Chicago Blackhawks prospect awards dominated by AHL and junior players

By Brad Gardner

Jeremy Morin - Chicago Blackhawks

Photo: Jeremy Morin put together his best pro season in 2012-13 and could be on the verge of cracking the Blackhawks roster next season (courtesy of Warren Wimmer/Icon SMI)

The Chicago Blackhawks prospect pool had plenty of notable performances during the 2012-13 season, particularly at the AHL level, where the Rockford IceHogs went on another late-season run only to come up just short of the playoffs for the third straight season. Many of the club's CHL prospects also had standout seasons, with two Blackhawks prospects still competing for their respective clubs at the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup.

Prospect of the Year – Brandon Saad, LW, Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)

Much of the Chicago Blackhawks' success during the 2012-13 season can be attributed to, as the cliche goes, the team's best players being their best players. The same applies to the pipeline, as the team's top prospect, Brandon Saad, stepped into a top-six role and solidified the Blackhawks top line. A dynamic skater and quick thinker, Saad kept pace with linemates Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, completing a formidable trio on the forecheck and in the puck possession game. After a somewhat rocky start to his season in the AHL, Saad's emergence once the NHL season got underway reinforced the team's depth and allowed Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville to spread the offensive wealth to the lower lines.

Best Defensive Prospect – Adam Clendening, D, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)

Adam Clendening made a fairly smooth transition to the pro level and has emerged as the Blackhawks best prospect on the blue line. He hit his stride a couple months into the season, while skating on Rockford's top-pairing with Nick Leddy. Both players benefited from the combination, as Leddy's game stabilized for a couple months before he was called up to Chicago and Clendening's play took off, earning him plenty of attention with a stretch of 18 points in 19 games from mid-November through December. He earned an invite to the 2013 AHL All-Star game, finishing the year with nine goals and 46 points in 73 games with Rockford. Clendening's defensive game is still in area in need of improvement, but he is willing to pay the price to make a stop defensively or move the puck. His combination of skill with the puck and a hard-nosed temperament make him the best defensive prospect in the Blackhawks system.

Most Improved Prospect – Alex Broadhurst, C, London Knights (OHL)

Coming into the 2012-13 season, Alex Broadhurst's reputation did not extend too far beyond the USHL, where he played two seasons with the Green Bay Gamblers, including the league championship in 2012. He was originally committed to attend the University of Nebraska-Omaha, but his selection in the OHL Priority Selection Draft in the second round by London proved that those plans had changed. Not the quickest London forward, Broadhurst sees the ice well and reads the play with ease. His effort on the backcheck and in his own zone has helped him make an impact in all situations for the Knights, and he finished second on the team and tied for third overall in the league with 28 points in 21 OHL playoff games. Broadhurst contributes in a big way to the Knights balanced lineup, but the group will be tested as they attempt to get back to the title game at the 2013 Memorial Cup.

Overachiever – Garret Ross, LW, Saginaw Spirit (OHL)

Garret Ross scored 80 points over the course of his first three seasons with the Saginaw Spirit. In 2012-13 however he broke out for 44 goals and 90 points in 61 games, tying for the team lead in goals while continuing to lead the team with 114 penalty minutes. The chances of the 20-year-old winger continuing such extraordinary production at the next level are low. Just because Ross may not be a point-per-game player at the pro level, however, does not take away from the things he brings to the lineup, like determination, physical play, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win. If he can adjust to playing and thinking the game at pro speed, Ross could still develop into a hard-nosed role player.

Underachiever – Dylan Olsen, D, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)

Dylan Olsen skated in 28 games with the Blackhawks to close out the 2011-12 season, but the summer signings of Michal Rozsival, Sheldon Brookbank, and re-signing of Johnny Oduya made it clear early on that Olsen was headed back to the AHL for more seasoning. Instead of being able to build on his first stint in the NHL however, Olsen got off to a rocky start in 2012-13. His first couple months of the season included a number of healthy scratches, and he was lucky at times to get into the lineup as the seventh defenseman. The 22-year-old blueliner was able to solidify a role later in the season, appearing in a total of 50 games and scoring 11 points with Rockford, but the test will be whether he is able to pick up where he left off next season instead of starting with a step backwards as he did in 2012-13.

Hardest Worker – Ben Smith, RW, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)

Ben Smith does what it takes to win hockey games by playing around the net, working along the boards, and giving maximum effort in both zones. His willingness to pay the price in front of the net translated to a career-year on the score sheet with 27 goals and 47  points in 54 AHL games with the IceHogs. In Smith's case, the hard work has also come with tough luck; he has been injured during each of the past two Blackhawks training camps, possibly missing opportunities to crack the NHL roster. Smith can play with skilled players and muck it up in a checking role, so he could be a valuable depth forward for the Blackhawks, particularly as a cheap option for a team that will have to shed some salary going into the 2013-14 season.

Fastest Skater – Phillip Danault, C, Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)

Danault's speed has made an impression everywhere, from his regular home in the QMJHL to the international stage with Canada at the 2013 World Junior Championships. He can use his speed to the outside to create plays off the rush and he also has some slippery moves to skate through traffic. Danault's speed is noticeable in the defensive zone as well, where he covers a ton of ice and is a constant nuisance for the opposition on the backcheck. Likely to start the 2013-14 season with Rockford in the AHL, the 20-year-old Danault will look to use his skating ability to ease the transition to the pro level.

Breakout Player for 2013-14 – Jeremy Morin, LW, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)

The group of prospects on the verge of cracking the Blackhawks roster is deep, but Jeremy Morin possesses perhaps the best combination of versatility and offensive upside. Skilled forwards like Brandon Pirri, Drew LeBlanc, and Jimmy Hayes do not have the same commitment as Morin to the physical game, which could help him stick in a bottom-six role. Morin finally started to look like a more dangerous player in Rockford in 2012-13, creating chances with consistency and driving the net with reckless abandon. He finished with AHL career-highs in goals (30) and points (58). Morin will have a shot to crack the NHL roster next season and could provide some offensive punch from the bottom two lines.

One other position to watch in 2013-14 will be goaltending. Kent Simpson put together a strong rookie pro season, ranking in the top-10 in the ECHL in both goals against average (2.36) and save percentage (.912) during the regular season. Joining him at the minor league level will be Mac Carruth, who somehow managed to improve his numbers yet again at the WHL level in 2012-13. Carruth's decorated junior career has not yet come to an end, as his Winterhawks team finally broke through to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL Champions and are participating in the Memorial Cup in Saskatoon. The 'Hawks are likely to keep one of their veteran AHL goaltenders, Carter Hutton or Henrik Karlsson, for depth purposes next season, but the battle  for back-up duties between the team's top two goaltending prospects will be one to watch.

Unsung Hero – Brandon Pirri, C, Rockford IceHogs (AHL)

For a 22-year-old center who led the AHL in scoring in 2012-13, Brandon Pirri has flown under the radar compared to a lot of the other prospects featured here. He did not have the same opportunities at the NHL level as Rockford's Jimmy Hayes and Jeremy Morin, and his center ice position was made even more crowded late in the season with the acquisitions of Michal Handzus and Drew LeBlanc. Pirri's late-season run of 42 points in his final 30 games launched him into the league lead and he finished on top with 75 points in 76 games. His game is not particularly suited for a checking role, but given the way he led the IceHogs down the stretch, he remains in the running to fill the second-line center spot in Chicago.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect – Teuvo Teravainen, C, Jokerit (SM-liiga)

There may not have been a ton of risk associated with the selection of Finnish forward Teuvo Teravainen at 18th overall, considering the current state of the Blackhawks' top six and the number of forward prospects in the pipeline who could potentially fit in complimentary roles. However, the slight but skilled Teravainen is probably the biggest boom-or-bust prospect in the system. He has the hockey sense and hands to be a productive offensive player, but whether he is able to fill out and transition to the more physical North American game has yet to be seen.