Dylan Olsen remains atop deep Chicago Blackhawks group

By Brad Gardner
Defenseman Dylan Olsen remains the top prospect on a talent pool flush in defensive talent. (Photo Courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

While Chicago’s cap crunch may have hurt the Blackhawks’ chances of repeating as Stanley Cup Champions next season, the prospect system is healthy and thriving. The team added 18 new prospects over the summer through trades, the draft, and free agency. Ten of those new players cracked these rankings, giving Chicago as deep a prospect pool as the team has had in recent memory.

As many as 12 prospects in the top 20 will be playing pro hockey this season, giving the Blackhawks plenty of options over the next couple seasons and bestowing a talented core of prospects to their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.

Top 20 at a glance:

1. (1) Dylan Olsen 7.5C
2. (2) Kyle Beach 7.5C
3. (3) Nick Leddy 7.5C
4. (NR) Viktor Stalberg 7.5C
5. (NR) Kevin Hayes 7.5C
6. (NR) Ivan Vishnevskiy 7.5C
7. (4) Shawn Lalonde 7.0C
8. (NR) Jeremy Morin 7.0C
9. (5) Marcus Kruger 7.0C
10. (7) Brandon Pirri 7.0C
11. (NR) Jimmy Hayes 7.0C
12. (6) Jack Skille 7.0C
13. (NR) Ludvig Rensfeldt 7.0C
14. (8) Igor Makarov 7.0C
15. (NR) Justin Holl 7.0C
16. (NR) Stephen Johns 7.0C
17. (10) Brian Connelly 6.5B
18. (NR) Chris DiDomenico 7.0D
19. (NR) Ben Smith 6.5C
20. (NR) Philippe Paradis 6.5C

1. (1) Dylan Olsen, D, 19
Drafted 1st round, 28th overall, 2009

Dylan Olsen remains atop the Blackhawks Top 20 prospect rankings after a freshman season in which he climbed the depth chart at the University of Minnesota-Duluth to become a staple in their top defensive pairing. He was effective on special teams as well with five of his 10 assists coming with the man advantage. The blueliner finished the season with one goal and 11 points in 35 games.

He projects as a two-way defenseman at the pro level. His mobility helps in both ends of the ice and he uses his size and physical edge effectively. There is still room to grow offensively but the 19-year-old boasts a heavy shot from the point and has already shown improvements in his breakout passes and puck control since being drafted.

Olsen will remain the main man on Duluth’s blue line this year and could be in line to join the pro ranks after one or two more seasons.

2. (2) Kyle Beach, LW, 20

Drafted 1st round, 11th overall, 2008

Kyle Beach had a fantastic final season at the junior level with the Spokane Chiefs. The winger scored a WHL-leading 52 goals during the regular season and scored a career-high 86 points, all while serving 186 penalty minutes. He was named to the WHL‘s First All-Star Team for his efforts.

Equipped with a deadly shot, Beach will look to translate his scoring touch to the pro ranks this season. He will compete for a roster spot on the Blackhawks but a longer look in Rockford may help ease the transition. In addition to his scoring potential, the 20-year-old’s ability to get under the skin of opponents could aid a Blackhawks team that lost some snarl in their offseason salary dumps.

Beach could potentially crack Chicago’s top six in the next couple years if his scoring comes along and he can keep his emotions in check. He will likely make his Blackhawks debut this year, whether he makes the team out of camp or as one of the first call-ups from Rockford.

3. (3) Nick Leddy, D, 19
Acquired via trade with Minnesota, 2010

The 19-year-old Leddy will also make his pro debut this season after a solid freshman year at the University of Minnesota. Though he was limited early in the season by a broken jaw, the blueliner displayed noticeable improvement and more confidence with the puck late in the year. He finished with three goals, eight assists in 30 games for the Gophers.

Although Leddy was expected to spend another year or two in the NCAA, Chicago GM Stan Bowman cited a strong prospect camp performance as the reasoning behind the surprising pro contract. Listed at 179 pounds, he may still need to pack on some pounds for the grind of the pro game, but there is no doubt he is a smooth skater from the blue line and has the offensive skills to fit Chicago’s style.

The ‘Hawks have seven defenseman with NHL experience signed to one-way contracts, so the defensive prospects will likely see more ice time in Rockford to start the season. Leddy was paired with another excellent skater in Shawn Lalonde through most of prospect camp this summer, so the organization may be interested in developing the two dynamic defensemen together.

4. (NR) Viktor Stalberg, LW, 24

Acquired via trade from Toronto, 2010

Viktor Stalberg is another forward who will be given every chance to crack the Blackhawks roster in camp. Acquired from Toronto in the Kris Versteeg trade, his experience at the NHL level last year might give him an edge over some of the other prospects vying for a roster spot. In 40 games for the Leafs, the winger scored nine goals, 5 assists. He also scored 12 goals and 33 points in 39 games with the AHL‘s Marlies in his first pro season.

Stalberg’s most noticeable asset is his speed, which will be a good fit with Chicago’s talented forward group. The Swede also brings good size to the table, though he does not always play as physically as his size might indicate. He also displayed a good scoring touch at times last season and could be a breakout candidate as a complimentary player on a top line.

Despite entering just his second pro season, the 24-year-old is currently the strongest candidate to help the Blackhawks replace some of the secondary scoring the team lost in the offseason.

5. (NR) Kevin Hayes, LW, 18

Drafted 1st round, 24th overall, 2010

Hayes was Chicago’s first pick in the 2010 draft out of Nobles Prep in Massachusetts. He accelerated his high school graduation in order to join his older brother, Jimmy, at Boston College this fall.

Kevin Hayes is the more skilled of the two, with excellent hockey IQ and playmaking ability. The 18-year-old already has good size at 6’2 and can use his big body and long reach effectively to create more space. He plays responsible defense and projects as a top six forward who is effective at both ends.

Boston College graduated just four key seniors from their National Championship team from a year ago, so Kevin will have to battle for ice time with a lot of returning players. He has the skill to contribute for the Eagles this year but, like any prospect, will need to add strength to fill out his frame. The Blackhawks expect the younger Hayes to spend a year or two at BC before considering a pro contract.

6. (NR) Ivan Vishnevskiy, D, 22

Acquired via trade from Atlanta, 2010

Vishnevskiy was acquired in a deal that sent forward Andrew Ladd to the Thrashers. The skilled blueliner was originally drafted by Dallas and acquired last season by Atlanta in exchange for goalie Kari Lehtonen. Vishnevskiy spent time with each organization’s AHL affiliate last year, scoring eight goals and 24 points in 51 games with the Texas Stars and two goals, 12 points in 28 games with Atlanta’s AHL club, the Chicago Wolves. He added six assists during the Wolves’ 14-game playoff run.

The Russian is another excellent skater on the back end. He can quarterback the power play with great vision and passing ability. He is inconsistent in his own end, though, which may limit his upside. The 22-year-old has shown improvement in that regard during his time in the AHL but still relies largely on his skating to keep him in the play.

With a couple pro seasons under his belt, Vishnevskiy has a leg up on making the big club over Leddy or Shawn Lalonde. He will still have to prove himself with yet another new organization this year, but could provide some more offensive punch from the bottom pairing or power play if he does get the call.

7. (4) Shawn Lalonde, D, 20

Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2008

Lalonde will join the pro ranks after a strong career with the OHL‘s Belleville Bulls. The blueliner led the Bulls in scoring in his fourth season with 13 goals and 43 assists for 56 points in 58 games. He joined the IceHogs after his junior season, scoring a goal and an assist in eight regular season AHL games and no points in three playoff games.

The 20-year-old was a big producer for the Bulls in his last two seasons thanks in large part to his ability to carry the puck and ignite the offense. He is yet another outstanding skater among Chicago’s defensive prospects, capable of breaking out a rush or leading it himself. The Ottawa native is solid in his own end thanks to his quickness and he can also hold his own in the physical game.

Lalonde will be in the mix at training camp, but is most likely to begin the season in Rockford.

8. (NR) Jeremy Morin, LW, 19

Acquired via trade from Atlanta, 2010

Acquired in a nine-player trade with Atlanta, Jeremy Morin brings an offensive boost to Chicago’s organizational depth. Morin was drafted by Atlanta out of the US National Team Development Program but opted to play in the OHL with Kitchener where he was one of the squad’s top offensive threats. The 19-year-old scored 47 goals, which ranked 4th among OHL rookies, and a total of 83 points in 58 games. He added 12 goals and nine assists in 20 playoff games.

Morin is the best pure scorer in the Blackhawks’ system due to his electric release and pinpoint accuracy. He has a soft set of hands and can handle the puck well. His draft stock slid in 2009 because of concerns about his skating, stamina, and hockey IQ, but Morin’s offensive upside is a great fit in a Chicago prospect system that was low on scorers.

Having been drafted out of the USNDTP, Morin is not bound by the CHL-AHL transfer agreement and is slated to play with Rockford this season. The CHL is investigating the situation, so Morin’s status could change.

9. (5) Marcus Kruger, C, 20

Drafted 5th round, 149th overall, 2009

Kruger earned the "draft steal" label almost as soon as he laced up for Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League last season. The playmaking pivot exploded with 14 points in his first eight games of the season, finishing with 11 goals and 31 points in 38 games. He added three goals, seven assists as Djurgarden marched to the SEL finals where they were defeated by HV71.

The Swede’s greatest strengths are his hockey sense, vision, and passing ability. Few players can see the passing lanes the way he can, let alone make the play. He is also a reliable defender, playing with energy and good positioning. Though he may be slightly undersized at 5’11 173 pounds, Kruger is strong on his skates and can control the puck better than his size might indicate. He is not afraid of the high traffic areas either, inflicting plenty of damage around the net and beneath the goal line for Djurgarden last season.

He has signed a contract with Chicago and will be at the Blackhawks’ training camp. He is still expected to finish his contract in the SEL and spend one more year with Djurgarden.

10. (9) Brandon Pirri, C, 19
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2009

Brandon Pirri became the most recent prospect to join the organization when he signed his entry-level contract after just his freshman season at RPI. The talented center finished second on the Engineers in scoring with 11 goals, 32 assists for 43 points in 39 games. Coupled with Jerry D’Amigo‘s contract with Toronto, the Engineers have quickly lost two blue-chip freshman from last season’s class and two of the team’s top three scorers.

The 19-year-old has excellent hands and is a creative puck handler. He is a g
ood passer with great awareness, making him a dangerous playmaker. He was a solid faceoff guy for Rensselaer, but his defensive zone play could use some work. A move to wing may not be out of question for Pirri, especially given his smaller stature at 160 pounds. His lack of discipline was also a problem last season as he was overly aggressive at times, finishing near the team lead with 65 penalty minutes.

Like Leddy, Pirri’s sudden jump to the pro level was a little sooner than expected. He will be a player to keep an eye on in Rockford as he adjusts to the pro game.

11. (NR) Jimmy Hayes, RW, 20
Acquired via trade from Toronto, 2010

Chicago traded a second round pick to Toronto (43rd overall, used to select Brad Ross) in exchange for Jimmy Hayes, the older brother of Chicago’s first round pick, Kevin. Jimmy Hayes is entering his junior season at BC after a huge finish to his sophomore season as the Eagles marched to a National Championship, scoring five goals and seven assists in his final eight games at the Hockey East and NCAA tournaments. He finished the year with 13 goals and 35 points in 42 games on the season.

Jimmy possesses even more size than his brother at 6’5 210 pounds. He is more of a checking forward who is able to use his big body to punish the opposition. His offensive game cannot be discounted, though, as he has a decent set of hands and creates plenty of chances. He also skates well for a player his size.

He is likely to have a similar top six role with BC this season and could make the jump the pros as soon as next year.

12. (6) Jack Skille, RW, 23

Drafted 1st round, 7th overall, 2005

Skille’s slide down these rankings is due in large part to the infusion of talent in the system as a result of Chicago’s salary dumps. Skille has also been one of the few prospects to see ice time in the NHL, where he has yet to really make an impact and instead has displayed a few glaring weaknesses. Though his offensive production improved again last season with Rockford with 23 goals, 26 assists in 63 games, Skille has yet to find that nose for the net with the big club. He has also proven inconsistent as a checker, at times using his speed and body with great results on the forecheck and at other times not willing to attack the high-traffic areas.

Like Stalberg, Skille is penciled into a roster spot but will need to perform to keep his place in the lineup. Skille could find success as a complimentary player on one of the top lines, but is most likely headed to third line duty where he will have to prove he can be consistent at both ends of the ice.

13. (NR) Ludvig Rensfeldt, LW, 18

Drafted 2nd round, 35th overall, 2010

The second member of the 2010 draft class to crack the rankings, Rensfeldt shot up many draft boards with a strong regular season in the Swedish junior ranks and a stellar performance at the U18 WJC. Though eligible for the 18-year-old leagues in Sweden, Rensfeldt spent much of the year with Brynas’ 20-year-old junior team, scoring 21 goals and 29 assists in 39 games. He really made a name for himself at the U18 WJC tournament, where he scored six goals and tied for fourth overall with 12 points en route to a silver medal for Sweden.

The Swedish winger has great size at 6’3 and can use it to create room offensively. He has a good shot, which he uses especially well on the rush. The 18-year-old is a sound defensive forward as well and projects as a second or third line two-way winger.

Rensfeldt will spend another year with Brynas in Sweden, and could make his SEL debut at some point during the year.

14. (8) Igor Makarov, RW, 22
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2006

Igor Makarov signed a contract with the Blackhawks and will be another forward competing for a bottom six role next season. The 22-year-old winger has spent the last few seasons in the KHL in a rather limited role. He scored four goals and six points in 26 games for SKA St. Petersburg last season before being traded to Dynamo Moscow, where he scored three points in 25 games.

Makarov is a well-rounded player, capable at both ends of the ice. He skates well and brings energy and work ethic to each shift. He is solid offensively as well with soft hands and a good hockey IQ.

Blackhawks fans have been anticipating Makarov’s arrival since a strong camp and preseason two years ago. Though his future in North America was in doubt when he didn’t report to camp last season, he is finally a good bet to crack the Blackhawks roster.

15. (NR) Justin Holl, D, 18
Drafted 2nd round, 54th overall, 2010

The first of two defenseman drafted by the Blackhawks in the second round in 2010, Justin Holl is a dynamic, offensive-minded blueliner. Drafted out of the Minnesota high school ranks, the 18-year-old was another riser at the draft.

Holl is an adept puck-carrier and smooth skater. He can lead the rush and likes to push the play into the offensive zone. He has a projectable frame, but will need to add strength and fill out. His defensive zone play could also use some work as he can get caught out of position at times.

He will suit up for the University of Minnesota next season, perhaps with more of an opportunity to play big minutes because of the hole left by Nick Leddy‘s departure.

16. (NR) Stephen Johns, D, 18

Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2010

The second defenseman drafted by Chicago was Wampum, Pennsylvania native Stephen Johns. The big blueliner skated with the USNTDP team last season, scoring one goal, seven assists in 23 USHL games. He appeared in 62 games with the U18 national team and registered 19 points, including three assists in seven games as a member of the gold medal winning U18 WJC squad.

Johns is not known for his point production, but instead for his defensive play and leadership abilities. His defensive positioning is sound, and he is more than willing to use his 6’3 frame to punish the opposition. The 18-year-old is solid with the puck and has room to grow offensively, but has yet to see any extended time in an offensive role. He projects as a second pairing shut-down defenseman.

Johns will join Joe Lavin on the Notre Dame blue line next season.

17. (10) Brian Connelly, D, 24
Signed as a free agent, 2009

Connelly was one of the top players for Rockford last season, finishing the year
with four goals and 31 assists in 78 games. His 35 points ranked sixth among rookie defensemen in the AHL, while he ranked second on the IceHogs blue line in scoring. He tied for the team lead with three points, all assists, in four playoff games.

The 24-year-old defenseman is another skilled skater on the back end and a great passer with excellent hockey sense. He is a capable defender as well because of his strong skating and quick stick.

Connelly may not have the upside of some of the other offensive-defenseman in the system, but his experience and success at the pro level last year will help his case this season. He has an outside shot at the ‘Hawks roster, but will likely open the season with Rockford again.

18. (NR) Chris DiDomenico, C, 21

Acquired via trade from Toronto, 2010

Another prospect acquired from Toronto in the Kris Versteeg trade, DiDomenico’s junior career was a long road. The pivot suffered a broken leg during the playoffs at the end of the 2008-09 season, just months after scoring two goals and five assists in six games helping Canada capture WJC gold. He missed most of the 2009-10 season but made an emphatic return in the final 12 games of the regular season, scoring seven goals and 22 points. He tied for the team lead in playoff points with 21 in 14 games for Drummondville.

Now that part one of his rehab is complete, DiDomenico has the difficult task of adjusting to the pro game. The physical rigors could be difficult given his smaller size at 5’11 165 pounds, but his excellent understanding of the game and two-way reliability make him an intriguing forward to watch in Rockford next season.

19. (NR) Ben Smith, RW, 22

Drafted 6th round, 169th overall, 2008

A linemate of Jimmy Hayes at BC last season, Ben Smith capped off a great four-year career with the Eagles with a National Championship and Frozen Four MVP honors. He finished the season with 16 goals and 37 points in 42 games, including three goals and an assist at the Frozen Four.

Smith projects as a two-way forward with solid offensive potential. He will at least succeed as a checker thanks to his hard work and energy on the forecheck and in his own zone. He wore an "A" in his final year at BC and is a well-respected teammate. The 22-year-old is also versatile with the ability to play either center or wing.

Smith will join Rockford this season and could be an important piece in Chicago’s bottom six within a year or two.

20. (NR) Philippe Paradis, C, 19
Acquired via trade from Toronto, 2010

The third prospect acquired from Toronto in the Versteeg trade, Paradis is a prospect with a lot of tools but has not been able to put it all together. He has yet to explode in the Quebec league, scoring 24 goals and 20 assists in 63 games last year in his third season with Shawinigan. He will have a change of scenery next season after being traded to the PEI Rocket.

Although Carolina’s pick of Paradis towards the end of the first round in 2009 was seen as a reach by most pundits, his combination of size, skating, and skill is still an intriguing package. The 19-year-old projects as a third liner at this point, able to play well at both ends of the ice and bring some size and physicality to the line-up.

Paradis is signed to an entry-level deal but still has one more year of junior ahead of him.