Depth at center and on defense strengths of Chicago Blackhawks’ system

By Brad Gardner
Dylan Olsen - Chicago Blackhawks

Photo: One of the top defensive prospects in the Chicago Blackhawks prospect pool, Dylan Olsen will look to continue rounding out his game in Rockford in 2012-13. (courtesy of Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

 
A significant number of early-round draft picks in recent years have put the Chicago Blackhawks system among the deepest organizations in the league. Although there may not be much in the way of blue-chip talent, the system has multiple NHL-caliber prospects at each position and plenty of players competing at the AHL level.

The strengths of the system are undoubtedly at center and on defense, positions on which the Blackhawks have put a premium at the draft and in their development process. The center prospects in the ‘Hawks system include four first-round picks, which should in time help the big club address one of the most pivotal weaknesses. The team’s defensive pipeline will be expected to churn out players over the next few years as well, but the team’s summer signing indicate that they will give the blue line prospects plenty of time to develop at the AHL level before giving them a prominent roster spot.

Left Wing

Led by Brandon Saad, the left wing position has plenty of size and scoring ability. Saad is making his professional debut in 2012-13 with Rockford after playing two regular season and two playoff games with the Blackhawks last season. He was off to a slow start and then missed several games with injury in the early-going, but the 20-year-old winger will still be expected to be a top contributor in the Rockford offense. His first weekend back from injury showed that he is still capable of making some explosive offensive plays. Should the NHL season get underway, Saad will find himself contending for a roster spot in Chicago.

Also in Rockford are Kyle Beach, Jeremy Morin, and Brandon Bollig. All three are tough customers that can put the puck in the net. Beach showed off his multi-faceted game in the early-going of 2012-13 as he was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for a five-point weekend to open November. The 22-year-old Beach received the award in a suit prior a game for which he would not play because he had been suspended for a high hit on Grand Rapids' defenseman Brendan Smith (DET) the previous night. One of the few top prospects without an NHL game on his resume, Beach's quick shot and tendency to get under the skin of the opposition makes him one of the top players to watch on the 'Hogs as he works his way towards a shot with the big club.

Morin is another winger on the Rockford roster who can fill up the score sheet and is not afraid to throw his body around. The 21-year-old has 12 NHL games over the last two seasons, but he has been moved up and down the lineup as he has worked his way back from a significant head injury that kept him on the shelf for much of 2011. So far in 2012-13, Morin is tied for second on the 'Hogs with four goals and ranks fifth with seven points in 12 games.

Bollig is not the goal-scorer that Beach or Morin are, but for his part he does lead the team with 46 penalty minutes in 12 games. The 25-year-old Bollig, who played 18 regular season games and four playoff games for the Blackhawks last season, has a pair of goals and a pair of fighting majors for Rockford in 2012-13. He may not project as more than a fourth-line player in the NHL, but he is yet another left wing prospect who can make an impact on a game.

Further down the depth chart, the Blackhawks have Philippe Paradis skating in a checking role with Rockford. His physical presence is at times unmatched by any other player on the team, but his inconsistent hands will likely keep him from skating in an AHL scoring role very often. College free-agent signing Terry Broadhurst is also at the pro level, but the extra bodies in Rockford forced him to begin his pro career with the Toledo Walleye in the ECHL. An offensively-talented but slight forward prospect, Broadhurst has six points through his first 12 games with Toledo.

At other levels of play, Garret Ross, drafted in 2012 at 20-years-old, returned to the OHL for an overage season with the Saginaw Spirit. He projects as a tough, physical checking line player when he does eventually make his pro debut. In the NCAA, Dan DeLisle has scored one goal through seven games in his senior season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The big winger has shown little at the college level so far in his career and is unlikely to be signed at the end of the year. 

Center

The Blackhawks' emphasis on the middle of the ice is apparent in looking at the center depth in the organization. Although a few of the prospects in this group were drafted as wingers, top prospects like Teuvo Teravainen and Phillip Danault have shifted to center and made it a major strength of the system.

Teravainen, the club's first-round pick in 2012, returned to Jokerit in the SM-liiga for the 2012-13 season. Not an especially big forward at 5’11 and 169 pounds, the 18-year-old Finn has nonetheless found success at the pro level in Finland at an early age. A broken finger has kept him out of the lineup, but he should get some games in with Jokerit before he pushes for spot on the World Junior Championship roster. If his performance at Chicago's prospect camp over the summer was any indication, Teravainen will likely have a chance to make the transition to North America within the next season or two.

Danault, another first-round pick, is playing his final season in the QMJHL with his hometown Victoriaville Tigres. An exciting winger with great speed and feel for the game, the 19-year-old Danault will be on Team Canada's radar when it comes time to select the WJC roster. His ability to play wing or center and play effectively in any role will give him a good chance at a roster spot, even if it is in an energy and penalty-killing role.

Fellow 2011 first-round pick Mark McNeill is also skating in his final season at the junior level with the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL. A strong centerman with good size, McNeill is more of a calm and calculated player compared to Danault's nonstop motor. He is strong on his skates and capable of imposing his will physically at the junior level, but he will face a tougher test at the pro level next season.

Brandon Pirri is the top center prospect in Rockford, where he leads the team in goals (6) and points (11) through 12 games. The IceHogs's center depth was bolstered when Marcus Kruger was assigned to the club due to the lockout and veteran pivot Martin St. Pierre was brought back into the fold, but it has still been Pirri that has had the biggest hand in the team's offense and power play. Not likely to succeed in the NHL as a checking line player, Pirri will have to prove he can hold down a spot on a scoring line if he is to stick in Chicago.

Further down the IceHogs lineup, Rob Flick has stuck with the AHL club as the fourth-line center. Although he may not project as more than a grinder at the NHL level, Flick's blend of size and skill could get him a look in that sort of role down the road. With prospects Byron Froese and David Gilbert jockeying for position in Toledo for a return to Rockford, Flick may have some competition at some point during the season. Froese especially is off to a strong start with the Walleye, ranking third on the team with nine points in 13 games.

Kevin Hayes, the 24th overall pick in 2010, is the Blackhawks' top center prospect not playing professional hockey. In his junior season at Boston College, Hayes is second on the team five goals and fourth with nine points through nine games. A bulk of that production has come with the man advantage, including four of his five goals. He may play out the remainder of his college eligibility, but whether or not his game translates to the speed of the pro level will go a long way in determining his ultimate upside for the 'Hawks.

Alex Broadhurst is in his first OHL season with the London Knights, where he has skated in a top-six role and on special teams for his new club. He has good hockey sense and skating ability, and he currently ranks fourth on the Knights with 16 points through 20 games.

In Sweden, Joakim Nordstrom is in his second full season in the Swedish Elite League with AIK. Through 16 games, he has already surpassed his goal and point totals from last season with four tallies and seven points. His ice time has also increased, now up to around 15:30 per game so far this season, and he has notched one shorthanded goal and one power-play goal for the club already this year.

Bartlett, Illinois native Vince Hinostroza was a late round pick in 2012, skating in his third USHL season with the Waterloo Black Hawks. The 5’9 center is again among the team’s offensive leaders in his final junior season before joining Notre Dame in 2013-14.

Right Wing

Although right wing may not be as strong in number as the other forward positions, it nonetheless features several prospects with NHL experience alongside some long-term projects with significant upside.

At the pro level, the likes of Andrew Shaw, Jimmy Hayes, and Ben Smith have all made their mark at the NHL level. The lockout has forced the trio back to Rockford, where they are jockeying for position in anticipation of NHL training camps. Shaw has not been as effective for the 'Hogs in the early-going of 2012-13 and he earned a six-game suspension for jumping off the bench to come to the aid of teammate Dylan Olsen.

Jimmy Hayes has been an important contributor for Rockford, skating with the top-six forwards and even spending some time at center. His four goals put him in a tie for second on the team while his eight points rank fourth. He has never been a dominant physical player, but he will have to use his size to his advantage if he is going to reach his potential at the NHL level. A significant role in Rockford should help him round out his game before the next opportunity to skate with the 'Hawks.

Smith's impact thus far in 2012-13 may not be obvious on the score sheet, but his two-way play and hockey IQ have still made him a key piece in Rockford's top-nine forwards. One of the club's top penalty-killers as well as an alternate captain, Smith has only three points (all goals) in 12 games. That said, his workmanlike playing style and knowledge of the game have made him an indispensable player for IceHogs head coach Ted Dent.

At the Junior 'A' level the Blackhawks have 2012 third-round pick Chris Calnan developing with the EJHL's South Shore Kings. The league gave Calnan the opportunity to take a step up in the level of competition while also remaining close to home. He will matriculate at Boston College for the 2013-14 season, keeping the Blackhawks pipeline at BC active.

Maxim Shalunov, a fourth-round pick in 2011, opened his 2012-13 season in the KHL with Chelyabinsk. The 19-year-old winger has an extremely quick release on his wrist shot and good offensive instincts. Those skills will be on display as he skates with Team Russia in the Subway Super Series and possibly with the WJC club in Ufa.

Defense

The Blackhawks' blue line depth remains the backbone of the organization with six defensive prospects playing in the AHL and ten more developing at lower levels. Half of the organization's defensive prospects were third-round picks or higher, leaving the Blackhawks with a deep and diverse group of prospects.

Adam Clendening and Dylan Olsen are the team's top prospects in Rockford. Clendening missed some games early in the season due to injury, but he has still been a productive player from the back end with a goal and four points in nine games. Although not a big defenseman at 5’11 and 187 pounds, the 20-year-old Clendening does not back down from the physical game. He is aggressive in getting the puck on net and should play a significant role on the Rockford power play in his rookie pro season.

After a solid stint in Chicago in 2011-12, Olsen has struggled to dominate the AHL level as might have been hoped. He has been a healthy scratch already in the young season and has only 10 penalty minutes and a minus-four rating to show for the seven games he has played. Olsen is not equipped to produce a lot of points, but he was likely expected to bring more of a presence to the blue line than he has to date.

The more consistent player in the defensive end has been Ryan Stanton, a 2011 free-agent signing out of the WHL. He and Joe Lavin have both provided a steady, balanced game for the IceHogs so far in 2012-13. They are not shy about getting involved in the physical game, and both usually make sound plays when the puck is on their stick. Lavin is the more mobile of the two, but each brings enough to the table defensively to get a shot in a third-pairing role at some point. 

Shawn Lalonde and Klas Dahlbeck are the final two defensive prospects at the pro level. Lalonde is in the third year of his entry-level contract. After a couple of rough seasons to kick off his pro career, Lalonde will have to impress if he is to remain in the team's long term plans. So far this season, he has watched some games from the press box but is still tied for the lead amongst Rockford's defensemen with four points in eight games. Dahlbeck, a 6'2 stay-at-home blueliner, is in his first season of North American hockey this season in Rockford. He stepped into a crowded situation with the IceHogs but will get his chances.

By far the strength of the defensive corps is the group of college prospects, led by 2010 second-round picks Stephen Johns and Justin Holl. The 20-year-old Johns is an imposing presence on the blue line. A junior at Notre Dame University, he sets the tone with his physical play and chips in on the score sheet with four assists through nine games. Holl is now in his junior season at the University of Minnesota, where he has emerged as one of the team’s top defensive options. Although the smooth-skating Holl has yet to break through on the score sheet at the college level, he is capable of moving the puck well and pinching in offensively.

Three underclassmen, Nick Mattson, Michael Paliotta, and Sam Jardine, are looking to build on strong 2011-12 seasons. Mattson burst onto the scene early in his freshman season at North Dakota but cooled off in the second half. He has three assists through eight games in 2012-13, skating in a top-four role alongside senior Andrew MacWilliam (TOR). Paliotta also had a strong freshman season and will look to earn an expanded role as a sophomore at Vermont. He has been a top defensive option so far for the team and has the size, nastiness, and offensive upside to quickly climb up the Blackhawks' depth chart. Jardine is in his freshman season at Ohio State after another productive season for Camrose in the AJHL. Another smooth-skating blueliner, Jardine should develop into an all-situations blueliner for the Buckeyes as he adjusts to the college level.

Chicago also has three senior defensemen at the NCAA level in Denver's Paul Phillips, Cornell's Braden Birch, and North Dakota's Joe Gleason. Phillips is wearing the captain's C for the Pioneers in his final season and being deployed in all situations. The 6’1 Phillips is a smart player with plenty of heart that will likely earn a pro contract after the season, whether it be an NHL deal with Chicago or an AHL contract. Birch was a finalist for the ECAC Defensive Defenseman of the Year award last season and has picked up where he left off as a shutdown player and co-captain for Cornell in his senior season. Gleason, who skated at forward for much of last season, has played defense in all eight games for the Sioux and been paired mostly with Dillon Simpson (EDM) in the early-going.

Despite the talent developing in the NCAA, 2012 second-round pick Dillon Fournier may be the Blackhawks' best defensive prospect outside of the pro level. Now in his second season with Rouyn-Noranda, Fournier has emerged as one of the top contributors on the team's talented blue line. He also suited up for the QMJHL with Danault in the Subway Super Series. The 18-year-old defenseman is an effortless skater with good puck skills. Filling out and improving his play in his own zone will be key to his development, but Fournier logs a ton of ice time for the Huskies and the Blackhawks can afford to be patient with him.

Travis Brown is also at the CHL level, where he skates with the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors. The 18-year-old blueliner carried over the success and confidence he found during his draft season into the 2012-13 season. He ranks third on the Warriors with 18 points in 22 games, nearly keeping pace with the team's other dynamic offensive talent in fifth-overall pick Morgan Rielly (TOR).

Goaltending

The Blackhawks' depth in net is strong in numbers but is without a true standout prospect. Carter Hutton has had some good runs in Rockford and has been given the reigns early in the 2012-13 season. Through 10 appearances, he has a 4-5-1 record, .901 save percentage, and 2.81 goals against average. His back-up, Alec Richards, has appeared in only three of Rockford's 12 games, one of which was a relief appearance. He has struggled with a .833 save percentage in that limited playing time.

Kent Simpson is also playing at the pro level and is beginning his pro career in the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye, an affiliate shared with the Detroit Red Wings. He shared the load with Petr Mrazek (DET) to open the season, but after the Wings' top goalie prospect was recalled to Grand Rapids, it has been Jordan Pearce suiting up with Simpson.

Mac Carruth was signed to a pro contract over the summer but ended up returning to Portland in the WHL for an overage season. He may not see another 85 starts as he did during the regular season and postseason in 2011-12 as the club has utilized a more balanced workload between Carruth and the highly-touted Brendan Burke. The 20-year-old Carruth has made his case early, winning all nine of his starts so far, including a pair of shutouts. His save percentage currently leads the league at .963 to go along with a stellar 0.97 goals against average.

Also developing in the CHL is 2012 seventh-round pick Brandon Whitney. He has shouldered a majority of the starts for the Victoriaville Tigres with mixed results so far in 2012-13. He has a 8-5-2 record through 17 appearances along with a .897 save percentage and 3.07 goals against average. The 6'5 goaltender should get a chance to work through some of his issues with the even less experienced Guillaume Decelles as his main challenger for playing time.

Fellow 2012 pick Matt Tomkins and 2011 pick Johan Mattsson are each tending net at the Junior 'A' level in 2012-13. Both players are examples of Chicago's tendency towards adding goaltending depth late in the draft, and as such, both are more long-term projects than surefire pro prospects. Matt Tomkins is in his second year with the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the AJHL and has earned a 6-3-1 record, .899 save percentage, and 3.27 goals against to open his season. After spending the 2011-12 season in the OHL with Sudbury, Mattsson found himself on the outside looking in and joined the Tri-City Storm in the USHL. He has won five of his 10 appearances with a .921 save percentage and 2.49 goals against average.

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