2002 NHL Draft Adds Character to the Indianhead

By Bill Placzek

The all nine players selected by the Chicago Blackhawks have one common ingredient: character. In a draft labeled as one with few players whose abilities have developed enough to project big league success, the Blackhawks scouting staff may not have come through with a gaggle of gems but have come up with team players who shine like gems.

There is no denying the fact that at this juncture, the ownership may care little if they fill their building. They do care about holding the line on salaries and the draft is an essential element in doing just that. If you draft potential NHLers, you bring them in at a lower rate than acquiring established players.

So as a salary cap looms, the Hawks have tried to ferret out as many guys that will put team over all else.

At this point, no one can put a can’t miss or potential star tag on the vast majority of the talent taken after the first dozen, although everyone likes to project the drafted as the “next” as the draft is a way to sell your fans on the future.

The Blackhawk draft was no different. They went in with strategies (add defensemen, try and trade down when lots of their listed players were available as the picks approached) and hoped that the future would prove them correct.

Picking 21st overall, few of the Blackhawk picks were established stars with their teams, and only a few are names the casual amateur hockey fan would even know of.

With pick #21 the Hawks got what may amount to a huge Christmas gift in the form of Anton Babchuk. They wanted big players and more defensemen in the farm and he certainly fits the need. The question is why did he drop to #21 when projected as a top 12 guy in the draft rumblings? One reason might be most teams go in looking for scorers, playmakers, and bangers at the forward position. Forwards at 17-18, project better based on their performances at the lower levels than do defensemen. Maybe teams picking before the Hawk felt they had to get their guy at forward because the second round wouldn’t provide them with forwards whose scouting reports graded them as highly. Fearing the guy you want will be gone by your pick (or the second round) may have been why forwards Chris Higgins, Jesse Niinimaki, and Boyd Gordon were picked before Babchuk, no to mention Keith Ballard a smallish playmaking defensemen.

Another reason may be the fact that Babchuk had some negatives to go along with the positives. Although a strong body checker and wall guy, Babchuk sometimes went for the hit when the play needed him concentrating on the body not the man. He is not really a puck carrier. In fact, he almost had to come to a stop on his skates to set up many of his outlet passes, so this was translated as “lack of hockey sense.” To his defense, he is the consummate team guy, and wants to be the best player he came and be a Blackhawk. His upside IS huge, but do not be blinded with the Chris Pronger type talk. Can he be an anchor on a major league defense? It is possible. At his current level of play, this Ukrainian giant was very sound defensively and he was said to have the hardest point shot in the draft and with experience, this six foot five incher may just have what it takes to become and NHLer.

In the second round at pick #54, the Blackhawks past on another Russian defensemen, Denis Grot, forward Vladislav Evseev, and Quebec Leaguer forward Michael Tessier, and to choose undersized defensemen Duncan Keith.

Keith is light-footed on his skates and can fly around players. Before he enrolled as a Freshman at the Michigan State, he was a British Columbia phenom, amassing a hefty 64 assists to go with his 18 goals, so he certainly displays skill, touch and instinct to carry the biscuit, jump into the plays from the defensemen position. His first season at Michigan State, he had trouble playing defense on most nights. He still hasn’t adjusted and strength and size have a substantial part to do with stopping the bigger stronger forwards. That might be very possible, for he certainly has pure speed and agility to create as a winger. He has not yet adjusted to the less free wheeling style of the collegiate game and has trouble with handling traffic as a college defensemen.
The question is would he actually be able to make it as an NHL defensemen at his size and strength. He doesn’t project to grow past six foot. Could general manager Mike Smith have drafted him with the idea of him converting to a wing? The comparisons to “Phantom” Phil Housley don’t wash with me. Housley may have been the key ingredient that pushed the Blackhawks into a play-off slot, but Housley had trouble defensively all year as he has in most of his career.
Sometimes players are chosen for their character, skills, and determination, and can be projected to another position as possible pros. I wonder if that is what Hawk general manager Mike Smith had in mind by making him the Hawk second round pick.
I realize that the undersized defenseman has chiseled a place in the new NHL transition game and that this young man has the tools to be a Ballard/Bouwmeester type offensively creative player. I also understand you cannot teach speed, and Keith has an abundance of it. I just don’t know if he can make it on the backline.

Before taking their 3rd round pick, the Hawks were able to squeeze an extra pick out of San Jose in switch of third rounders (#86 for #93 plus pick #128), as the Sharks were hot to reach at Jonas Fielder. The Blackhawks made a choice similar to their Radulov pick by picking virtual unknown left winger Alexander Kozevnikov. Kozhevnikov was a player the Blackhawk scouting staff felt deserved to be picked earlier than any scouting service determined based on their assessment of his “first round skills.” He improved playing for Krylja Jr. enough to get his name called in the first day. He is a skill player with sufficient toughness. He combines exceptional speed with excellent balance and is able to stickhandle and make good decisions at to speed. Has goal scoring ability and plays responsibly in his own end. At this point in the draft, it looks like G. M. Smith had this guy pegged as his long shot, again, based on character.

In the fourth round using that San Jose extra pick, the Hawks went for a scorer in under six foot but still growing Matt Ellison. He is a three year veteran of the BCHL, were in the 2001-02 season he flourished 117 points 42 of which were goals. A solid competitor and character player for the Cowichan Valley Capitals, Ellison showed excellent balance and plenty of juice combined with a good skill level. He was second on his team in power play goals (16),but is value to his team was his strong play in all three zones.

By the fifth round there was still an undersized defensmen who played in the Prospects Game named James Wisniewski still on the board, so the Hawks took a chance. Wisniewski was considered by many to be Plymouth’s top defenseman this year. He combines “o” with a competitive edge and passion for the game.

He was a mainstay on the powerplay and sees a regular shifts, usually with BlueJacket draftee Cole Jarrett. Wisniewski is Whaler pp He is a strong skater and forces his opponents to the outside on the rush where he rubs them out effectively. He handles the puck well, can carry it, or make the long and short outlet pass. His shot is strong, and he keeps low and tippable. Wisniewski did not look out of place at the prospects game, but being banged up hamper further development. He has many of the intangibles teams look for along with the skill, skate and strength we always hear about. There are many positive parts to this newest Blackhawk puzzle piece.

At #188 in the sixth round the Hawks choose Kevin Kantee. Kantee was a U.S. citizen who player for Jokerit Jr. last season. The Hawks scouts were there to watch Tuomo Ruutuu but like what they saw in this lanky defensemen, who still needs to fill out. He understands and plays the game well in all zones. Skates well, and jumps into the play well, while improving his defensive zone coverages.

He has size and must be considered a developmental pick, but the weight room and high level of competition cannot hurt his chances of improvement.

At # 219 the Hawks felt they couldn’t pass on another goalie prospect,even though they loaded up last year. Tyson Kellerman has been at times spectacular with the awful North Bay Centennials this season. Faced with the task of facing an average 33 shots a game, Tyson responded with a lot of maturity and stole several games for North Bay this season, arguably the lone bright spot on the team this season. He has character and will be brought along slowly as a developing player.

At # 251, the Blackhawks felt Jason Kostadine was worth drafting. My guess it was based on his penalty minutes as a team guy who played 3rd line RW on Hull and really didn’t much ability to go with the “jam” he tries to bring with him into each game.

The Hawks finished out the draft at pick # 282, selecting from Green Bay of the USHL, Adam Burish, who put up team leading numbers, showing plenty of juice in the process. Like a unrelenting mosquito, he fore-checked admirably and was able to make plays with pucks he won in the wall battles. He is under six foot, still growing, and shows Improving balance. He is a fearless attacker, who shows skill, and plays in every situation of the game.

The entire draft seems like quite a crapshoot if you look at it in terms on harvesting big leaguers. No one can knock the character types the Blackhawk staff rolled the dice on.