Defensemen and depth forwards prevail in top-20 for Chicago Blackhawks

By Brad Gardner
Photo: Ludvig Rensfeldt is one of several talented European forwards drafted by the Blackhawks. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Some of the top spots in the Blackhawks’ top 20 are changing this time around as some of the newly-acquired prospects begin to develop at the professional level. Both Nick Leddy, acquired from Minnesota, and Jeremy Morin, acquired from Atlanta, have played some productive hockey for Chicago this season.

A wave of prospects rolled into the Rockford lineup this year, but one of the AHL‘s youngest squads has struggled. The IceHogs currently sit dead last in the West Division, trailing the rest of the pack by 15 points. Accordingly, the team’s struggles have not helped the young players, who have each experienced their own highs and lows throughout the year.

1. (3) Nick Leddy, D, 7.5B
Acquired: Trade with Minnesota Wild, February 12th, 2010

Nick Leddy has been the most impressive rookie to debut in Chicago this season. At just 19 years old, the blueliner has appeared in 27 games for the Blackhawks, including recent playing time on the top pair beside Duncan Keith.

The smooth-skating defenseman opened the season in Chicago, but played sporadically in the first six-game stint. He then played in 22 AHL games before joining Team USA at the World Junior Championships, where he notched three assists for the bronze medal-winning Americans.

Leddy returned to the Blackhawks after the tournament where he has made his biggest impression this year. Though he has not made a huge impact on the score sheet with only two goals and an even plus/minus, he has shown poise with the puck and an active stick defensively. Paired recently Keith, the duo has helped the puck-possession scheme the ‘Hawks want to play despite the fact neither offers much in the way of physical presence in their own zone.

The Minnesota-native’s ascension up the Chicago depth chart in his first season with the organization has been remarkable, and the promise he has shown portends even greater things in the future.

2. (1) Dylan Olsen, D, 7.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 28th overall, 2009

Now on his third team of the season, Dylan Olsen looks like he has become more comfortable at the pro level. The hulking blueliner has become a regular in the Rockford lineup where his size and play with the puck have both been welcome additions.

The 20-year-old defenseman opened the season on the top pairing at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he outscored his entire freshman season with 13 points in 17 games. He was chosen to represent Canada at the WJC, playing on the squad’s top pairing with Ryan Ellis (NAS) and registering two assists. Rumored to be battling injury at the tourney, Olsen’s performance on the international stage was less than impressive at times, as he was the only regular in the Canada lineup to finish in the negative at minus-two.

With Olsen facing academic ineligibility for his second semester, Chicago was forced to use the organization’s 50th contract on the first round pick, who landed in the AHL with Rockford. The 6’2 blueliner has been a good presence in front of the Rockford net and along the boards, adding more physical play to the lineup. He has made good decisions with the puck for the most part and displayed good skating for his size once he gets going.

Though he may not be as close to making an impact at the NHL level as Leddy, Olsen could still be the more rounded defenseman down the line. With the size and physical style to control his own zone as well as a big shot and good wheels, Olsen projects as a balanced, mobile top-four defenseman. His short distance skating is an area in which he could improve that would only help as he adjusts to the pro pace.

3. (7) Jeremy Morin, LW, 7.0B
Acquired: Trade with Atlanta Thrashers, June 23rd, 2010

Jeremy Morin looks like the best immediate return that Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman received when he was forced to shed salary over the summer. Though he spent only nine games in the NHL this season, Morin showed that he may not be far from contributing in the Chicago lineup.

In his solid showing at the NHL level the 19-year-old winger scored two goals and an assist in nine games. The winger debuted his lightning quick shot and showed noticeable improvement in the skating department. He also played a bit of a scrappy game, finishing his checks and even dropping the gloves once.

Morin has spent the majority of the season in the AHL, where he scored eight goals and 12 points in 22 games in a top six role for the ‘Hogs. He was selected again for Team USA in an attempt to defend their gold medal from a year ago, but he was banged up early and registered just one assist in four games at the World Juniors.

Three games after returning to Rockford, the New York-native flipped over the top of a hip check and landed awkwardly on his chest and head. He has not returned and their does not seem to be a time table for his return at this time.

4. (2) Kyle Beach, LW, 7.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 11th overall, 2008

The most anticipated newcomer to Rockford this year was Kyle Beach, the Blackhawks highest-drafted prospect. As is the case with most of the rookies, it has been a bit of an uneven rookie season for the 21-year-old winger, who was coming off a 52-goal year in the WHL last season.

Beach has solid number thus far with 13 goals, 17 assists, and 136 penalty minutes in 58 games. His goal total ranks third on the team but he ranks dead last with an abysmal minus-20 rating. There have been strong games in which he has played aggressively and registered a handful of scoring chances, while other games he is kept to the outside and the chances are few in number or come from bad angles.

Getting plenty of ice time against professional competition is important for Beach as he adjusts to not being the biggest player out there. That his agitating style could work on an NHL fourth line is not lost on the ‘Hawks organization, but the team seems intent on allowing him time to put everything together so that he can fulfill his top six potential.

5. (4) Kevin Hayes, LW, 7.5C
Acquired: 1st round, 24th overall, 2010

Kevin Hayes is an intriguing package of size and playmaking ability, currently playing in his freshman season at Boston College. Through 24 games, the forward has three goals and six assists for the Eagles.

Hayes has been used at both wing and center so far this season, lately centering the Eagles’ third line. His combination of a 6’2 frame and skill allows him to play a variety of roles, and he could eventually be an all-situations forward at the pro level.

A knee injury suffered in practice kept Hayes out for almost two months and cause him to miss the US WJC training camp. He has since returned to the BC lineup, but has struggled to rediscover his groove. Playing for an elite college hockey program, the younger Hayes should have plenty of time to develop at his own pace.

6. (8) Marcus Kruger, C, 7.0C
Acquired: 5th round, 149th overall, 2009

The Blackhawks’ top center prospect is having another strong season in the Elitserien, Sweden‘s top pro league. Though his year started off slow while returning from a foot injury, the pivot has since picked up his production and has Djurgardens back in the SEL playoff picture.

Kruger leads the team with 35 points in 50 games as the squad’s top line center. He is much more of a playmaker than a scorer, as his total of six goals on the season attests, but he is much more than just an offensive player. The 20-year-old Swede has excellent hockey sense and a strong three-zone game that should be well-suited for the North American style.

Kruger could prove to be the best forward prospect in the Chicago system, but will have to prove he can play on the smaller rink. He is signed to a contract already and should compete for a center spot at next season’s training camp.

7. (6) Shawn Lalonde, D 7.0C
Acquired: 3rd round, 68th overall, 2008

Shawn Lalonde has been one of the top rookies in Rockford this season, ranking second in scoring among defensemen on the ‘Hogs. With 27 points in 53 games, the blueliner is tied for fifth overall in points in his first pro season.

It has not all been smooth sailing for the quick skater, as the size and pace of the pro game gave him some problems early on, especially in his own zone. Though not a very big defenseman at 6’1 192 pounds, he still is willing to throw his body around and has even dropped the gloves a few times this season.

Lalonde’s most noticeable contributions come from chipping in offensively and playing on the power play, where he is able to get shots through traffic to the front of the net. He could certainly get stronger in order to hold his own defensively, but Lalonde has shown flashes of the promising puck-mover that he could be down the road.

8. (9) Brandon Pirri, C, 7.0C
Acquired: 2nd round, 59th overall, 2009

It was a surprise when Chicago announced they had signed RPI forward Brandon Pirri to a contract, accelerating his pro debut after just one college season. The center has struggled at times adjusting to the size and speed of the pro game.

Through 52 games, the pivot has scored eight goals and 17 assists to go along with a minus-12 rating. Recently, he has been more noticeable by creating chances, being able to get shots off a little quicker and having more success finding space in the offensive zone. He still struggles without the strength to fight through checks or the superior skill to deke through a group of defenders as was the case at previous levels of play.

Pirri has been used almost entirely at center in a second or third line role. With plenty of room for improvement in terms of strength and skating, this will be an important offseason for the rookie. Especially with the recent departure of center Ryan Potulny, Pirri should continue to get plenty of minutes in Rockford through the end of this season and going forward.

9. (5) Ivan Vishnevskiy, D, 7.0C
Acquired: Trade with Atlanta Thrashers, July 1st, 2010

In his first year with the Blackhawks organization, Ivan Vishnevskiy has skated in 42 games with Rockford. The third year pro ranks third among the defense with 14 point in that span, including five goals.

One of the more experienced AHLers on the Rockford roster, Vishnevskiy has been one of the more inconsistent performers as well. He skates very well with the puck on his stick and is excellent at pushing the pace in the transition game. When he is not carrying the puck and pinching in offensively however, he has the tendency to disappear for lengths of time.

The 23-year-old blueliner has been out of the Rockford lineup recently due to injury. Now with his third NHL organization, Vishnveskiy will have to improve in order to stay in the mix among the rest of the ‘Hawks top defensive prospects.

10. (10) Jimmy Hayes, RW, 7.0C
Acquired: Trade with Toronto Maple Leafs, June 26th, 2010

Teammate and older brother of Kevin, Jimmy Hayes is part of the returning core for Boston College as they defend last season’s National Championship. So far, it has been more of the same for the elder Hayes, who ranks second on the Eagles with 16 goals in 32 games. The junior winger has been hot of late with 10 points in eight February games, including the overtime goal in Boston College’s victory in the Bean Pot title game.

The 21-year-old is more of a physical presence than his younger brother and, at 6’5 and 210 pounds, is an absolute beast when he is finishing checks and playing aggressively. He also boasts good skill and a decent set of wheels for his size.

Though he has a year of eligibility remaining in the college ranks, the 21-year-old Hayes could be offered a contract by Chicago next summer.

11. (14) Stephen Johns, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 2nd round, 60th overall, 2010

No other Blackhawk prospect provides the physical presence of Stephen Johns. The freshman defenseman has become a fixture in Notre Dame’s top four, including some time on the top pairing with fellow ‘Hawks prospect Joe Lavin.

The Pennsylvania-native has one goal, nine assists, and 90 penalty minutes in 36 games so far in his first collegiate season. He is capable of dominating shifts with his strong 6’3 frame, adept at keeping the front of his net clear and winning battles along the boards. He has been caught out of position at times going for the big hit, but the ability to better pick his spots should improve with experience.

Between Johns having a strong debut and Lavin an excellent senior season, Chicago prospects have been a major presence on the Notre Dame blue line. Johns likely has a couple more years of college hockey ahead of him as he continues filling out physically and expanding his game.

12. (NR) Alexander Salak, G, 6.5B
Acquired: Trade with Florida Panthers, February 9th, 2011

Swedish netminder Alexander Salak may end up as the most important piece in the recent trade that sent Jack Skille to the Florida Panthers. The 24-year-old goalie currently plays in the Elitserien with Farjestad, where he has earned a .925 save percentage, 2.04 goals against average, and six shutouts on the year.

He played in North America last year, earning a 29-14-0 record for the Rochester Americans. Despite a solid pro season, Salak was going to be the odd man out with Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen entrenched in the Florida crease and top prospect Jakob Markstrom making his North American debut with the Amerks.

Salak is expected to sign a deal with Chicago that would bring him back across the pond next season. Neither Corey Crawford nor Marty Turco are signed for next season, which leaves the possibility open for Salak to inherit some of the timeshare in Chicago next year.

13. (11) Ludvig Rensfeldt, LW, 7.0C
Acquired: 2nd round, 35th overall, 2010

The 6’3 Swedish winger has suited up at four different levels this season, currently skating with Bofors in Sweden‘s Allsvenskan, the second tier pro league. He has five goals and two assists so far in 11 games at that level.

Rensfeldt first proved himself on Brynas J20 team early this season, repeating his excellent production from a year ago with 33 points in 23 games. He was unable to get ice time with the big club in the Elitserien, managing just one assist in 14 games with Brynas. He averaged around three minutes per night in the Elitserien and was loaned to Bofors where he could get quality ice time and experience against pro players.

An injury shortened his J20 Top 8 tournament in early February, where he scored one goal with two assists in three games. The 19-year-old winger likely has at least another year in Sweden, where he could get more of an opportunity with Brynas and will take another crack at Sweden’s WJC team.

14. (13) Justin Holl, D, 7.0C
Acquired: 2nd round, 54th overall, 2010

Justin Holl has struggled to stay in the Gophers’ lineup with any regularity. The freshman defenseman has skated in 22 games with one goal, six assists.

The 6’2 Holl has been used in more of a checking role this season and has shown he can play the body well. His offensive game has yet to come through at this point, but he has some excellent offensive tools like his quick skating and wicked shot. The 19-year-old will have as much time as he needs to develop physically and find that offensive game at Minnesota.

15. (15) Brian Connelly, D, 6.5B
Acquired: Free agent, March 1st, 2009

Brian Connelly has been Rockford’s offensive leader on the blue line again this season, scoring five goals and 38 points in 60 games. The 24-year-old defenseman has been a stable presence in the ‘Hogs top pairing. He has also gotten ample power play time where he can find more space to utilize his speed and playmaking ability.

Connelly’s offensive game could fit in the Chicago lineup, but his defensive game may not be up to par. Not an imposing defender by any means at 5’10 and 167 pounds, he uses his skating and active stick to hold his own at the AHL level. He should continue to be a big producer at the AHL level but his chances at the NHL with Chicago remains uncertain.

16. (12) Igor Makarov, RW, 6.5C
Acquired: 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2006

The Russian winger is skating in his first season in North America. He has largely played in Rockford’s bottom six, scoring seven goals and 19 points in 56 games.

Makarov’s speed and energy have been his most noticeable assets, as well as his willingness to bang and work in the corners. Despite the second round expectations, the 23-year-old Makarov projects as a role player at the NHL level as well. With another year left on his deal with Chicago, Makarov would be a good bet to at least get a look in Chicago’s bottom six sometime next season.

17. (17) Ben Smith, RW, 6.5C
Acquired: 6th round, 169th overall, 2008

Ben Smith made both his professional and NHL debuts already in his rookie season, skating in three early season games with the Blackhawks. He has played the majority of the season in Rockford, scoring nine goals and 19 points in 48 games.

In the AHL, Smith has played up and down the lineup thanks to his hockey smarts and versatility. He has lined up mostly at wing and been used in all situations, scoring three power play goals along with a team-leading two shorthanded tallies. A concussion knocked him out of the lineup and he suffered a setback when he caught a puck to the face in practice, causing him to miss about a month of games.

While his game may not stand out in any one area, the 22-year-old Smith plays a very disciplined game that will probably have him back in Chicago as a role player sometime in the near future.

18. (NR) Kent Simpson, G, 7.0D
Acquired: 2nd round, 58th overall, 2010

The fourth goalie off the board in the 2010 draft, Kent Simpson is in his first season as the Everett Silvertips’ full-time starter. On the season, the netminder has a 21-20-5-4 record with a .915 save percentage and 2.79 goals against average.

Though he was initially out-played by Chicago’s 6th round goalie Mac Carruth of the Portland Winterhawks, Simpson has recently gotten his game back on track. The 18-year-old netminder has had a .926 saver percentage through 23 games so far in 2011, bumping him up to fourth in the league in save percentage. That stretch included a 45-save shutout of the high-octane Winterhawks, who had been averaging over six goals per game entering that contest.

The 6’3 goalie covers a lot of net and is sound in his technique. He has another year of junior ahead of him to get used to the big minutes and expectations of a starting netminder. More runs like the last two months will also help him gain the attention of Team Canada heading into next year’s WJC.

19. (NR) Byron Froese, C 6.5C
Acquired: 4th round, 119th overall, 2009

Byron Froese continues to fly under the radar among junior prospects despite another productive season in the WHL. The pivot ranks third on the team with 69 points in 63 games this season, his first with the Red Deer Rebels.

Though he leads the squad with 36 goals, the veteran Froese has been overshadowed by draft-eligible center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who leads the Rebels with 87 points. Froese is a hard-working center who plays in all situations for the Rebels and is a valuable leader and alternate captain this season.

Chicago will have to sign the 19-year-old center this summer or relinquish his rights. Froese is a good bet to start off as a bottom-six contributor in Rockford next season.

20. (18) Philippe Paradis, LW 6.5C
Acquired: Trade with Toronto Maple Leafs, June 30th, 2010

Like Froese, Philippe Paradis is finishing his junior career with a new team, the Prince Edward Island Rocket. The winger has skated in 54 Quebec league games, scoring 50 points for the Rocket.

With PEI struggling, Paradis was thought to be a possible trade chip at the deadline but he was not moved. Instead, he has remained a balanced forward for the Rocket, ranking first on the team with a plus-17 rating and ranking third with 23 goals. The 20-year-old is poised set new career marks in both goals and points on the season, but Paradis will always be compared to the lofty draft expectations. Though he may not live up to his first round draft status, he still has the physical tools and a bit of skill to become a valuable role player at the professional level. Paradis will need to be signed by Chicago this summer if he is in the organization’s plans for next season and beyond.