Blackhawks 2009 draft preview

By Brad Gardner

Top 10 Prospects

1. Kyle Beach, LW
2. Niklas Hjalmarsson, D
3. Billy Sweatt, LW
4. Shawn Lalonde, D
5. Igor Makarov, RW
6. Jack Skille, RW
7. Jordan Hendry, D
8. Corey Crawford, G
9. Joe Fallon, G
10. Akim Aliu, C

The Blackhawks hold seven picks going into the 2009 NHL Entry Draft next weekend. Chicago will pick 28th overall in the first round and hold their own pick in each of the first five rounds. Their sixth round pick was traded to the Los Angeles Kings during last year’s draft for a 2008 sixth rounder, which was spent on defenseman Braden Birch. One of their two seventh rounders in the 2009 draft was compensation from Florida for defenseman Magnus Johansson, who played in Russia last season.

For Chicago, the off-season has begun already with several prospects coming and going. The team chose not to sign three 2007 draft picks, forwards Richard Greenop and Maxime Tanguay along with goalie Josh Unice. The team forfeits the rights to these players and they will re-enter the draft pool. The team issued entry-level contracts to four other prospects: 2008-drafted defenseman Jonathan Carlsson, former Colorado College defenseman Brian Connelly, former Yale goalie Alec Richards, and forward Robert Klinkhammer, who spent last season under contract with the AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs.

Team Needs

The Blackhawks showed few holes in advancing all the way to the Western Conference finals this past season, but there are still several issues which will be addressed this off-season. The team has three important players who are unrestricted free agents in winger Martin Havlat, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, and center Samuel Pahlsson. While Havlat and Pahlsson are the likeliest candidates for a new contract, neither is a sure thing at this point. The loss of Havlat, who led Chicago in scoring during both the regular season with 77 points and playoffs with 15 points, would be the biggest blow to the Blackhawks lineup heading into next season. While Pahlsson’s center spot could feasibly be covered by a prospect, his invaluable maturity and post-season experience would be lost if he is not re-signed. Either Havlat or Pahlsson’s departure would leave a big hole in the Blackhawks’ group of forwards.

Khabibulin is less likely to return considering Huet’s sizable $5.625 million cap hit and the presence of prospects Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi, the two likely candidates to back up Huet. Both Crawford and Niemi are restricted free agents, however, so the situation in goal is far from finalized. There are several other restricted free agents, including Dave Bolland, who looks to be the Blackhawks long-term solution at second line center, Calder Trophy finalist Kris Versteeg, and defenseman Cam Barker. While it would be sensible to bring as many of these restricted free agents back as possible, it also opens the door for drastic changes. The blueline, for example, could look different next year depending on whether Barker and free agent Matt Walker return. Either could be the odd man out if the team explores free agency or trade opportunities for a tough, physical defenseman to play alongside Brian Campbell. Decisions will need to be made on several other restricted free agents who played smaller roles with the club this year, including forwards Troy Brouwer, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, and defenseman Aaron Johnson. 

In addition to current players and prospects, the Blackhawks also have extra picks in next year’s draft that could be used in a trade. Chicago holds three picks in the second round of the 2010 draft. In addition to their own second rounder, the Blackhawks acquired Calgary’s second in exchange for Rene Bourque and Montreal’s second in exchange for Robert Lang. Last off-season also showed that Chicago is very willing to spend money on free agents.  With so many moving pieces for this off-season, not to mention the big contracts Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith will be owed following the 2009-10 season, the Blackhawks will have plenty of maneuvering to do at the draft and beyond.

Organizational Strengths

The Blackhawks have good balance in their prospect pool, with at least a couple solid prospects at each position. At forward, these prospects tend to project as bottom-six players in the NHL with strong two-way forwards like Evan Brophey and Jake Dowell as well as power forwards like Kyle Beach, Akim Aliu, and Bryan Bickell. A pair of wingers, Billy Sweatt and Igor Makarov, headline the speed and skill areas in Chicago’s organization, but it is clear that the quality in the prospect pool has declined.

Another strength is the depth defensively. Niklas Hjalmarsson, who should see a big role on the Blackhawks’ blueline next season, and Jordan Hendry have each spent significant time with the Blackhawks over the last two years and shown themselves to be capable NHL defenders. The 2008 draft class also featured five defenseman including OHL All-Star Shawn Lalonde and the recently-signed Swedish defenseman Jonathan Carlsson. In goal, Corey Crawford and Joe Fallon are both solid prospects who should eventually get a shot at the NHL level. While the blue chip prospects have dwindled down in the Blackhawks’ organization, the balance at all positions should afford the team some versatility on draft day.

Organizational Weaknesses

The lack of top-end talent in the Blackhawks system is one of the biggest weaknesses. This is likely not something that will be addressed in this draft, though, considering the team will be drafting late in rounds. That said, drafting the best player available will bolster the depth at any position within the organization. Center is a particular position where the Blackhawks could use more prospects. With the possible exception of Aliu, who may project as a winger anyway, the center prospects would likely be checking line players at the NHL level. A skilled center could really make that group much stronger.

The team addressed a longtime weakness, namely the lack of offensive-minded defensemen, in last year’s draft with Lalonde. This remains a weakness, though, with few others after him. Considering the up-tempo style the ‘Hawks featured this season, a continual pipeline of offensively-gifted blueliners will only strengthen the depth on defense. While goaltender is not necessarily a weakness now, it could still be addressed in the later rounds. Crawford is on the verge of graduating from the prospect ranks, leaving Fallon, 24 years old, and Richards, 21 years old, as the two best goalie prospects. The team may look to add a young goalie prospect in this draft.

Draft Tendencies

The Blackhawks are drafting outside of the top 20 for the first time since 2002, but a couple tendencies that will not likely change are Chicago’s willingness to draft from a multitude of backgrounds as well as the premium the team has put on character. While a majority of the recently-drafted have come from CHL backgrounds, Chicago has also drafted from Europe, universities, high schools, the U.S. National Team Development Program, and low-level junior leagues.

Hockey’s Future Staff Mock Draft Selection: Drew Shore, C – USNTDP

Coming out of the U.S. National Team Development Program, Shore has the size and physical game that would complement the ‘Hawks current group of forwards. He has the tools offensively to be a playmaker as well. The 18-year-old Colorado native is praised for his character and work ethic, a point of emphasis for the organization on draft day. Shore is committed to play for Denver University next season, but the team is in position to give this pick some time to develop. Filling out his frame and skating are two areas where Shore could improve. In 53 games with the USNTDP last season, Shore scored 14 goals and added 23 assists for 37 points. At the World Under-18 Championships, the center contributed two goals and nine points during the United States’ seven-game gold medal run.