While there are no plans for the Chicago Blackhawks to take the ice in the forseeable future, many of the team's top prospects will still be playing with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL as well as in junior, college, and European leagues around the world. Several prospects will transition to new levels of play while others will look to gain a foothold among the competition in the Chicago system. Below are a few of the interesting storylines headed into the 2012-13 season.
Top Pro Prospect
Brandon Saad, LW, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Saad was penciled into the 2012-13 lineup in Chicago after his outstanding training camp performance in 2011 earned him a two-game debut to open the season and another pair of games in the playoffs. His assignment to Rockford due to the lockout has erased those plans for now but will give the 19-year-old winger a chance to skate in significant minutes for what promises to be a competitive IceHogs team.
At 6’1” and 202 pounds, Saad is solidly-built and should have no problem competing in the physical aspects and keeping up with the speed of the pro game. The telling signs regarding his transition will be in his game-to-game consistency and confidence with the puck. When he is on, Saad should be a primary contributor in Rockford and will have a chance to stake his claim to spot with the Blackhawks should the season be played.
Kyle Beach, LW, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
The highest drafted player in the Blackhawks' system, the 11th overall pick in 2008 lost much of his second pro season to a severe shoulder injury suffered during a fight. He will be looking to bounce back from the injury in 2012-13 but will have plenty of competition in the Rockford lineup.
For a player who has had his attitude and maturity questioned from the beginning, Beach seems to be headed in the right direction on and off the ice. It was no small feat for him to return to the Rockford lineup late last season to aid in a playoff push, especially considering how far away the playoffs looked for the IceHogs throughout much of his rehab. There is little question that Beach's blend of size, skill, and attitude would be a good fit in Chicago, but he will first have to get off to a good start in Rockford.
Unsigned for 2013-14
Shawn Lalonde, D, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
A third-round pick in 2008, Lalonde's offensive success at the junior level with Belleville led to high hopes for the offensive-minded defenseman's transition to the pro level. He is an excellent skater on the back end and a dangerous player when the puck is on his stick, but turnovers and uneven performances have kept him from establishing a steady role in the Rockford defensive corps. The 22-year-old blueliner will be a restricted free agent after the season, but will have to earn that qualifying offer during the 2012-13 season among a deep group of defensemen in the organization.
Lalonde spent a majority of the 2011-12 season skating on the third-pairing and his power play time dwindled, even after veteran power play quarterback Brian Connelly was traded to Calgary in January. The competition will be even tougher this year with highly-regarded defenseman Adam Clendening making his pro debut, Nick Leddy in the AHL due to the NHL lockout, and more reliable defensive options ahead of him on the depth chart such as Dylan Olsen, Joe Lavin, and Ryan Stanton also set to return to Rockford. If he is unable to get off to a quick start, Lalonde may have trouble consistently cracking the IceHogs lineup.
Victoriaville was upset in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs in 2012, but Danault returned to his hometown junior club looking to extend their run this season. The team's captain and a key player in all situations, Danault has also been the club’s primary faceoff man to open the season. With fellow-Blackhawks prospect Brandon Whitney in net, the Tigres are a team to watch while there is no hockey being played at the United Center in Chicago.
If the Blackhawks do eventually hold a training camp this season, Danault is sure to get an invite if only to gauge where he is at compared to some of the team's pro prospects. A spot on Canada's World Junior Championships roster is also a distinct possibility for the scrappy forward, particularly after a strong showing in a checking line role and on the penalty kill for his country at the recent Canada-Russia Challenge. Until then he will get plenty of opportunity in Victoriaville to round out his game and take the Tigres to new heights.
Dillon Fournier, D, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
The Blackhawks' second-round pick in the 2012 draft, eyes will be on Fournier during the 2012-13 season to see how bounces back from a shoulder injury that prematurely ended his draft season after 52 games. The 18-year-old defenseman may not have much time to ease back into the lineup because he is expected to play significant minutes in Rouyn-Noranda this season.
With a 6'2" frame and excellent skating ability, Fournier fits the profile of the mobile, puck-moving blueliner that the team has coveted in recent drafts. The fact that he is expected to play such a big role for the Huskies this season should only aid his development in terms of rounding out his game and giving him a chance to prove he can be successful at both ends while logging big minutes.
Part of the Green Bay Gamblers USHL Championship team last season, Alex Broadhurst will make his major junior debut with the London Knights in 2012-13. Originally committed to play college hockey at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, the Knights used a second round pick in the CHL Entry Draft on the 19-year-old forward after Broadhurst’s academic eligibility came into question.
A smart, versatile center, Broadhurst can provide offensive skill to the lineup while also holding down a spot on the penalty kill. In fact, he proved capable of doing both by recording the first shorthanded hat trick in USHL history during the playoffs last season. A quick transition to the higher skill level in the OHL will put Broadhurst in in position for an invite to the Team USA World Juniors selection camp in December.
Top Amateur Prospect
Kevin Hayes, C, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Kevin Hayes will be tasked with building on a sophomore season that included career-highs on the score sheet and another National Championship in the Boston College trophy case. He skated with the Eagles' top-six forwards, including time with Chris Kreider (NYR) on his wing last year, and finished his second college season with 28 points in 44 games.
Hayes is now one of only six upperclassmen at the forward position for Boston College, so he may be expected to shoulder more of the load offensively. As long as he continues to play a dependable game at both ends of the ice, he should maintain his top-six status on what appears to be another potent Eagles team.
Unsigned Amateur Prospect
Braden Birch, D, Cornell University Big Red (ECAC)
Three defensive prospects in the Chicago system are heading into their senior season at the NCAA level. The 6'3" and 192-pound blueliner Braden Birch may be the best equipped for the pro game from a physical standpoint, but the reliable, hard-working Paul Phillips and the more offensive-minded Joe Gleason are also in the discussion when it comes time to sign contracts next spring.
A physical, shutdown defenseman, Birch was a finalist for the ECAC Men's Best Defensive Defenseman Award last season. He is not quite as mobile as the others in the system, but his size and physical ability make him stand out among the organization’s other defensive prospects. Birch, along with Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Nick D'Agostino, will be the only seniors on the Cornell blue line in 2012-13 and should both see ample ice time for the Big Red.
Freshman to Watch
Sam Jardine, D, Ohio State University Buckeyes (CCHA)
While other Blackhawks defensive prospects like Justin Holl, Nick Mattson, and Michael Paliotta have NCAA experience under their belt, yet another intriguing blue line prospect in Sam Jardine will be making his debut at the college level in 2012-13.
Jardine spent the previous two seasons with the Camrose Kodiaks, the same AJHL team that produced Dylan Olsen. A stalwart defensive player in all situations last season in Camrose, Jardine has the awareness, offensive skill, and work ethic to be an impact player for Ohio State. Considering Chicago's depth on the blue line ahead of him, Jardine will have as much time to develop as he needs with the Buckeyes.
Top European Prospect
Teuvo Teravainen, LW/C, Jokerit (SM-liiga)
For the second consecutive year, the Blackhawks felt they had excellent value slide to them in the first round at 18th overall. Finnish forward Teuvo Teravainen is a supremely skilled playmaker who made a quick splash in Chicago with a standout performance at the Blackhawks' prospect camp in July. His vision and passing ability are outstanding and he is a slippery player that can control the puck despite his relatively small build at 5’11”, 169 pounds.
Although more strength will be necessary for his eventual adjustment to the North American ice surface, Teravainen had a successful pro transition in the 2011-12 season for Jokerit. His arrival coincided with better play by the team as a whole, specifically on the power play where he controlled the action from the half boards. Teravainen has at least one more season ahead of him overseas and a likely spot with Finland at the WJC in December, but don't be surprised if the Blackhawks expect to slot the talented Finn into the lineup within a year or two.
First Year Pro to Watch
Maxim Shalunov, RW, Belie Medvedi Chelyabinsk (MHL)
Although he has opened his 2012-13 season in Russia's junior league, the MHL, Maxim Shalunov should eventually get another crack at the pro level this year. A winger with good size and a nose for the net, Shalunov has posted strong MHL numbers in Russia and even got a six-game audition with the KHL club the season after he was drafted 15th overall in the KHL draft by Chelyabinsk in 2010.
Whether it is in the KHL or VHL, Russia's second-tier pro league, the next step for Shalunov's development will be to ply his trade against professional competition. If the strengths he has shown at the junior level and international levels such as puck control, ability to find openings in the offensive zone, and a strong shot can transition smoothly to the next level, then Shalunov's stock will be on the rise within the Blackhawks' system.