Chicago Blackhawks Top 20 stocked at center and on the blue line

By Brad Gardner

Brandon Saad - Team USA

Photo: With an NHL spot secured, Brandon Saad can set his sights on making a good impression on Team USA brass when the 2013-14 season opens (courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The Chicago Blackhawks maintain a prospect pool that features both quantity and quality, from potential top-six forwards to versatile blueliners that could contribute down the road. There have not been many changes at the top, but the 2013 draft class increased the competition for lower spots and put three new prospects inside the Top 20.

1. (1) Brandon Saad, LW, 7.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2011

A likely graduate had there been a full NHL season, Saad established himself on Chicago's top line throughout most of the regular season in 2013. His explosiveness on the rush, willingness to drive the net, and ability to control the puck all helped make for a smooth transition to the NHL. After 20 points in 31 AHL games with Rockford during the lockout, Saad was a Calder Trophy finalist with 10 goals, 17 assists in 46 games for Chicago.

Along with Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell on left wing, Saad will compete for a top-nine role with the Blackhawks going into the 2013-14 season. After an invitation to the Team USA National Team orientation camp, Saad's play to start the year could propel him onto his country's Olympic roster. Barring injury, the 20-year-old winger will not be long for prospect eligibility at Hockey's Future.

2. (2) Teuvo Teravainen, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2012

With Saad all but graduated from prospect status, Teuvo Teravainen stands on the verge of taking over as the Blackhawks' top prospect. His electrifying offensive skill and hockey smarts make him Chicago's most talented prospect from a purely offensive standpoint. Teravainen is not the biggest player at 5'11, but he is elusive and can handle the puck with ease through traffic so that he has still been able to produce against older, bigger competition, finishing 2012-13 with 31 points in 44 games for the league's best regular season club.

Teravainen was recently signed to an entry-level contract but is still expected to skate with Jokerit next season in the team's final season of SM-liiga play before transitioning to the KHL. With plenty of ice time at even strength and on the powerplay, Teravainen will again be a key piece of the Jokerit offense in 2013-14. Another year of adding strength and playing against men in Finland should help Teravainen when it comes time for him to adjust to North America.

3. (3) Adam Clendening, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2011

Leading Chicago's defensive depth chart is Adam Clendening, who is coming off an AHL All-Star season as a rookie with the Rockford IceHogs in which he scored 46 points in 73 games. Clendening is a puck-moving defenseman with good vision and puck skills. He logged plenty of time on the powerplay and showed in his rookie AHL season that he is not a liability at even strength either. Although not an imposing player from a physical standpoint, Clendening is nonetheless more than willing to finish his checks and play a scrappy style of game in his own zone.

He ranks as the Blackhawks' top defensive prospect on this list, but it may still be some time before Clendening makes his NHL debut. The Blackhawks are well-stocked at the NHL level with veteran defenseman and Ryan Stanton (who is no longer eligible for prospect status by virtue of his age) would be the more likely call-up for the role of a third-pairing or a reserve defenseman. That said, Clendening is perhaps the best offensive-minded blueliner in the Chicago system and is furthermore far from a one-dimensional player. He should find himself stepping into a second or third-pairing role at some point in the future, but until then he will remain a key player on the Rockford blue line.

4. (4) Phillip Danault, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 26th overall, 2011

Before either Saad or Clendening were picked in the 2011 draft, Phillip Danault was somewhat of a surprise pick by the Blackhawks late in the first round. Although the former two players have more potential to develop into offensive contributors at the pro level, Danault has the advantage of being the more versatile player, capable of skating on a scoring line or leading the attack on a checking line. The 20-year-old forward is always going after the puck and is a noticeable presence on the ice because of his speed and his persistence in staying with the play.

After a total of 85 points in 56 regular season games split between Victoriaville and Moncton in 2012-13, the 2013-14 season will mark Danault's transition to the pro level. The versatile and speedy forward may have an outside chance of cracking the Chicago lineup out of camp in a lower-line energy role. The more likely scenario is for Danault to skate in Rockford, where he could quickly establish himself as one of the team's top-six skaters and a contributor on both special teams units. Long-term, he projects as a top-nine forward that can bring energy and contribute in any situation.

5. (5) Mark McNeill, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2011

McNeill was the earliest pick by the Blackhawks in 2011, and even though he has slipped behind the rest of the first and second round picks from that draft class, he remains a valuable asset for the Chicago system. He is physically more mature than many of the prospects in the pipeline and has the potential to be a power forward type of force at both ends of the rink. Inconsistency has plagued McNeill's junior career, so establishing himself as a steady contributor in Rockford as a rookie will likely be the next step before he is considered for a call-up to Chicago.

A well-rounded forward that can line up at center or on the wing, McNeill will likely have the opportunity to skate in a variety of situations for the IceHogs. When he is on, McNeill can control the pace of a game and impose his will in the offensive zone. Making sure that level of effort comes through as often as possible as he transitions to the AHL will be the bar by which is rookie success will be measured.

6. (6) Brandon Pirri, C, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 59th overall, 2009

Brandon Pirri is the Blackhawks most accomplished center prospect at the pro level after a 2012-13 season in which he led the AHL in scoring with 75 points in 76 games. A skilled playmaker with excellent vision, Pirri has improved each year as a professional player and learned to navigate the tighter spaces and faster pace while still maintaining his strong point production. Like in previous years, however, Pirri's end-of-season stats hid a somewhat uneven level of play over the course of the season. He tallied 41 points through the end of February, before exploding for 34 points in 22 games in the final two months of the season.

He is not as well-rounded as Danault or McNeill, and would not be as well-suited for a checking or energy role, making Pirri's transition to the NHL a more difficult proposition. Pirri has the offensive-oriented skill set to fill the second line center spot in Chicago and has the talent to top this list if he can translate his game to the NHL level.

7. (NR) Drew LeBlanc, C, 7.0C 
Signed as a free agent in April, 2013

Signed as a free agent after his St. Cloud State Huskies were eliminated from the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four, Drew LeBlanc finished the season in Chicago and suited up in two NHL games after the Presidents' Trophy was clinched. LeBlanc seemed to be gaining confidence with every shift in that brief debut, which raised expectations for the skilled centerman coming into his first full pro season.

Now 24 years old, LeBlanc is two years older than Pirri, but the fact that he has yet to spend any significant time against professional competition or play more than 43 games in a season since beginning college means that there are still plenty of questions still to be answered for LeBlanc. Another skilled playmaker, LeBlanc is in a similar boat as Pirri in that he could potentially slot into the second line center spot but may not have the defensive or physical ability yet to be effective lower in the lineup. A prominent role in Rockford is more likely and would give him ample ice time in all situations to adjust to the pro level.

8. (7) Stephen Johns, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2010

The Blackhawks best defensive-defenseman in the pipeline is Stephen Johns. The 6'4 blueliner never passes up an opportunity to make a hit, whether a highlight reel collision or a hard crosscheck in a board battle. Johns makes life miserable for opposing forwards and is a player that the opposition must always be aware of when they enter the offensive zone. Although it does not get a lot of play, Johns has improved his play with the puck on his stick and possesses a strong, accurate passing game on the breakout.

Johns will return for his senior season at Notre Dame in 2013-14 and should be signed to a contract following the end of his college season. From a physical standpoint, Johns would probably be capable of handling the NHL competition, but the Blackhawks should be able to afford patience with him and allow him all the time he needs to develop into a key shutdown player in Rockford.

9. (10) Jeremy Morin, LW, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with Atlanta (Winnipeg) in June, 2010

Chicago's top winger in the system is Jeremy Morin, who put together as complete a pro season as he has had in his career during 2012-13. Morin continued to show aptitude as a goal-scorer and an aggressive player with the puck on his stick. He led Rockford in both goals (30) and shots (229) last season, finishing the year third on the team in points with 58 in 67 games.

Morin will be a favorite heading into training camp to step into a bottom-six role on the wing for the Blackhawks. He has the potential to establish himself as a top-nine forward at the NHL level, where he can chip in offense with his nose for the net and create room for his linemates due to his willingness to throw his weight around and drive the net.

10. (NR) Ryan Hartman, RW/C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2013

The Blackhawks top pick in 2013 was West Dundee, Illinois native Ryan Hartman, who spent the 2012-13 season playing for the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL. Hartman is a skilled, hard-working forward that has skated at both center and on the wing in the past two seasons. He is an aggressive player with the puck and does not shy away from attacking the net.

His OHL season was strong with 23 goals, 60 points in 56 games, but Hartman turned even more heads with his performance for Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Championships, where he played a key checking role for the team and chipped in a pair of goals and an assist in seven games. Although injury prevented him from participating in the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid this summer, Hartman will likely be returning with the Americans for the 2014 WJC and could see a more prominent role both at that tournament and for his OHL squad.

11. (9) Jimmy Hayes, RW, 7.0C
Acquired via trade with Toronto in June, 2010

Compared to the likes of Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith (who is no longer eligible for prospect status by virtue of his age), Jimmy Hayes had an uneven 2012-13 season with Rockford. While the other two wingers made more consistent impacts for the IceHogs last season, Hayes spent time up and down the lineup as he tried his hand playing the center ice position. The 6'6 forward still tallied 25 goals and 20 assists in 67 games for the IceHogs.

The center experiment aside, Hayes remains a solid prospect for the Blackhawks and could be in line for a more permanent position during the 2013-14 season. He is best suited for a complimentary role where he can create space for his linemates and clean up some of the opportunities around the net. Not an overly physical player, Hayes could still find a role as a skilled, big-body forward that can make an impact around the goal.

12. (11) Kevin Hayes, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 24th overall, 2010

The younger brother of Jimmy Hayes is a fairly similar style of player. Kevin Hayes also has a big frame and uses his long reach effectively to control the puck, but he is not necessarily an aggressive player in the physical game. When Hayes is battling around the net and setting up his teammates in the offensive zone, he is capable of making a big impact for a team. It is his attentiveness to his own end and consistency in his effort that are areas where Hayes has had to develop in his time at Boston College.

After his junior season was cut short by a leg injury, Hayes will return to BC for his final season of college hockey in 2013-14. He will play important minutes for the team and look to build off his career-best scoring pace of 25 points in 27 games before his injury. Like Stephen Johns, he will likely finish the hockey season at the pro level, but it may not be until after another long run for the Eagles.

13. (13) Dillon Fournier, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 48th overall, 2012

The Blackhawks glut of older prospects on the verge of a chance in the NHL makes some of the longer-term prospects like Dillon Fournier slide down the rankings. Fournier, for one, remains a high-level prospect and one of the best-skating rearguards in the system.

Fournier was entrusted with top minutes for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the QMJHL during the 2012-13 season. Although he did not keep up the scoring pace he set in his draft year, Fournier still finished with six goals and 24 points in 59 games. Perhaps more importantly, he improved in his own zone and helped his team in all situations, improving from a minus-8 rating in his draft year to a plus-8 in 2012-13. Fournier should be a top contributor for Rouyn-Noranda in 2013-14 as the team looks to continue their improvement in the QMJHL standings.

14. (NR) Carl Dahlstrom, D, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2013

Like Fournier, Dahlstrom is another defenseman with the potential to develop into a blue line contributor for Chicago. The Swedish defender has good size and uses his wingspan to disrupt a lot of plays in the defensive zone. He does not shy away from taking the body or from entering into puck battles on the boards and around the net.

He is more likely to make the safe, simple pass than try to rush the puck on his own, but Dahlstrom is not a liability with the puck by any means. Instead, his calling-card is his reliable positioning and good decision-making. Although he will likely continue to develop in Sweden for a couple years, fans in Chicago will likely hear from him as part of Team Sweden at the upcoming WJC. He may return to the Linkoping J20 team to begin the 2013-14 season, but it would not be surprising to see Dahlstrom get his first taste of the SHL at some point during the season.

15. (NR) John Hayden, C, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 74th overall, 2013

In the third round of the 2013 draft, the Blackhawks picked another American forward in John Hayden. The big center skated with the USNTDP during the last two seasons, where he was a teammate of Hartman in 2011-12, and showed a strong combination of size, strength, and skill. Hayden is aggressive in driving the net and making things happen in the offensive end of the ice. He has the size and the temperament to get to the front of the net and stay there.

Yet another potential power forward that could skate in a complimentary top-nine role down the road, Hayden will debut at Yale University in the 2013-14 season. A strong performance at Chicago's prospect camp has ramped up expectations for the big forward, but he will have plenty of time to develop under Keith Allain at Yale.

16. (NR) Antti Raanta, G, 7.0D
Signed as a free agent in June, 2013

With few of the Chicago's netminding prospects in recent years able to stand out from the rest of the pack, it has been some time since the Blackhawks goaltending pipeline featured a keeper as accomplished as Antti Raanta. Like Antti Niemi, Raanta has found plenty of success in Finland's top professional league, the SM-liiga, including a league championship and MVP award in 2012-13. Raanta capped off his season and heated up the pursuit from NHL teams with a strong performance for fourth-place Finland at the 2013 IIHF World Championships.

With the difficult transition to North America still ahead of him, Chicago brought in former 'Hawk Nikolai Khabibulin to hold down the back-up role behind incumbent starter Corey Crawford. Raanta should see plenty of time in Rockford and will enter Chicago's training camp with a leg up on the younger, less-experienced prospects Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth. The goaltending situation in Rockford will surely be a position to watch throughout the 2013-14 season,

17. (19) Klas Dahlbeck, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 79th overall, 2011

Klas Dahlbeck immediately stepped into a prominent role for the Rockford IceHogs during the 2012-13 season, with returning players like Dylan Olsen and Joe Lavin out of the lineup due to performance or injury. Although not a high-scoring blueliner, Dahlbeck plays a stay-at-home style of game that was sorely needed on a Rockford team that leans more towards the offensive end of the ice. He projects as a safe, reliable defenseman at the NHL level, and may not be too far away from getting a test in the NHL. Dahlbeck's transition to the North American ice went smoothly and he could potentially be on Chicago's radar (although he is firmly behind Ryan Stanton at this point) if they needed a reliable call-up on the blue line.

18. (12) Dylan Olsen, D, 7.0D
Drafted 1st round, 28th overall, 2009

Following a 28-game NHL debut at the end of the 2011-12 season, Dylan Olsen returned full-time to Rockford last season. He watched some games from the press box as he sought to establish more consistency from shift to shift and a more aggressive temperament in the defensive zone. Olsen's play improved later in the year and he was able to establish a more consistent role on the blue line, finishing the year with two goals and 11 points in 50 games for the IceHogs.

At 6'2 and 206 pounds, Olsen has the size to compete at the pro level but tends to watch the play happen rather than imposing his will on the opposition. The upcoming season will be a big one for the former first round pick as he looks to re-establish himself as one of the Blackhawks top defensive prospects.

19. (14) Michael Paliotta, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2011

Defensive depth and talent has long been an area of strength of the Blackhawks prospect pipeline, and that is still evident with the likes of Dahlbeck, Olsen, and Michael Paliotta rounding out the defensive prospects in the Top 20 ranking. Paliotta is a defender with size who loves to initiate contact and defend his team's crease.

Paliotta has developed along with his Vermont club over the last two seasons and has emerged as a leader on the blue line. The Blackhawks system is not short on defensive stoppers by any means, but Paliotta still has two years ahead of him at Vermont to round out his game and gain more experience in shutting down the opposing teams’ top lines.

20. (17) Alex Broadhurst, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 199th overall, 2011

Of the 18 prospects on this list who were selected in the NHL Draft, Alex Broadhurst is the only one that was not taken in the first three rounds. The final spot in the Blackhawks Top 20 ranking was tightly contested by a group of forward prospects with potential, but plenty of development still ahead of them. With an improving game at both ends of the ice and a pro contract in hand, Alex Broadhurst edged out the likes of Chris Calnan, who could climb up the ranking with a strong debut at Boston College, and Maxim Shalunov, who could likewise improve with a standout 2013-14 season in Russia.

Broadhurst will bring his excellent playmaking skills and a developing all-around game to the Rockford IceHogs during the 2013-14 season, rounding out a strong class of CHL prospects transitioning to the pro level this season. While it is unclear at this point just where Broadhurst fits into Rockford's lineup, his transition should be eased by the presence of his older brother, Terry, who made noticeable strides in his rookie pro season with Toledo and Rockford in 2012-13.