The Chicago Blackhawks have plenty of prospects to watch during the 2013-14 season, particularly at the pro level where a few spots are open in Chicago and a talented class of rookies will be debuting with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs.
The Blackhawks deep and diverse pipeline also extends to the junior, amateur, and European levels of play, where top prospects like Dillon Fournier, Stephen Johns, and Teuvo Teravainen will ply their trade before joining the organization. The following is just a handful of the intriguing storylines among the Chicago prospects as the 2013-14 season gets underway.
Top Pro Prospect
Brandon Saad, LW/C, Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)
The Blackhawks have a handful of promising prospects who are on the cusp of cracking the NHL roster. Brandon Saad is not among that group, having already established himself during the lockout-shortened 2013 season as a top-nine winger for the Blackhawks. Saad spent the better part of last season skating on Chicago’s top line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie.
Other forwards like Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith, Jimmy Hayes, and Drew LeBlanc have more of a “prospect feel” than Saad, but the coming 2013-14 season still hold some mystery for Saad. With Pirri dinged up as the preseason started, Saad has lined up at center for the Blackhawks, skating at a position he did not play at all during his rookie NHL season. Whether Saad is the long-term option to center Chicago’s second line remains to be seen, but he has the dependable two-way game to at least not hurt the ‘Hawks as long as he lines up down the middle.
Even if he does not stick at center, Saad has the versatility to line up on either wing and will surely keep a spot somewhere in the Blackhawks lineup during the 2013-14 season.
Bounceback Pro Prospect
Jimmy Hayes, RW, Chicago Blackhawks (NHL) / Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Several Chicago players got a taste of NHL hockey in 2011-12, but between the lockout and a predominantly healthy NHL roster, they did not have the same chance during the 2012-13 season. Jimmy Hayes was one of those players; a possible bottom-six NHL forward option had the season started on time, he instead was tested at center with the IceHogs and more or less played himself out of contention by the time the abbreviated camps opened in January.
Hayes still put together a decent season statistically for the 'Hogs and was able to get into 10 NHL games over the course of the season. The 23-year-old forward has already stood out in the first stages of training camp in South Bend, Indiana, and if he continues to use his size and soft hands to pitch in offensively in the exhibition games, he will get back into the NHL lineup.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Dylan Olsen, D, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
The Blackhawks will have depth players like Dylan Olsen, Kyle Beach, and Antti Raanta come up as restricted free agents next summer. Olsen is especially entering an important year as he looks to put together a more complete professional season. He could have easily fit into the 'Bounceback' category after going from a decent NHL debut to struggling to crack the Rockford lineup over the course of the 2012 calendar year.
The blueliner wore the 'C' for the Blackhawks rookies at the Rookie Tournament in London this season and played a prominent role defensively. If he can keep up his strong level of play, the opportunity is there for Olsen to perhaps get back to the NHL as an injury call-up. As a former first round pick, Olsen's play in Rockford will be heavily scrutinized until that next opportunity in the NHL, but he will have a chance in 2013-14 to reassert himself amongst the professional defensive prospects.
Top Junior Prospect
Dillon Fournier, D, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
Even after all of the professional level depth that the Blackhawks possess on the blue line, they still have high-caliber prospects like Dillon Fournier coming down the pipeline. The 19-year-old defenseman skated in all situations last season for the much-improved Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, finishing second in scoring among the defense with 24 points in 59 games.
With veterans Mathieu Brisebois (PHX) and Andrew O’Brien (ANH) moving on to the pro level, Fournier stands to lead the Huskies defensive corps at both ends of the rink during the 2013-14 season. He has all the tools to develop into a top-four defenseman with the ability to make an impact on the score sheet and in his own zone, it is just a matter of more ice time and experience as he heads back to the Quebec league and eventually makes the transition to the pro level.
The Blackhawks top pick in 2013, Ryan Hartman is coming off a productive season for the Plymouth Whalers. With a year of OHL experience under his belt, the 19-year-old forward is poised for an even more prominent role in the team's lineup.
He will return to a Plymouth squad that will lose top performers like Vince Trocheck (FLA), Rickard Rakell (ANH), and Stefan Noesen (ANH) to the professional level. Considering Hartman's success as a rookie, it is not out of the question to think that Hartman could supplant those veterans as one of the team's top forward options in every situation.
Not only will Hartman's presence be felt more in the OHL, but he may also have a chance to step into a larger role for Team USA at the 2014 World Junior Championships. The winger's draft stock saw a sharp rise following his performance in a support role for the Americans' gold medal in 2013, and even though he was kept out of the summer evaluation camp due to injury, he is back on the ice, currently skating with the Blackhawks in preseason action, and is poised to return for another run with Team USA in Malmo, Sweden.
Three 2012 draft picks will be playing for a contract this season from Chicago: defensemen Dillon Fournier and Travis Brown along with goaltender Brandon Whitney (Victoriaville, QMJHL). Fournier's contract is likely assured, but each of the other two prospects are still on the fence; both of found success in the CHL, but have one more season left to prove that they can sustain that level of play against their peers and carry it over to the professional level.
While Whitney is again in line for a majority of the starts for Victoriaville, Brown could be in a slightly different situation than he is accustomed to as long as Morgan Rielly sticks with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Blackhawks assigned Brown back to Moose Jaw in time for the drop of the puck on the 2013-14 WHL season.
Top Amateur Prospect
Stephen Johns, D, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)
Although the opportunity to turn pro with Chicago last season was on the table, Stephen Johns opted to return for his senior season in order to take one more run at the Frozen Four with Notre Dame. The 21-year-old blueliner will enter the season as one of college hockey's best defensive-defensemen and perhaps the country's most-feared physical presence.
The 6’4, 230-pound Johns never passes up an opportunity to take the body, whether it be stepping up to crush a rushing forward or making his presence felt with a stick to the back each time his man touches the puck along the boards. The speed of the pro game will be a new challenge after his college season ends, but until then he will play top minutes for the Irish against quality competition in Hockey East.
Kevin Hayes, C, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Kevin Hayes will enter his senior season for the Eagles with the hope of putting together the breakout season that was put on hold by a leg injury. He was off to the best scoring pace of his college career as a junior, scoring six goals and 25 points through 27 games prior to the injury.
Hayes will have a chance to shine for a BC program that has been dominant in recent years, having appeared in five of the last eight National Championship games and winning three titles in that span. Each year the Eagles fell short of the title game, as they did during the 2012-13 season, the team followed it up with a championship. Hayes will have a hand in whether the team can meet their always-lofty expectations, and then see his first taste of pro hockey following the end of his NCAA season.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Justin Holl, D, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)
Another high-profile member of the Blackhawks' class of senior NCAA prospects is Justin Holl, who will move back to defense for the University of Minnesota for his senior season. While Johns and Hayes are all but assured contracts at the end of their seasons, Holl may still have something to prove as he returns to his usual position on the blue line.
An excellent skater with a 6'2 frame, there is plenty of reason to believe Justin Holl could hold his own at the pro level following his senior season. He has never quite had a featured role in Minnesota, but he has logged some tough minutes on the Gophers' shutdown defensive pairing early in his career and boosted his resume with some work as a forward during the 2012-13 season.
Top European Prospect
Teuvo Teravainen, C, Jokerit Helsinki (SM-liiga)
Finnish center Teuvo Teravainan has been another standout in the early stages of Chicago's training camp. He has displayed some chemistry with players ranging from Ryan Hartman to Patrick Kane, but Teravainen is most likely to spend one more season playing for Jokerit in Helsinki.
He will be returning for the club's final season of play in Finland's top league, the SM-liiga, before Jokerit becomes the first Finnish team to join the Russian KHL for the 2014-15 season. After finishing first at the end of the regular season and then going down in their first playoff matchup a season ago, expect Teravainen and the rest of the Jokerit club to leave the league on a high note.
First Year Pro to Watch
Carl Dahlstrom, D, Linkoping (SHL)
The Blackhawks top European selection in the 2013 draft, Carl Dahlstrom is not assured a spot in the Swedish Hockey League, the top level of play in Sweden. If he makes it, however, it will be among the most anticipated pro debuts of the season among Chicago's defensive prospects.
Dahlstrom is a smart, simple defender who has the frame and skating needed to develop into a pro player. The Blackhawks will be patient with the blueliner, but that does not mean his ascension to the pro ranks in Sweden is that far away. The sooner the lanky rearguard begins to ply his trade against men at the pro ranks, the more prepared he will be for his eventual transition to North America with the ‘Hawks organization.