After changes to the roster during the offseason, the 2015-16 Chicago Blackhawks are a mix of fresh and familiar faces. The core group, which includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith remains mostly intact. Several holes in the roster remained and the Blackhawks – tight against the salary cap – filled the majority of those holes from within.
Prospects Artemi Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen have proven their worth early, while several others may not have made the most of their opportunity with the big club. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to keep an eye on within the system throughout the 2015-16 season, which is pivotal for the development of several players.
The most exciting skater for the first quarter of the Blackhawks’ 2015-16 campaign has been Panarin. After taking the KHL by storm last season, the signing of the 23-year-old brought skill to a Chicago team that lost both Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp to trades. There were some questions as to how Panarin would handle the pressure of playing with a new team in a whole new country, but the transition has appeared seamless. Panarin’s performance has made him an early favorite for the Calder Trophy.
While he struggled during the opening weeks of the season, it appears Graham Knott is settling in with the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL. The big-bodied winger projects to be more of a power forward-type of player rather than an elite goalscorer. With the Blackhawks lacking size on the wings, however, Knott looks like a useful player. Radovan Bondra is another 2015 draft selection developing in the CHL for the 2015-16 season – with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. While both have big frames, the similarities end there, as Bondra is known to use his offensive instincts more than his physicality. There’s some hope the 18-year-old could develop into a real talent in a few years.
Garret Ross’s 2014-15 season saw the gritty winger display in the AHL the offensive touch he developed with the Sarnia Sting during his junior career. That production has slowed this season and Ross must step up his game should he wish to earn a call-up this season.
The Blackhawks have three left wingers skating in the NCAA this season. Anthony Louis continues to showcase his impressive skating and stick-handling with Miami University (Ohio). Tyler Motte enters his junior year at Michigan hoping to build off last season’s successful sophomore campaign. The most intriguing of the three may be Fredrik Olofsson, who enters his freshman year with the University of Nebraska-Omaha after a sensational 2014-15 season with the Chicago Steel of the USHL. Olofsson, a fourth-round selection in 2014, has been skating mostly on UNO’s top line.
John Dahlstrom was a 2015 seventh-round selection for the Blackhawks, but has the potential to be a solid pick. At just 18-years-old, the Swedish winger already has a solid frame and decent shot. He’s been an offensive dynamo for Frolunda’s J20 team, and with a couple years of work, Dahlstrom could see his way up the depth chart.
While the size of the Blackhawks’ center group has decreased, the talent is still there. Playoff star Teuvo Teravainen leads the pack. Although he seems to play his best hockey at center, the 21-year-old Finn has also logged minutes on Chicago’s top left wing alongside Toews and Marian Hossa.
There is no sophomore slump as far as Nick Schmaltz is concerned. The Blackhawks’ top collegiate prospect is off to a hot start with the University of North Dakota. Schmaltz possesses incredible hockey sense and finesse, and should he have a strong 2016 World Junior performance, Schmaltz could earn himself a pro contract.
The Blackhawks’ center depth at the AHL level has been worth watching. Both Vincent Hinostroza and Tanner Kero have earned looks in the NHL early in the 2015-16 season, with the latter currently centering the third or fourth lines. While Hinostroza’s speed and eye for the net make him notable, he needs more time to grow as a player. Kero had a superb start with the IceHogs, netting six goals in seven games. He even managed to score his first NHL goal on November 6. Kero has looked like a comfortable bottom-six option for the Blackhawks.
Also worth monitoring is Philip Danault, who is currently recovering from hip surgery. Danault, much like Marcus Kruger, is a defensively responsible center who can lead the rush when necessary. Don’t be surprised if Danault gets a shot with the Blackhawks sometime during the 2015-16 season.
While less likely to earn a call-up than Danault, Dennis Rasmussen has been a reliable center during his time in the AHL. At 25, Rasmussen has more pro experience than other skaters in the system, and his size and strong shot make him a known commodity. He has a lot to prove to jump ahead of centers like Hinostroza and Kero however.
While the aforementioned Schmaltz is the best NCAA prospect in the Blackhawks system, several collegians are looking to make a name for themselves. Beau Starrett, a third-round selection in 2014, has a goal in five games with Cornell, while Liam Coughlin has four assists with the University of Vermont. Dylan Sikura has started to regain his scoring touch, netting seven points for Northeastern. Luke Johnson enters his third season with the University of North Dakota centering the top line of an offensively-gifted UND team. Johnson and Starrett have a bit of an edge over Coughlin and Sikura on the Blackhawks collegiate depth chart, but being that the four are still early in their developmental processes, things can always change.
Although Marko Dano is listed as a right winger, his future in Chicago likely lies in his ability to play the left side, primarily with Toews and Hossa. Another reason Dano will be a fixture in Joel Quenneville’s lineup is that the 20-year-old can be trusted in three zones, making him an effective two-way player. Dano has earned two points in eight games with the Blackhawks after a call-up on November 2. If all goes according to plan, Dano should figure into Chicago’s top-six for quite some time.
The 2015-16 season is likely to be a make-or-break year for Mark McNeill, who enters his third full season with the IceHogs. Most would assume a first-round pick would be the frontrunner to earn a spot with the big club, but that hasn’t been the case with McNeill, who has yet to make his NHL debut. With seven points in 13 games, McNeill remains focused in the AHL, using his aggressive playing style to his advantage. Whether the 22-year-old gets a chance to dress for his first NHL game remains to be seen.
Unlike McNeill, Ryan Hartman suited up for the Blackhawks for the second season in a row on October 30. The gritty winger has proved himself to be one of Rockford’s most versatile skaters, earning time on both the power play and penalty kill. His eight points in 12 games further prove Hartman has some offensive flair. His limited looks with the Blackhawks haven’t provided much of a sample size but another full season with the IceHogs could help Hartman make the full-time leap into the NHL.
During training camp and preseason, a couple of names got people talking. Ryan Haggerty, acquired via trade with the New York Rangers, had a strong showing during camp, while Kyle Baun, a Colgate University alumnus, used his physical play and powerful shot to earn an opening-night roster spot. It didn’t last, as Baun was sent down to Rockford. Baun has yet to register a point for the IceHogs, while Haggerty has a goal to his name. Joel Quenneville liked what he saw with Baun, and if a call-up is needed soon, likely Baun would get the call over Haggerty.
The Blackhawks have some firepower on the right side when it comes to the NCAA. John Hayden has looked exceptional the past two years at the Blackhawks summer prospect camp, and another solid year at Yale could boost his standing even higher. Chris Calnan is another who continues to work his way up the depth chart. The 21-year-old Boston College Eagle entered his junior year as an alternate captain, and Calnan has seen consistent time on BC’s top line. While not a conventional goal scorer, Calnan provides solid two-way play and leadership for the Eagles.
Matt Iacopelli, a third-round pick in 2014, enters his first year with Western Michigan University, aiming to use his hard shot to his advantage. The offensive-minded winger has been a regular in the top-six, even earning some power play time, but has work to do to surpass Hayden and Calnan on the depth chart. Same goes for Jack Ramsey, also drafted in 2014’s seventh round. Ramsey has yet to be an offensive contributor for Minnesota, where he slots onto the fourth line. Both Iacopelli and Ramsey need another couple years of development.
One player whose stock may rise is Roy Radke. After an impressive prospect camp, Radke has been an important part of the Barrie Colts. Radke’s skating and offensive instincts make him a dangerous player for Barrie, and he could become one of the Blackhawks’ top right wing prospects in a couple years.
With the departures of Stephen Johns and Michael Paliotta via offseason trades, Ville Pokka has become the top defensive prospect within the organization. The 21-year-old Finn has emerged as one of Rockford’s most reliable and offensively-dangerous blueliners. Not only is Pokka a front-runner for a roster spot on the backend next season, he could even find himself on the receiving end of a call-up sometime during the 2014-15 season.
Trevor van Riemsdyk, while lacking the offensive upside of Pokka, definitely has the skills of an NHL defender. After surprising with a solid relief role in the 2014-15 season, TVR, as he’s called, has become a full-time member of the Blackhawks’ defense to start the 2015-16 season. The hope is that van Riemsdyk can evolve into an effective shutdown defenseman. Being paired with Brent Seabrook certainly can help that become a reality.
Gustav Forsling has the tools to be an effective offensive-minded defenseman for Chicago. At just 19 years old, the second-year pro has emerged as one of Linkoping’s better blueliners. His quickness and vision make him dangerous to play against. Forsling has yet to test his hockey skills in North America. Once he does, however, expect him to be an impact player.
The Blackhawks hoped Viktor Svedberg could use his Zdeno Chara-esque build to emulate the Boston Bruins captain defensively. The 24-year-old defenseman suited up for the Blackhawks for 15 games to start the 2015-16 season, but he was sent down on November 15. The massive defenseman needs to be more reliable defensively before he expects to see NHL time again.
In the NCAA, Dennis Gilbert (Notre Dame) is having a solid freshman year, seeing time all throughout the lineup, while Luc Snuggerud (University of Nebraska – Omaha) has developed into a reliable defender in his sophomore year with the Mavericks. Both Gilbert and Snuggerud show promise, but at just 18 and 20 years old, respectively, the two have some filling out to do before they make it to the pros.
Jake Massie was acquired in the offseason Kris Versteeg trade, and while the 18-year-old defenseman for the Omaha Lancers is still a raw project for the Blackhawks, he has the smarts in his own zone to be worth keeping an eye on. Same goes for Ryan Shea, who is currently on IR for the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL. A skilled blueliner who can lead the charge offensively, Shea has the tools to develop a pro game. As with Massie, it will be a few years before an accurate picture can be developed of his true talents.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman is no stranger to European defensemen, as made evident by his stockpile of overseas skaters. Carl Dahlstrom, a teammate of Gustav Forsling, got a brief look with the IceHogs last year, but he continues to develop with Linkoping. While Forsling has an offensive edge to his game, Dahlstrom is more comfortable in his own zone. Robin Norell and Robin Press, both selected by the Blackhawks in the 2013 draft, got limited looks with the IceHogs last year, and the pair are currently skating with Djurgardens in the SHL. Press is looking to capitalize of a noteworthy season that saw him earn 30 points in 51 games, while Norell needs to continue shaping his defensive game. Andreas Soderberg, who is splitting time between Skelleftea AIK’s J20 team and Vita Hasten, and Joni Tuulola, in his second season with HPK of the Liiga, are still in the early stages of their development.
A handful of defenseman have bounced between the IceHogs and Indy Fuel of the ECHL. Dillon Fournier is finding himself suiting up for the Fuel more than the IceHogs. While Fournier is a solid blueliner who can handle the puck well and lead the rush, a logjam in Rockford saw his playing time with the IceHogs gradually diminish. Mathieu Brisebois is in a similar situation as Fournier, and has similar attributes as well. It can be argued Brisebois plays his best hockey while on the offensive, as made evident by his 73-point 2012-13 season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL. Both Fournier and Brisebois will need stellar seasons in the ECHL, however, to make their case for extended looks in the AHL.
Nolan Valleau, who had an impressive season as a redshirt freshman with Bowling Green State University in 2014-15, managed to earn himself a two-year entry level deal with the Blackhawks over the summer after a solid prospect development camp, to which he earned an invite. Valleau has been a noteworthy addition to the IceHogs’ blueline (his five points in 14 games are second among IceHogs defensemen in scoring). A full year in the AHL could earn the 23-year-old defenseman an extended look during the 2016-17 preseason. Dennis Robertson, who was also acquired in the Versteeg trade over the summer, has been decent to start the year with Rockford. At 24, Robertson will need to step into a bigger role with the IceHogs should he hope to move himself further up the Blackhawks’ depth chart.
While Corey Crawford is the Blackhawks’ number one goaltender for the foreseeable future, questions tend to arise concerning Chicago’s system between the pipes. Matt Tomkins had a rough 2014-15 campaign for Ohio State, losing the starting job and posting a .876 save percentage. While his record for the 2015-16 season hasn’t been superb, his play is getting better.
The other goaltending prospect in the system is Ivan Nalimov, who was selected in the sixth round – 179th overall – in 2014. The 21-year-old Russian has looked much more solid during the 2015-16 season for Admiral Vladivostok, boasting a 10-8-2 record with a 2.54 goals against average and .912 save percentage. Nalimov has expressed his intent to sign with the Blackhawks once his KHL contract is up, making him eligible to play in North America for the 2016-17 season.