The Chicago Blackhawks possess a deep pool of blueliners at the collegiate level, from imposing physical presences like Stephen Johns and Michael Paliotta to smooth skaters Justin Holl and Nick Mattson. Centers Kevin Hayes, a first round draft choice in 2010, and Drew LeBlanc, recently signed as a free agent out of St. Cloud State, are also high-profile prospects who developed at the NCAA level in 2012-13.
Several promising forward prospects also developed overseas this season, with one, Swedish center Joakim Nordstrom, already making his North American debut in March with the AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs.
Kevin Hayes, C, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Drafted 1st round, 24th overall, 2010
As a junior at Boston College, Kevin Hayes again played in a scoring role for the Eagles and finished tied for fifth on the team with 25 points. A strong total considering he was limited to 27 games this season due a season-ending leg injury suffered at the end of February in his first game back from a team-imposed, three-game suspension. Listed as a quadriceps contusion, the injury required multiple surgeries but Hayes should be back in the BC lineup next fall.
More of a playmaker than a scorer, Hayes is always looking to set up his linemates in the offensive end. He does not always play up to his size in the physical game, but his ability to use his 6'2 frame to protect the puck and win battles has improved during his college career. Like his older brother Jimmy, some would like to see Kevin throw his weight around a little more but he seems more intent on contributing as a playmaker. Hayes has already announced his intention to return to BC for his senior season.
Drew LeBlanc, C, St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA)
Signed as a free agent, April 12th, 2013
Although the Blackhawks were rumored to be in on several collegiate free agents in recent weeks, including Northern Michigan goalie Jared Coreau (DET) and two-time prospect camp invitee Eriah Hayes (SJS), but the team has so far settled for one big signing. LeBlanc was signed to a one-year contract the same day he was named the winner of the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to college hockey's most-valuable player.
An intelligent two-way forward and dynamic playmaker, the Hermantown, Minnesota native has been on the Blackhawks radar for a few years. He attended the team's prospect camp in 2011 and was even offered a contract at that time by the 'Hawks but he chose to return to school. His college career was interrupted by a compound fracture in his leg during what would have originally been his senior season in 2011-12, but he was granted a medical redshirt and took advantage of the extra year of eligibility to captain St. Cloud to the school's first Frozen Four.
The short term contract will allow the Blackhawks some flexibility and time to negotiate exclusively with LeBlanc this summer, when he will be a restricted free agent. The 23-year-old forward has been skating with Chicago since signing his contract and could feasibly make his NHL debut yet this season, especially if the 'Hawks choose to rest any regulars during their final two sets of three games in four nights.
Dan DeLisle, LW, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (WCHA)
Drafted 3rd round, 89th overall, 2009
Big winger Dan DeLisle capped off a four-year career in Duluth with three goals and five points in 28 games. Thought to be a potential power forward after the 6'4 winger lit up the Minnesota high school level as a senior, DeLisle had trouble establishing a role in the Bulldogs' lineup during his career, let alone transitioning his offensive game to the next level. Despite having invested a late third round pick, DeLisle is not likely in the Blackhawks' plans at any level going forward.
Stephen Johns, D, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA)
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2010
Playing in his junior season at Notre Dame, Stephen Johns continued to prove that he can be a physical force on the ice. He was a key cog on the team's blue line, ranking third on the team with 45 blocked shots and leading the team with 62 penalty minutes. He played in all situations and played enough with the puck on his stick to rank fifth overall on the Irish with 87 shots on goal. Only one of them found its way into the net, however, to accompany 13 assists in 41 games.
Johns has one more year of eligibility left at the college level, and considering that he was not quick to sign and join the pro ranks following Notre Dame's first round dismissal from the NCAA tournament at the hands of St. Cloud State, his immediate future remains a bit murky.
Michael Paliotta, D, Vermont Catamounts (Hockey East)
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2011
Despite being known more as a physical, shutdown defender, Michael Paliotta tied Nicholas Luukko (PHI) for the lead in defensive scoring for Vermont with 10 points on the season. His aggressive style earned him 50 penalty minutes, second on the team, and his even rating made him one of only two defensemen to not finish the season with a negative rating.
The Catamounts took a step forward after two sub-par seasons, but they still struggled to win games again in 2012-13, finishing the year with an 11-19-6 record and being swept by Boston College in their first-round series in the Hockey East Tournament. The young Vermont squad will graduate only three seniors this year and can look ahead to 2013-14 as a chance to build upon another trying season in Burlington.
Justin Holl, D, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2010
Justin Holl found himself in a reduced role as a junior for Minnesota, appearing in 35 of Minnesota's 40 games on the year. With freshman defensemen Brady Skjei (NYR) and Mike Reilly (CBJ) entering the fray, Holl lined up at forward throughout the season and occasionally found ice time as an extra defenseman. He scored three goals and four assists while playing in the limited role for the loaded Gophers roster.
The team's blue line has already lost Seth Helgeson (NJD) to graduation and juniors Mark Alt (PHI) and Nate Schmidt (WAS) to the pro ranks. Holl is expected to move back to defense next year, when he will be one of five seniors on the team.
Sam Jardine, D, Ohio State Buckeyes (CCHA)
Drafted 6th round, 169th overall, 2011
A freshman at Ohio State, Sam Jardine registered seven assists in 28 games. Jardine's mobility and puck-moving ability made him an asset in all situations for the Buckeyes in his first season. A wrist laceration suffered in a game against Alaska-Fairbanks caused him to miss almost two months out of his season, but he was a regular in the Ohio State lineup after returning in January.
The blueliner is a product of the Camrose Kodiaks in the AJHL, the same junior 'A' team that Dylan Olsen played for prior to joining Minnesota-Duluth. Jardine will have time at Ohio State to improve in his own zone and continue adding strength.
Braden Birch, D, Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2008
Senior defenseman Braden Birch served as one of Cornell's tri-captains in his fourth season for the team. Not a blueliner whose contributions always show up on the score sheet, Birch is a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman that blocks shots and does a lot of the dirty work in the defensive zone.
Never much of a scorer, Birch registered two goals and two assists in 34 games as a senior. It will be his 6'4 frame and defensive acumen that could give him a chance to play at the pro level, whether on an NHL contract or minor league deal.
Kirill Gotovets, D, Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
Acquired via trade with Tampa Bay, April 2nd, 2013
Other than reacquiring Michal Handzus, the Blackhawks were relatively quiet at the 2013 trade deadline save for a pair of prospect swaps, one of which brought the rights to defenseman Kirill Gotovets to Chicago in exchange for checking winger Philippe Paradis.
A teammate of Birch's at Cornell over the last three seasons, the Blackhawks scouts were no doubt familiar with Gotovet’s aggressive style. A native of Minsk, Belarus the junior was held off the score sheet entirely this season in 22 games despite being known as a good puck-mover and smooth skater. Gotovets was hampered by injuries during his junior season and will look to bounce back in 2013-14 as a senior.
Nick Mattson, D, University of North Dakota (WCHA)
Drafted 6th round, 180th overall, 2010
Mattson was part of a deep, talented blue line corps for North Dakota in 2012-13. Each of the team’s top six blueliners was drafted in the NHL, including fellow Chicago draft choice Joe Gleason, which relegated Mattson to a smaller role at even strength along with power play time.
He finished the season with three goals, 12 assists in 38 games. With only eight penalty minutes on the season, Mattson again proved to be a disciplined player in his own zone despite giving up some size and strength to many players in the NCAA. With Gleason and Andrew MacWilliam (TOR) both graduating and Derek Forbort (LAK) already signed to a pro contract, Mattson will be one of the key returning blueliners for North Dakota next season when they move to the new NCHC in 2013-14.
Joe Gleason, D, University of North Dakota (WCHA)
Drafted 7th round, 192nd overall, 2008
Another senior defenseman, Joe Gleason capped off his career at North Dakota with five goals and 18 points, both career-highs. Known as a mobile, puck-moving defenseman, Gleason had only one career goal at the college level coming into his senior season but managed two game-winners alone in his senior season.
An undersized blueliner playing with some big names on North Dakota’s blue line, Gleason was perhaps the unlikeliest of defensive lynchpins. However, he was named a runner-up for the Derek Hines Unsung Hero Award which annually honors college hockey’s “consummate team player and team builder.” Whether Gleason will parlay a strong senior season into a pro contract remains to be seen, but there is no doubt he had a strong finish to his career at North Dakota.
Paul Phillips, D, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted 7th round, 195th overall, 2009
Paul Phillips maintained his spot on the Pioneers' top defensive pairing in his senior season. A reliable defenseman who is always in position and willing to stick his nose into the tough battles, he was again deployed alongside Denver's dynamic defenseman Scott Mayfield (NYI). Phillips vocal leadership on the ice and in the dressing room earned him the ‘C’ in his fourth and final season.
The 21-year-old Phillips registered a career-high 11 points through 39 games on the season. Whether or not the Blackhawks will sign any of the senior defenseman remains up in the air.
Teuvo Teravainen, C, Jokerit Helsinki (SM-liiga)
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2012
The Blackhawks’ top pick in 2012 spent his first full season in the SM-liiga, Finland’s top pro league, in 2012-13. His average ice time increased by almost two minutes and his production increased even more steeply, from 18 points in 40 games a year ago to 13 goals, 31 points in 44 regular season games for Jokerit this season. He added five goals and six assists in six games at the 2013 World Junior Championships, but Team Finland still ended up in the relegation round.
Jokerit finished as the top team in the SM-liiga during the regular season, but fell in six games during their quarter-final playoff series against Lukko. Teravainen mustered only one goal, one assist in those six games. The Finnish center has two years remaining on the extension he signed with Jokerit in February of 2012, which will give him some more time to add strength and continue developing his overall game before transitioning to North America.
Joakim Nordstrom, C, AIK (SEL)
Drafted 3rd round, 90th overall, 2010
Joakim Nordstrom skated in his second full season in the Elitserien with AIK. His average ice time, 14:44 per game, increased by over two minutes in 2012-13 and he scored five goals, four assists through 43 games.
Following his SEL season, Nordstrom joined the Rockford IceHogs, making his North American debut on March 22nd. Through nine games with the IceHogs, who are battling for the final playoff spot in the AHL’s Western Conference, Nordstrom has assisted on a pair of goals and earned 12 penalty minutes. Nordstrom is not likely to be a big scorer for the Chicago organization, but like Marcus Kruger, he has a well-rounded game and needs only to add some strength and adjust to the North American style before he can become a more consistent contributor in Rockford.
Maxim Shalunov, RW, Chelmet Chelyabinsk (VHL)
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2011
Scoring winger Maxim Shalunov was not able to break into the KHL in 2012-13, instead spending his season with Traktor’s minor league team, Chelmet Chelyabinsk, in the VHL and Belie Medvedi Chelyabinsk in the junior level MHL. Shalunov also skated for Team Russia at the 2013 World Junior Championships, registering two assists in six games. His WJC appearance was cut slightly shorter by a one-game suspension he earned for getting his stick up into the face of Slovakian defenseman Tomas Nechala in a collision behind the net.
Shalunov has a 6’3 frame and a good offensive skill set. He is dangerous on the rush, but is most lethal when playing with a skilled playmaker that can create looks for him. Shalunov is a prospect that could feasibly play in the AHL next season if he is signed by the Blackhawks, but with little pro experience in Russia, he could just as easily remain overseas.