NHL player unless it was with a different team.

20. (14) Jakub Sindel, C – 19 – Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
Draft: 2nd Round (54th Overall) 2004 Grade: 7D Projection: Boom or bust scoring center

The Blackhawks had four second round picks in 2004, so they opted to take a couple of boom or bust players. The aforementioned Bryan Bickell was one of them, as was Sindel. Projected to go in the first round the entire season, the Czech sniper dropped on the big day.

Sindel’s 2003-04 season was spent with Sparta Praha of the Czech League, which is where he began play this season as well. After a disappointing fall which included failing to make the Czech World Junior squad, Sindel headed for the WHL, to join the Brandon Wheat Kings. Once there, he put up 16 goals and 29 points in 35 games with the club. It is no coincidence the club took off once Sindel arrived and made their second line that much more potent.

Compared to Czech snipers such as Martin Havlat and Milan Hedjuk before the draft, the big knock on Sindel has always been size and strength. A slender player at only 6’0 and 172 lbs, the Jihlava native was expected to have a much slower transition to the grinding WHL game than he did. An electric offensive talent with all the speed and talent to be a big scorer in the NHL, he has improved on his tendency to stick to the periphery instead of going into the tough areas on the ice. Although Sindel is a natural center, his future most likely lies on the wing, in part because of his size, but also considering his defensive game is adequate at best.

Missing the Cut

Nic Kuiper, Adam Berti, Adam Munro and Dustin Byfuglien.

Sean Keogh, Johan Nilsson and Holly Gunning contributed to this article. Comment on this article at the Chicago section of the Hockey’s Future Message Boards. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.