The 2015–16 season for the Chicago Blackhawks certainly had its ups and downs. In a season that included Patrick Kane’s historic point streak, Artemi Panarin‘s sublime rookie campaign, and two prospects winning the NCAA Division I Championship (more on that in a bit) – but also some off-the-ice issues – the Blackhawks’ season came to an early end, falling to the St. Louis Blues in game seven of the Western Conference Semifinals.
The hardest part of the Chicago’s early departure from the postseason, however, is the uncertainty that awaits the organization. Stan Bowman will need to get creative in managing the salary cap, which means moves will be made. That being said, a handful of prospects in the system will be looked at to fill the gaps.
Hockey’s Future makes an annual tradition of handing out some hardware to the prospects who stood out this season.
Hardest Worker: John Hayden, RW, Yale University (ECAC)
It’s no question Hayden has been steadily improving during his time with Yale. The 21-year-old forward is starting to become a more confident and reliable player for the Bulldogs, as made evident by his 23-point 2015-16 season. Although his bulky build would make him appear to be an enforcer-like skater, Hayden showcased his goal-scoring ability this year. In fact, Hayden led Yale in goals with 16. Because of his strong junior season, Hayden was elected captain of the 2016-17 Bulldogs by his teammates.
Building off a strong rookie year with the Rockford IceHogs, Pokka didn’t miss a beat in his second year with the Blackhawks’ minor league affiliate. In 76 games, Pokka notched 10 goals and 35 assists for the IceHogs, putting him third on the team in points. Furthermore, Pokka frequently put his powerful shot on display, leading the team in shots on goal with 185.
Best Defensive Prospect: Ville Pokka, D, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
While Pokka’s shot leads the pack amongst Blackhawks prospects, his ability as a defenseman make him a hot commodity as well. This is certainly no insult to blueliners like Gustav Forsling, Viktor Svedberg, or Luc Snuggerud, but Pokka is clearly the most NHL–ready defenseman in the system. Not only has the 21-year-old proven himself as a reliable defenseman in the AHL, but also on the global stage. After earning the silver medal at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, Pokka was named to Finland’s World Cup of Hockey roster. This should allow Pokka the chance to showcase his skills against the world’s top talent before likely earning a spot on Chicago’s roster for the 2016-17 season.
Fastest Skater: Vince Hinostroza, C, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Hinostroza’s 2016-17 season was full of opportunity. The Bartlett, Illinois native earned a seven-game stint in the NHL with his hometown team, but spent the majority of the season with the IceHogs, playing a prominent role in Rockford. In his first full year with the IceHogs, the 22-year-old forward led the team in points, notching 51 points (18 goals, 33 assists) in 66 games. A smooth skater with decent hands, Hinostroza skates like an NHL regular, and after being selected to represent the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, he has a decent shot at making the Blackhawks opening night roster for the 2016-17 season.
Prospect of the Year: Nick Schmaltz, C, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
There’s absolutely no denying the outstanding year Tyler Motte had for the University of Michigan. Ville Pokka’s year with the Rockford IceHogs certainly was impressive as well. When all is said and done, however, it was Schmaltz who earned the bragging rights.
Centering arguably the best line in college hockey, Schmaltz didn’t always get the same amount of recognition as his linemates, Drake Caggiula and Brock Boeser. Nonetheless, Schmaltz proved to be a lethal offensive weapon for North Dakota, tallying 46 points in 37 games. When it came time to step up, Schmaltz continued to deliver, helping lead NoDak to the 2016 NCAA Division I Championship. Outside of the collegiate world, Schmaltz also earned a bronze medal at the 2016 World Junior Championships for team USA, adding to his already impressive resume.
Breakout Player of 2015-16: Tyler Motte, LW, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
While Motte wasn’t able to replicate Schmaltz’s success this year, there’s reason to believe the future is still bright for the 21-year-old left wing. In his junior year with the Wolverines, Motte took another big step forward in his development. As a third of Michigan’s stellar CCM Line – J.T. Compher and Kyle Connor being his two linemates – Motte put up some big numbers, tallying 56 points in 38 total games with Michigan, including a +28 plus/minus rating.
After being eliminated by North Dakota in the Frozen Four, Motte signed his entry-level contract with the Blackhawks, and in just five games with the IceHogs, Motte put up five points and a +4. He and his linemates also earned spots on Team USA in the World Championships, where Motte showed off the advanced defensive ability he rarely had to use this season. A top-nine forward with a definite scoring punch, Motte will have every opportunity to make the Blackhawks roster come opening night.
Most Improved Prospect: Dylan Sikura, C, Northeastern University (Hockey East)
Taking advantage of a new season, Sikura turned heads for Northeastern during the 2015-16 season. After a subpar freshman campaign that saw him only manage seven points, Sikura scored four times as much during his sophomore year, tallying ten goals and 18 assists in 39 games. Northeastern as a team experienced a great second half of the season, clinching a Hockey East title for the first time since 1988. Though he still has plenty of developing to do, Sikura could be on the right path to becoming a serviceable bottom-six forward.
Speaking of taking advantage, Radke took the opportunity to make a name for himself on Barrie’s roster, and it showed. In his second year for the Colts, the 19-year-old winger more than doubled his point total from his previous season, notching 39 points (19 goals, 20 assists) in 66 games. There were certainly bouts of inconsistency, but that should improve over time. It will be interesting to see if Radke can build off this season’s success into the 2016-17 campaign.
Underachiever: Matt Tomkins, G, Ohio State University (Big Ten)
While many prospects on this list continue to build off previously successful seasons, Tomkins appears to be trending in the opposite direction. In his junior year with the Buckeyes, Tomkins repeated his sophomore record of 5–7–1. With a 3.87 goals against average and a .888 save percentage, it’s clear to see why the 21-year-old netminder has not been relied upon by Ohio State. The goaltending depth is certainly one area the Blackhawks must look to address soon.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Nick Schmaltz, C, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
The Prospect of the Year being a high risk? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
Tight against the salary cap and in need of affordable, young talent, the Blackhawks are relying on their prospects now more than ever. The problem is many have been traded away to maintain a win-now mentality. It worked in 2015 when a first-round pick in that year’s draft (Nick Merkley) and Klas Dahlbeck were traded to the Arizona Coyotes for Antoine Vermette. The risky maneuver did not work so well this year when two picks, including a first-round pick in the 2016 draft, and Marko Dano were shipped out in the Andrew Ladd trade with Winnipeg. This makes Nick Schmaltz, whom the Blackhawks traded up for in 2014, a valuable commodity to the organization.
After a successful sophomore year with North Dakota, many believed Schmaltz might make the jump to the pros, but as the days pass, it appears more and more likely the 20-year-old center will return for his junior year at UND. Additional seasoning could prove to be incredibly beneficial for Schmaltz, who could be a stellar top-six forward. That’s what Blackhawks fans are hoping. The biggest fear, however, is a repeat of the Kevin Hayes situation, where a collegiate graduate decides to test free agency, leaving his draft team in the dust. For now, that doesn’t appear to be the case, but it’s worth keeping an eye on moving forward.
Prospect of the Month
Despite having a rough time during the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs, Ville Pokka has made sure to end the 2015-16 season on a high note. As previously mentioned, Pokka, 21, played a crucial role on Finland’s blueline during the 2016 IIHF World Championship. With two points and a +5 in ten games, Pokka was as reliable as any defenseman in the tournament. Now, with his inclusion on Finland’s World Cup team, Pokka is standing out among Blackhawks prospects.