Blackhawks Top 20 prospects, Fall 2007

By John Jaeckel

After a number of back-to-back losing seasons. GM Dale Tallon has to be credited for ‘biting the bullet’, and moving out high-paid veterans in exchange for a bevy of draft picks. Coupled with solid scouting, especially in the NCAA, international leagues and the OHL, the Hawks now boast one of the richest talent pipelines in the NHL.

Top 20 at a glance

1. (1) Jonathan Toews, C/LW
2. (NR) Patrick Kane, RW
3. (2) Cam Barker, D
4. (6) Troy Brouwer, RW
5. (3) Jack Skille, RW
6. (8) Dustin Byfuglien, D
7. (4) Dave Bolland, C
8. (7) Danny Richmond, D
9. (18) Evan Brophey, C
10. (14) Igor Makarov, RW
11. (19) Petri Kontiola, C 
12. (12) Michael Blunden, RW
13. (20) Niklas Hjalmarsson, D
14. (5) Corey Crawford, G
15. (9) Nathan Davis, C
16. (16) Simon Danis-Pepin, D
17. (NR) Billy Sweatt, LW
18. (NR) Akim Aliu, C/RW
19. (NR) Bryan Bickell, LW
20. (10) Dan Bertram, RW 

1. (1) Jonathan Toews, C/LW

Drafted, Round 1, 3rd overall, 2006

Along with 2007 No. 1 overall draftee Patrick Kane, Toews is considered the future face of this once proud franchise. Based upon his superior play with and against NHL players at the 2007 World Championships, there’s a sense that the 19-year-old possesses a higher ceiling than originally thought. Although often compared to Rod Brind’Amour and Steve Yzerman, Toews also drew a comparison to Peter Forsberg from head coach Denis Savard at the Blackhawks summer prospect camp. Toews is rock solid in all zones, very strong in the corners and has exceptional hockey sense and creativity. He will be an immediate asset on the Hawk power play. And he should be instrumental in resurrecting the image of the franchise as well. Comfortable in interviews, Toews is adored in Canada (he speaks both English and French fluently) and his arrival in Chicago is much anticipated.

2. (NR) Patrick Kane, RW

Drafted, Round 1, 1st overall, 2007

Like Toews, Kane’s stock keeps rising. Though just 18 and a slight 165 pounds, he is believed by many to be a sure bet to stick with the parent club this season, helping an anemic power play and providing a spark in 4-on-4 situations. Equally adept at setting up and finishing goals, Kane possesses elite hockey sense and outstanding hands. He is able to easily play all three forward positions. And his rare combination of hands and vision enables him to dangle the puck and find space for himself, while allowing plays to set up in front of him. Kane and fellow American Kyle Okposo were by far the best players among the talent from three countries at the recent U.S. Under-20 scrimmages at Lake Placid. Clearly, Kane needs to work on his defensive zone play, but he also appears capable of playing a two-way game when asked to. The debate with Kane is whether playing in limited situations with the Blackhawks, or dominating for another season in the OHL is better for his development. Kane appeared in 58 games as a rookie at London last season, leading the OHL in scoring with 62 goals and 83 assists for an astounding 145 points.

3. (2) Cam Barker, D

Drafted, Round 1, 3rd overall, 2004

Along with great size and strength, Barker sets up a power play as well as anyone, a skill the Hawks have lacked for years. During a 35-game stint with the Hawks last year, it was apparent Barker still needs to work on his skating. He registered one goal and seven penalty minutes with the Hawks last season. However, some of his mobility issues could be traced to a pre-season broken ankle. Still, the kind of player he can become was apparent in flashes, especially later in the season, when he used his strength to his advantage and played with an edge. Selected third overall in 2004, Barker has battled injury and illness for the last few seasons, and this, as much as anything has perhaps slowed his development. He should play with the Blackhawks this season. The question is where he fits in the defensive pairings and in which situations he’ll play.

4. (6) Troy Brouwer, RW

Drafted, Round 7, 214th overall, 2004.

Blackhawk fans only got a 10-game glimpse of Brouwer last season that really didn’t reveal his potential. At 6’3, 220, he has above-average offensive instincts and a lightning quick release on a hard shot. These skills have allowed him to rise from obscurity as a seventh-round draft selection, to score 40 or more goals in each of the last two seasons. Brouwer finished last season at Norfolk with 41 goals and 38 assists, earning strong consideration for AHL rookie of the year. He plays well without the puck and is also a punishing checker with a bit of a mean streak, evidenced by fairly hefty penalty minutes every season. The Delta, B.C. native has worked hard on his skating, which has been the main flaw in his game. The Blackhawks see him as a future top-6 power forward. While some fans are clamoring to see Brouwer play on the third or fourth line this year, the Hawks have stated in the past that they would prefer he play the role they project for him – even if that means more time in the AHL.

5. (3) Jack Skille, RW

Drafted, Round 1, 7th overall, 2005

Opinions differ on Skille. Some feel he’s a prototypical second line right winger in the NHL; others see him as more of a third line grinder. He is very strong, fast and possesses a hard, accurate shot. He has played against elite international talent in the World Juniors and helped win a national championship his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin. In a brief stint at Norfolk at the end of last season, he registered eight points in nine games. But he was a healthy scratch for more than one playoff contest. He tends to play the game one-dimensionally at this point, lingering in the neutral zone for passes, where he can use his speed to break past defenders. He will most likely play at Rockford – Chicago’s new AHL affiliate — this season.

6. (8) Dustin Byfuglien, D

Drafted, Round 8, 245th overall, 2003

Byfuglien hits like a truck. He possesses a 100 mph slap shot, nifty offensive instincts on the power play and the hands to carry the puck through swarms of defenders. Still, Byfuglien is a work in progress. He needs to be much more responsible in his own end and his skating and lateral movement need to improve. He has, however, worked hard to trim his physique down from 275 pounds in his draft year to a defined 245. And along with fellow prospects Brouwer, Skille, Bolland and others, Byfuglien worked hard this year at skating coach Dan Jansen’s summer camp in Madison, WI. In 34 NHL games over two seasons, he has scored four goals and four assists with 34 penalty minutes.  "Bubba," as he’s known, will most likely have a good career in the NHL. The question is: is he a top-4 or top 6 defenseman or even a checking line forward?

7. (4) Dave Bolland, C

Drafted, Round 2, 32nd overall, 2004

Heart, grit and hands: that’s the lowdown on Bolland. If he were a bit taller and heavier or a step faster, he’d be a lock as the Blackhawks’ future second-line center. He struggled for stretches in his rookie year at Norfolk, with both injury and playing against bigger, faster players. He did play well down the stretch, averaging nearly a point per game. His final totals were 17 goals and 32 assists in 65 games.  And like Brouwer, Bolland is a very hard worker. At the recent Blackhawk prospects camp, both players looked ready for the NHL. Bolland was drafted in the second round in 2004 out of London in the OHL.

8. (7) Danny Richmond, D

Acquired via trade with Carolina in 2006

While not quite the same skater Duncan Keith is, Richmond is very similar to the Blackhawk blue liner. Small for a defenseman, fast and a good passer, Richmond also plays well positionally. His offensive skills are such that Coach Denis Savard played him at wing on occasion last season. And in spite of his stature, Richmond will not hesitate to drop the gloves in defense of a teammate. In 57 games at Norfolk last season, Richmond put up 10 goals and 24 assists along with a hefty 144 PIM.  Perhaps the only thing holding him back is the glut of young defensemen in the organization.

9. (18) Evan Brophey, C

 Drafted, Round 3, 68th overall, 2005

Brophey’s talent has never been doubted, but his focus and dedication have. Last year at Plymouth (OHL), he put it all together and had a great year with 36 goals and 71 assists, leading the team to the CHL finals, including an upset in the OHL semi-finals versus a powerhouse London Knights club featuring Kane and Sam Gagner (EDM). Playing on a line with power forward prospects James Neal (DAL) and Jared Boll (CLB), Brophey’s Plymouth line often looked like a young Legion of Doom against the much smaller Kane and Gagner.  Brophey has good size, puck skills and skating ability, all of which he uses to protect the puck while driving to the net. He is also strong on face-offs. The Blackhawks are high on Brophey’s NHL potential, and have signed him to a professional contract.

10. (14) Igor Makarov, RW

Drafted, Round 2, 33rd overall, 2006

Often compared to a young Martin Havlat, Makarov has great speed, good hands and an aggression and zest for the game that is unusual in many Russian prospects. He will go into the corners and sacrifice his body to put a shot on net. He played well at the World Juniors last year, putting up comparable numbers to teammate Alexei Cherepanov (NYR). Still, it was evident during the tournament that Makarov needs to work on strength and conditioning. Last year, 19-year-old Makarov scored 7 goals and 2 assists for St. Petersburg in the Russian Super League. In spite of the ongoing transfer agreement issues, Makarov clearly wants to play in North America and should not be forgotten as a factor in the Blackhawks’ future.

11. (19) Petri Kontiola, C 

Drafted, Round 7, 196th overall, 2004

Kontiola has great hands and vision. His skating appears average against Finnish league opposition. He has good size, but looks like he could get stronger. Kontiola protects the puck well, and is definitely a pass-first center in the Andrew Cassels/Scott Gomez mold. Last year with Tappara, he scored 12 goals and 35 assists in 51 games.  He has signed with the Blackhawks and will most likely play on the top lines in Rockford this season. If he plays with a shooter like Brouwer or Skille, he could put up significant numbers. And because of his extensive professional experience in Finland, the soon to be 23-year-old might be considered as a replacement call-up for an injured Blackhawk center at some point.

12. (12) Michael Blunden, RW

Drafted, Round 2, 43rd overall, 2005

Blunden is big, strong and skates very well for his size. Blunden has also represented Canada in international competition, including the 2006 World Juniors, where he played with Bolland and Toews. He hits everything in sight and can finish a play close to the net. He projects as a solid third line player. But he has had a history of fairly serious injury and must reconcile that to a physical style of play that’s necessary for him to succeed at the next level. Last year at Norfolk, he registered 4 goals and 5 assists in just 17 games. Blunden, 20, also played nine games at the NHL level. He will likely play at Rockford most of this year.

13. (20) Niklas Hjalmarsson, D

Drafted, Round 4, 108th overall, 2005

A classic Swedish defenseman, 2005 fourth-round selection Hjalmarsson excels in all zones. Tallon he was among the best defensemen at the 2007 World Juniors. Hjalmarsson has decent size, a very good point shot and is a devastating open-ice checker. The now 20-year-old has played since the age of 17 with HV71 in the Swedish Elite League, and has been signed by the Blackhawks. He will play this season at Rockford.

14. (5) Corey Crawford, G

Drafted, Round 2, 52nd overall, 2003

Crawford has good size and positioning and the demeanor necessary to be a No. 1 goaltender. The Blackhawks feel he has the composure to not let a bad goal push him into a funk where he would lose fundamentals. He played well in stretches last year at Norfolk, although his save percentage (.898) and goals against average (2.97) were not among the AHL leaders. He will be the No. 1 goalie at Rockford this season.

15. (9) Nathan Davis, C

Drafted, Round 4, 113th overall, 2005

Davis had an exceptional junior year with Miami of Ohio in the CCHA, scoring 21 goals and 29 assists in just 42 games, earning finalist consideration for the Hobey Baker award. He is solid in all zones and plays in both power-play and penalty-kill situations for the RedHawks. Davis’ game is based on consistent hustle and hockey smarts.

16. (16) Simon Danis-Pepin, D

Drafted, Round 2, 61st overall, 2006

With solid skating and movement, the 6’7 Quebecois giant has drawn comparisons to Zdeno Chara. He played a key role on a very competitive University of Maine Black Bear team as a freshman last season, with 2 goals and 4 assists in 40 games. Danis-Pepin also plays with an edge. He is raw in certain areas; like a lot of bigger players, he needs to work on his mobility. If his game continues to refine, he could become a force at the NHL level.

17. (NR) Billy Sweatt, LW

Drafted, Round 2, 38th overall, 2007

The Hawks’ first selection in the second round of the 2007 NHL Draft, Sweatt could be the fastest player in the Hawks organization. The Elburn, Illinois native also possesses above average hands and finishing skills. The knock on him has been an inability to work through traffic and avoidance of contact. He will continue to work on his development at Colorado College and will most likely play on a very competitive U.S. squad at the 2008 World Juniors.

18. (NR) Akim Aliu, C/RW

Drafted, Round 2, 56th overall, 2007

Some scouts felt the Nigerian-born Aliu could have been drafted in the top 10 of the 2007 NHL draft. He fell to the Blackhawks in the late second round because of some highly publicized off-ice clashes with teammates and coaches. One thing is for sure: Aliu possesses NHL size and skill. At times, he looks like a man among boys playing OHL competition.  Last season at Sudbury, he scored 20 goals and 22 assists with 104 penalty minutes in 53 games. What makes his potential even more intriguing is the fact that he took up hockey at a relatively advanced age. The Hawks are hoping that the patient, no-nonsense style of his new coach at London, Dale Hunter, will bring out the best in Aliu, as he has with so many prospects, including Kane and Bolland.

19. (NR) Bryan Bickell, LW

Drafted, Round 2, 41st overall, 2004

Yet another recent Blackhawk second-round pick out of the OHL (Ottawa 67’s), Bickell is part of a fairly healthy stable of Blackhawk power forward candidates. He plays with an edge, will drop the gloves and skates well for his size. He also shoots the puck very well, evidenced by two goals in a brief call-up with the Hawks last season. The question with Bickell has been the consistency of his effort, night in and night out.

20. (10) Dan Bertram, RW 

Drafted, Round 2, 54th overall, 2005

At 5’11, 175 pounds, Bertram is small. A good, but not great skater, he has average to above average offensive skills. He is, though, a gritty player who does the little things to help his team succeed. Not coincidentally, he did not look out of place at all playing on a line with Toews and Kane at the summer prospects camp. And he has extensive experience representing Canada in international play. Originally billed as a young Steve Sullivan, his NHL role might eventually be more of a complementary, grinding type of player. Perhaps a reasonable comparison would be to former Hawk Kyle Calder. Last year at BC, Bertram put up 25 points in 40 games.

Missing the cut: Joe Fallon, G

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