Chicago Blackhawks’ rookie Brandon Saad remains organization’s top prospect

By Brad Gardner
Brandon Saad - Chicago Blackhawks

Photo: Brandon Saad's third period shorthanded goal sealed a 2-1 victory over San Jose on February 22nd, marking the Blackhawks' record-setting 17th straight game without a regulation loss to open the season. (courtesy of Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

 
The Chicago Blackhawks have had the arsenal of picks to draft for both quantity and quality in recent years, leading to a prospect pool with both variety and depth. The team's top five prospects may stand out due to their overall upside and the likeliness that they will reach that level of play, but the rest of the list is far less clear cut as the prospects have yet to distance themselves from the pack.

The success of the NHL club in in the shortened 2013 season has meant that the pro level prospects have not been called upon as much as last season. The Blackhawks still have a number of forwards who seem to be on the cusp of another NHL opportunity, whether in Chicago or elsewhere.

Having established himself as the third line center and power play winger this season for the Blackhawks, Andrew Shaw, currently with 60 career NHL regular season games played, was considered graduated for the purposes of this ranking.

01. (01) Brandon Saad, LW, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2011

Given the opportunity to open the 2013 NHL season on the Blackhawks' top line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad has shown just why he is considered the club's top prospect. Not only does he have the skill to keep up with two of the league's top offensive players, but he has also succeeded in bringing a physical, north-south style to the line as well. He plays well around the net and does not shy away from battling in the corners or around the goal mouth.

While Saad has not produced many points yet on the top line, he has still made strides almost halfway through the NHL season. He has played with more confidence as the season as gone on, registering his first NHL goal against San Jose on February 5th and, in total, four goals and four assists in 22 NHL games this season.

Saad, the fourth player drafted by Chicago in 2011, stands as the first full-time NHL player to come out of the Blackhawks vaunted 2011 draft class. All three players drafted ahead of him are enjoying excellent seasons – and rank in the top five prospects on this list – but Saad's emergence this season has solidified his spot among Chicago's prospects.

02. (02) Teuvo Teravainen, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2012

The Blackhawks have an embarrassment of offensive riches on the NHL club, but that did not prevent them from taking a shot on another dynamic offensive talent with their first pick at the 2012 NHL Draft in Teuvo Teravainen. The slight Finnish center thinks the game at a high level and is already developing against professional competition with Jokerit in the SM-liiga.

He has 13 goals and 30 points in 42 games this season and ranks third on his team with six power play goals so far this season. Averaging 15:36 in ice time per game, Teravainen has had a bit of an inconsistent season but has nonetheless played a fairly prominent role for the top team in Finland.

The 18-year-old center's season also included a productive appearance for Team Finland at the 2013 World Junior Championships, scoring five goals and 11 points in six games. The team had a disappointing appearance overall, however, with a lot of their production coming against lower quality teams in the relegation round.

The lockout prevented Teravainen from measuring up against the Blackhawks' current roster, but if his showing at Chicago's prospect camp was any indication, it will not be long before the pivot is competing for a roster spot with the 'Hawks. Continuing to add strength and rounding out his defensive game will be key, but Teravainen seems to have the elusiveness and hockey IQ to develop into a potential difference-maker in the NHL.

03. (07) Adam Clendening, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2011

The most impressive performance among Chicago's prospects this season has been from Adam Clendening. After a productive college career at Boston University, Clendening turned pro in 2012-13 and has already established himself as one of the top defensive options for the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. He started off the season slow but burst onto the score sheet in mid-November with a stretch of 14 points in nine games, earning league accolades and establishing a top-pairing role defensively and on the power play.

After the lockout, Clendening's early-season defensive partner, Nick Leddy, was recalled to the NHL and Rockford lost some firepower up front with Saad, Marcus Kruger, and Andrew Shaw also joining the Blackhawks. The 'Hogs have been up-and-down since then and Clendening's production has been no different. His defensive zone play is still in need of improvement, but the rookie pro looks to be well on his way towards a big league role as a puck-moving blueliner.

04. (03) Phillip Danault, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 26th overall, 2011

Quebec league prospect Phillip Danault may have had an outside chance to compete for a bottom-six spot in Chicago had the 2012-13 season and training camps started on time. Instead, the 19-year-old Danault returned to his hometown club in Victoriaville to start the season. He joined Team Canada for the 2013 WJC, registering only one assist in an all-around disappointing showing for the squad. Upon his return to the QMJHL, he was traded to the Moncton Wildcats for prospects and picks. 

Danault has rewarded the steep price paid by Moncton by dominating since the move. He has scored 33 points and earned a plus-18 rating through 20 games with the Wildcats and should be a key offensive producer and centerman in every situation for the team heading into the league playoffs.

His speed, energy, and reliable two-way game makes him one of the surer bets among Chicago's forward prospects to make an impact at the next level sooner rather than later.

05. (04) Mark McNeill, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2011

After a relatively unspectacular post-draft year during the 2011-12 season with Prince Albert, who finished out of the WHL playoffs, Mark McNeill has helped key the club's turnaround this season. The Raiders got off to one of the best starts in the league, and although they have found wins harder to come by in 2013, the Raiders remain among the WHL's more potent offenses.

For his part, McNeill has displayed the consistency and dominance that the Blackhawks hoped to see out of him in his final junior season. He leads the team with 60 points through 59 games, despite missing time with Team Canada at the 2013 WJC as a replacement for a suspended Boone Jenner (CBJ). Prince Albert's top center in all situations, they will have to rely on McNeill to get the club back on track heading into the WHL playoffs.

06. (05) Brandon Pirri, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2009

The leading scorer in Rockford last season, Brandon Pirri remains a primary contributor for the Blackhawks' top farm club. The IceHogs' reacquisition of veteran Martin St. Pierre has eased some of the burden on Pirri, who still leads the team with 48 points through 56 games. He is among the team's top five goal scorers with 17 on the year, including six with the man advantage.

Pirri's offensive game is his calling card, and despite improvements in terms of his strength, skating, and defensive play over the course of his pro career, it will have to be his offense that gets him to the NHL. With Shaw and Kruger established in Chicago behind the veterans at the center position, Pirri may be on the outside looking in all season long barring further injuries down the middle for the Blackhawks.

07. (11) Stephen Johns, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2010

Stephen Johns has yet to play a pro game but his aggressive, physical game still puts him among the Blackhawks' top defensive prospects. The Pennsylvania native has size at 6'4 and over 220 pounds and plays with a mean streak, giving him a vastly different skill set than what is found anywhere else in the Blackhawks' organization. He has developed into a leader on his Notre Dame team for his ability to set the tone of a game and contribute at both ends of the rink. He has scored a goal and 12 assists through 36 games so far this season.

Johns is capable of moving the puck, although he may take some time to adjust to the speed of the pro game and the quicker decisions required of him when there is less space. The blueliner could turn pro as soon as next season.

08. (14) Ben Smith, RW, 6.5B
Drafted 6th round, 169th overall, 2010

Rockford's top performer early in the year was Ben Smith. The well-rounded winger serves as alternate captain for the 'Hogs and got off to the best start offensively, and even after missing a month of the season, is still among the team's top scorers with 17 goals and 29 points in 41 games. A hand injury suffered in a fight against Grand Rapids' Brennan Evans knocked Smith out of the lineup and has made it even more difficult for the team to maintain a consistent level of play.

Smith's injury had bigger ramifications on his own season, however, as it kept him out of Blackhawks' training camp for the second consecutive year. Although there were not many spots open in the lineup, his early season performance put him in the mix for a chance to stick with the NHL club. At this point, Smith will have to wait for injuries to create opportunities in Chicago, but he could very well get the chance if he is able to regain his early season form when he returns to the lineup.

09. (09) Jimmy Hayes, RW, 7.0C 
Acquired via trade with Toronto, June 26th, 2010

One of several Chicago prospects to see time with the NHL club during the 2011-12 season, Jimmy Hayes did not get the opportunity to return to Chicago for training camp after the lockout ended this season. His AHL season has been uneven to say the least. Nonetheless, considering his combination of size and soft hands, Hayes' upside is comparable to anyone in the middle of this list.

Blackhawks' brass wanted Hayes to take a turn at center early in the season, an experiment that has garnered mixed results at best the couple times it has been tried this season. His play has earned him time with the top line, but his season has not been without stints on the fourth line and everywhere in between. On the season, Hayes is still tied for first with 19 goals and ranks fourth on the team with 34 points through 55 games. 

10. (10) Jeremy Morin, LW, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with Atlanta (WPG), June 24th, 2010

Jeremy Morin missed a majority of the 2011 calendar year with a concussion and is finally regaining his from in the 2012-13 season. After an inconsistent start to the year, he has not been held scoreless for more than two consecutive games since he missed a few weeks due to injury. Morin put up 13 points in 11 February games, his most productive month of his pro career. 

He has not lost his nose for the net and is tied for the team lead with 19 goals, also ranking among the leaders on the IceHogs in shots. The 21-year-old winger leads the team with nine power play goals, helping that unit drive the IceHogs offense. Although his upside is as a goal-scorer at the NHL level, Morin's chippy, hard-nosed style is still present as well, making him yet another versatile forward in the Chicago system.

11. (13) Kevin Hayes, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 24th overall, 2010

Like Morin and his older brother Jimmy ahead of him, Kevin Hayes is a forward with the tools to potentially contribute in a scoring role for the Blackhawks. The younger Hayes brother had maintained his strong level of play in his junior season for Boston College, but it was cut short by injury in late February. The Eagles have another loaded lineup, but Hayes had been a solid contributor with six goals and 25 points in 27 games.

At 6'2 and 201 pounds, Hayes is not an overly physical player, but like his older brother, he can use his frame to protect the puck and create room for his linemates. He has proven to be an adept playmaker at the college level, but with no experience against the faster, more physical players at the pro level, Hayes' ranking in the bottom half of Chicago's prospects has as much to do with his relative lack of experience than his skills.

12. (06) Dylan Olsen, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 28th overall, 2009

Olsen has been clearly outplayed this season by many of the other defensemen in Rockford, including Swedish rookie Klas Dahlbeck, who has assumed a top-four role for the IceHogs. Joe Lavin and Ryan Stanton have also seen more playing time in a defensive role than Olsen, who was a healthy scratch or seventh defenseman on numerous occasions in the first half of the season.

To his credit, he has at least established a consistent spot in the lineup in recent weeks and been a bit more dependable when on the ice. Known more as a shutdown defender than a scorer, he has registered a pair of goals and seven points through 35 AHL games this season. After a 28-game stint with the Blackhawks last season, Olsen may not even be the top choice if the Blackhawks need a defender this year.

13. (18) Dillon Fournier, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 48th overall, 2012

Chicago's top defensive pick in the 2012 draft class has shown why the club felt strongly enough about his talent to use a second round pick despite the amount of time he missed due to injury in his draft year. Fournier's skating ability is the primary draw, particularly for a Blackhawks club that thrives on having mobile defensemen capable of getting the play going towards the offensive end.

As part of a strong blue line in Rouyn-Noranda, Fournier has six goals and 22 points through 53 games. Although not the point-per-game production of his defensive partner Mathieu Brisebois, Fournier has played a more defensively-reliable style. He has logged significant ice time in all situations for the Huskies, who have had a much stronger season thanks in part to a productive and healthy blue line.

14. (NR) Michael Paliotta, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2011

The Blackhawks' defensive pipeline has not been known to have a lot of size and physicality in recent years, but with Stephen Johns on the horizon, Dylan Olsen starting to get back on track at the pro level, and now Michael Paliotta emerging as a do-it-all defender for the University of Vermont, the organization now has several high-profile defensive-defensemen in the coffers.

Paliotta is still somewhat raw in terms of his game with the puck with only eight points in 31 games this season, but he has been a steady presence for the Catamounts this season in his own zone. Rarely do opposing forwards emerge from board battles against Paliotta with the puck, and even when they do, they can count on paying the price to keep it. The 6'3 blueliner does not miss a chance to take a shot at anybody, but he is also effective with his long reach in the defensive zone. Already a top option and leader on Vermont's blue line as a sophomore this season, do not be surprised if Paliotta's role increases going forward and he earns a letter before his college career is finished. 

15. (12) Kyle Beach, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2008

After missing most of his second pro season with a shoulder injury, Kyle Beach is back as a regular for the Rockford IceHogs. He has chipped in 14 goals, eight assists, and 159 penalty minutes through 48 games this season. His numbers may not jump out initially, but Beach's 12 even strength goals are as many or more than the likes of Pirri, Hayes, or Morin, who have all padded their goal totals on the power play.

The 23-year-old Beach is in the final year of his entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent in the summer. Whether or not the Blackhawks think he can bring a consistent enough effort to earn a bottom-six roster spot down the road will have an effect on his future with the team, but his NHL debut does not seem imminent given the number of possible forward call-ups that are ahead of him on the depth chart.

16. (19) Chris Calnan, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 79th overall, 2012

Third round draft pick Chris Calnan is playing a gap year in the EJHL with the South Shore Kings in 2012-13 before matriculating at Boston College next fall. He has been dominant at the junior 'A' level, leading his team in goals (27) and points (49) in only 31 games. He also led the team with two goals in two playoff games, but the Kings fell to the Valley Junior Warriors in the first round.

Calnan's stock rose sharply due to an outstanding performance at the 2012 NHL Draft Combine. Although he is still a raw prospect, Calnan will have the opportunity to work his way up the ranks at BC, and by extension these rankings, just as Blackhawks prospects like Ben Smith and the Hayes brothers have done in previous years.

17. (NR) Alex Broadhurst, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 199th overall, 2011

Making his debut in these rankings, Alex Broadhurst is amidst a stellar rookie season in the OHL. One year after leading the Green Bay Gamblers to a championship in the USHL, he has emerged as a secondary scorer and valuable two-way forward for the London Knights.

Broadhurst, the younger brother of Blackhawks' minor league winger Terry Broadhurst, ranks third on the Knights with 60 points, fifth with 23 goals, and third with a plus-31 rating through 61 games. A skilled playmaker with quick hands and good vision, Alex has made strides in his overall game as well. He earned an uptick in ice time after approaching London Head Coach Dale Hunter about playing on the penalty  kill, running away with the opportunity and earning the full confidence of his coaches. Broadhurst's improving game and USHL playoff experience will certainly come in handy as the Knights look to repeat as OHL champions. 

18. (16) Justin Holl, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2010

Golden Gophers' defenseman Justin Holl remains one of the club's primary shutdown options in his junior season. Although he has never put up a ton of points at the college level, the strides Holl has made in his defensive game in his time at Minnesota makes him a bit unlike any other blue line prospect in the system. This season Holl has two goals and six points in 29 games for the Gophers.

Holl's skating ability is still the thing that separates him from many other defensive prospects in the system. His slight drop on this list is due more to the strong performances of Calnan and Broadhurst than to anything Holl has done to hurt his stock.

19. (NR) Klas Dahlbeck, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 79th overall, 2011

The Blackhawks have found success with mid-round Swedish draft picks like Niklas Hjalmarsson and Marcus Kruger who have both graduated to the NHL club in recent years. Klas Dahlbeck has shown in his first season of AHL hockey that he possesses a similar style of intelligent, well-rounded play that translates well to North America.

Dahlbeck has only four assists through 50 games for Rockford this season, but his plus-eight rating is the best mark on the team. He has earned ice time in the top four with the IceHogs and seen the ice against some of the opponent's top lines. Fellow Rockford blueliners Ryan Stanton and Joe Lavin, both 23 years old, are also stay-at-home blueliners who could potentially fit into a third-pairing role for the Blackhawks, but at just 21 years old, Dahlbeck is still showing signs of improvement as he adjusts to the North American game.

20. (NR) Maxim Shalunov, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2011

Russian winger Maxim Shalunov is one of the better goal-scorers in the Chicago system. He has some size, although he does not play an overly physical game, and can use it well to protect the puck. Shalunov is not the best at creating his own chances but is stronger when skating with a playmaker; his best showings at Chicago's prospect camp last summer came when he played with Teravainen. He owns a quick release, and with more time to fill out and improve his overall game at the pro level, he could develop into a complimentary top-nine forward at the North American pro level.

Shalunov has spent the 2012-13 season in the Russian second and third tier leagues and also represented his country at the 2013 WJC. Whether or not he has a future in North America is unclear at this point, but Shalunov has some tools that make him an intriguing prospect.

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