Blackhawk AHL prospects season review

By John Jaeckel

This was a season full of promise and mounting expectation for prospects at Norfolk, tinged at the end with disappointment and a bit of doubt.

The Admirals finished tied for second in the highly competitive AHL East division. The three teams at the top of the division, Hershey (Washington), Wilkes-Barre (Pittsburgh) and Norfolk, were among the league’s best teams throughout the season. The Admirals accomplished that lofty standing with a high 13 rookies suiting up throughout the season, many playing key roles throughout the year in all phases of the game. For this performance, one has to credit the patience and ingenuity of head coach Mike Haviland. Even after the trade of top scorer Brandon Bochenski in mid-season, Haviland kept the ship on course and the young Admirals winning right up to the playoffs.

The story of the Admirals this season really begins with their top line, centered by Martin St. Pierre, 23. A free agent signed the prior season, the crafty pivot scored 27 goals and 72 assists in 65 games. He finished +15 and demonstrated an edge to his game all year with 100 PIM. At left wing for a hefty chunk of the season was high scoring veteran Bochenski. At right wing was rookie Troy Brouwer, 21, who had a breakout season. Last year, Brouwer racked up 100+ points as an overage junior. One might expect, in jumping to professional hockey the following season, there would be some drop-off in production. Yet there really wasn’t. The Vancouver native finished with 79 points (41 goals, 38 assists) in 66 games and a solid +15.  He lead the team in goals, was second in points behind St. Pierre, and second in league rookies in points behind Brett Sterling (ATL).  Brouwer did not fare particularly well in the playoffs, with just one point in six games, but had just recently returned from a hand injury.

Filling Bochenski’s role after he was traded to Boston, was Pierre Parenteau. Parenteau finished with 51 points (15 goals, 36 assists) in 40 games with the Ads, and was also +15. This line was typically the first power-play unit for the Admirals.

Two other rookie forwards in the mix at Norfolk were left wing Kris Versteeg and center Dave Bolland. Versteeg, 20, acquired from Providence (Boston) for Bochenski, tallied 23 points (4 goals, 19 assists) in 27 games for Norfolk. Former second-round pick Bolland, also 20, suffered a concussion and a nagging shoulder injury early in the season. Combined, these two injuries really seemed to hold the former London Knight back. Coming off a 2005-06 season where he led
the OHL in scoring, Bolland’s first season in pro hockey was a struggle early on. He both seemed a step slow and unable to win physical battles. But true to his gritty reputation, he persisted, and ended up averaging close to a point a game down the stretch of the regular season, finishing with 17 goals and 32 helpers (-2) in 65 games. Both players saw extensive power-play time and often skated with the top line.

Another productive line for Norfolk was comprised primarily of AHL vets, Craig MacDonald, 30, Carl Corazzini, 28, and Colin Fraser, 22. Fraser had 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) and was a solid +6. He also displayed the feistiness he was known for during his junior days at Red Deer, racking up 158 PIM. A true leader and team guy, Fraser has always stood up for teammates. Though  not possessing elite skill, his heart is what keeps him a prospect with a possible NHL future.

Other regular front-line contributors at Norfolk included centers Jonas Nordqvist, 25, Adam Burish, 24, and wingers Adam Berti and Bryan Bickell, both 21. All former high draft picks, Nordqvist finished with 15 goals, 26 assists and 41 total points, and was -12. Berti had 6 goals, 6 assists and was -2. Bickell finished with 10 goals, 15 helpers and was +14. Of the three, Bickell appeared to have the best season and played surprisingly well as a power forward in a brief Hawk call-up. Former Wisconsin Badger Burish had 11 goals, 10 assists and was -2 with 146 PIM. Like Fraser, Burish is a high-energy, emotional player. A good skater and also an effective penalty killer, Burish is seen by some as a having a potential future as a fourth line grinder at the NHL level. 

Three more rookie forwards were Michael Blunden, 20, Jack Skille, 20 and Jacob Dowell, 22. A second-round pick of the Hawks, Blunden started strong at Norfolk. He suffered a season-ending knee injury after just 17 games, finishing with 4 goals and 5 assists and +7 rating. Blunden will definitely be in the mix at Rockford next season. Skille and Dowell joined the Admirals after winding up another successful season at WCHA powerhouse Wisconsin. Skille picked up 8 goals in just 9 games. Dowell had two goals and three assists in his first 9 games. More of a grinder like fellow Badger Burish, Dowell can still score, is a leader and strong in all phases of the game.

When scribes and scouts talk about the Hawk talent pipeline, they always cite the strong and deep defensive corps. Many of the key names in the pipeline manned the blue line for the Ads in 2005-06, including: Danny Richmond, Dustin Byfuglien and former No. 3 overall pick Cam Barker. All three players saw significant playing time at both the AHL and NHL levels. And all three showed glimpses both of why they are highly regarded, and why they still might be a year or more away from reaching their potential at the NHL level.

Turning just 22 in late March, Byfuglien had a great year: 16 goals and 28 assists (+12) in 63 games. At times, he looked dominant against AHL competition. He had a tendency to freelance, occasionally getting caught in the offensive zone or stuck on the ice for too long. At the AHL level, his superior talent helped him get away with it. However, during brief
Blackhawk stints, he was often exposed. Still, by season’s end, Byfuglien seemed to have pulled it all together and looks ready to make a full-time jump to the NHL next season.

Barker, turning 21 in April, was also a bit of a work in progress, registering 5 goals and 10 assists in 34 games, at a respectable +6. Like fellow rookie Bolland, Barker started the year injured, suffering a broken ankle. He came back tentatively and frankly looked lost at times. But later he came on strong, finally earning a call-up to the Hawks for the last 35 games of the NHL season. Still inconsistent in his focus, and not quite fully mature physically, Barker also needs some work on his skating. But one could see glimpses this year of the rare combination of strength, instinct and skill Barker possesses.

Richmond, 22, also excelled at the AHL level, garnering 10 goals and 24 assists in 57 games at +10 with 144 PIM, but seems that he still needs to find his game. Richmond is a good skater and passer with superior offensive instincts. He is also good positionally in his own end. The question is, at his relatively small size, should he be fighting so often with larger opponents? While his courage is commendable, one wonders if he might help his team more on the ice than in the penalty box.

Twenty-two-year-old Corey Crawford, backed up by Mike Brodeur, 24, handled the bulk of the Ads goaltending. Considered by many the Hawk goalie of the future, Crawford finished with a 2.84 GAA and a .909 save percentage, well behind many AHL netminders, including former Hawk Craig Anderson. Possessing good size, Crawford is often described as emotionally calm and able to respond well after letting in a goal. This, however, was often said of former "goalie of the future" Michael Leighton as well. Brodeur appeared in 10 games with the Admirals with a 3.39 GAA, and 7 games with Toledo of the ECHL. With Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime signed this year by the Hawks, expect Crawford and perhaps Brodeur to continue as the tandem at Rockford.

As for how many of these prospects may make the team next year, the off-season moves of the Hawk brass will be very telling. The Hawks hope to fill out a more realistic top-six this off-season with Martin Havlat, Tuomo Ruutu, Jonathan Toews and a quality free agent center. That leaves a spot or two, one of which might be filled by Brouwer, possibly playing right wing on a physical, feisty second line with Toews and Ruutu. Or perhaps St. Pierre might get a shot at a second (or third) line role. The Hawks fourth line could be basically up for grabs, with players like Bickell, Burish, Fraser, Blunden and possibly Bolland in the hunt for jobs.

On defense, really the only certainty for Chicago consists of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The Hawks would like to sign a top-four caliber offensive defenseman. That player’s partner could be Barker, or a currently mending James Wisniewski. On the third pairing, there are all kinds of candidates and questions. Byfuglien and Richmond could be in the mix, not to mention Swede Niklas Hjalmarsson.

The Admirals were eliminated in the first round of the AHL playoffs.  Next year, the Hawks AHL affiliate will play 90 minutes to the northwest of the United Center, as the Rockford Ice Hogs join the league.

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.