Blackhawks Top 20 prospects

By Phil Laugher

Top 20 at a glance

1.(2) Jonathan Toews, F
2.(1) Cam Barker, D
3.(4) Jack Skille, F
4.(3) Dave Bolland, F
5.(5) Corey Crawford, G
6.(13) Troy Brouwer, F
7.(6) Danny Richmond, D
8.(7) Dustin Byfuglien, D
9.(14) Nathan Davis, F
10.(10) Dan Bertram, F
11.(8) Jakub Sindel, F
12.(9) Michael Blunden, F
13.(16) Martin St. Pierre, F
14.(19-BOS) Kris Versteeg, F
15.(15) Igor Makarov, F
16.(18) Simon Danis-Pepin, D
17.(17) Colin Fraser, F
18.(nr) Evan Brophey, F
19.(nr) Petri Kontiola, F
20.(nr) Niklas Hjalmarsson, D

1. (2) Jonathan Toews, F – North Dakota (WCHA)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 198 lbs., Age: 19
Acquired: 1st round, 3rd overall, 2006

Toews had a bit of a slow start to the 2006-07 campaign with the Fighting Sioux, but blossomed into form just in time for the World Junior Hockey Championships. Returning for his second go round with Team Canada, Toews provided excellent two-way ability and displayed a knack for scoring clutch goals at opportune times, helping lead Canada to the gold medal, his second. He carried this winning attitude back to North Dakota after the tournament, and went on an offensive tear in the second half of the season. The sophomore finished with 46 points in only 34 games, good enough for third on the Fighting Sioux in points (his 18 goals placed him second on the team).

The Blackhawks would very much like to get the highly-touted pivot into the professional ranks as soon as possible, but Toews is leaning towards developing his game further and returning to school for one more season. There is still plenty of time for the young forward to change his mind (and for the Blackhawks to encourage a change) before the start of the 2007-08 season, but neither party wishes to rush matters. Toews will, undoubtedly, be a Blackhawk soon.

2. (1) Cam Barker, D
Chicago Blackhawks (NHL)
Height: 6’3, Weight: 213 lbs., Age: 21
Acquired: 1st round, 3rd overall, 2004

Barker had held a fairly firm grasp on the top spot for the past couple of installments of the Chicago prospect rankings. His departure from the pinnacle position should not be seen as a regression in his play. It was hoped that the 6’3 blue liner would make the Blackhawks out of training camp, but a fractured ankle kept him out of the line-up until nearly a month into the season. When he did start playing again, he did so with the Norfolk Admirals.

It was not until early-January that Barker earned the call-up to Chicago, after having posted modest numbers (15 points in 34 games) with the Admirals. Barker did not look out of place upon entering the Chicago line-up full-time, though his -12 (second-worst among defensemen on the team) would indicate otherwise. He also notched eight points (including his first professional goal. Barker will likely earn  full-time billing next season with the Hawks. A strong skater with excellent poise in his own end, as well as solid offensive instincts, Barker will likely be an integral part of the Blackhawks blue line for the foreseeable future.

3. (4) Jack Skille, F
– Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
Height: 6’1, Weight: 206 lbs., Age: 20
Acquired: 1st round, 7th overall, 2005

Skille had an up-and-down sophomore season with Wisconsin. At his lowest, he was struggling through a hyperextended elbow, an injury that hampered much of the first half of his season. At his peak, having recovered from that injury just in time, he was leading Team USA to a bronze medal in the WJCs, showcasing his exciting style of play, with equal parts offensive creativity and physicality. Skille was limited to only 26 games with Wisconsin, putting up eight goals and 18 points, good enough for fifth on the team.

The Blackhawks were not dissuaded by Skille’s sub-par regular season, which admittedly would have been much more productive had it not been for the injury. They signed him to a three-year contract at the conclusion of his sophomore campaign, with him making the jump into the AHL. In nine games, the winger picked up an impressive eight points. He also dressed for three games in the playoffs for Norfolk, going pointless. Skille, a power forward in the making, will bring his energetic enthusiasm to the professional ranks full time next season, likely (at least initially) for Chicago’s new AHL affiliate in Rockford.

4. (3) Dave Bolland, F – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 174 lbs., Age: 20
Acquired: 2nd round, 32nd overall, 2004

After posting ridiculously dominant numbers for the offensive juggernaut London Knights in his final season in the CHL, Bolland made the jump to the AHL full time this season. The transition was fairly smooth for the slight centerman from Toronto. In his first full season, Bolland posted a very modest 17 goals and 32 assists in 65 games. His 49 points were good enough for sixth place in scoring on the deep Admirals squad.

In contradiction to his strong numbers, the Admirals eased Bolland into his role on the team, trying not to put too much pressure on the young forward’s shoulders at this stage in the game. Chicago knew what to expect from Bolland offensively, as he has long been a deadly weapon in junior hockey. The slow pacing to his role with Norfolk allowed Bolland time to develop defensive game further, without undue pressure from the coaching staff. A strong two-way player with antagonistic qualities, Bolland is the type of player who could see a long career in the NHL. He already warranted a cup-of-coffee call-up for one game, and will likely see more time (but not yet a permanent role) with the big club next season.

5. (5) Corey Crawford, G
– Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Height: 6’2, Weight: 188 lbs., Age: 22
Acquired: 2nd round, 52nd overall, 2003

Crawford completed his sophomore professional season as the full-time starter with the Admirals. Crawford appeared in 60 games for Norfolk, putting up a franchise-record 38 wins in the process. Crawford played so well that he was voted the team’s co-MVP, alongside pint-sized pivot Martin St. Pierre. With Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime ahead of him on the depth chart, Crawford did not see any action with the big club this season.

Crawford is still the heir apparent between the pipes for Chicago, though it appears as if he will have to wait one more year before making the jump to the NHL. Crawford is very poised between the pipes, and plays a strong positional game. He has shown the ability to be a workhorse if necessary, in both junior and minor pro hockey. This will likely be his role next season, unless unforeseen events see Crawford promoted early.

6. (13) Troy Brouwer, F
– Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Height: 6’3, Weight: 215 lbs., Age: 21
Acquired: 7th round, 214th overall, 2004

Any skepticism that Troy Brouwer‘s offensive explosion in his overage season with the Moose Jaw Warriors last year was an aberration was clearly nullified early in Brouwer’s rookie season with Norfolk. The rangy, physical winger made the jump to Norfolk for the start of this season, and it was hoped that he would be able to post modest numbers. Even the most optimistic of Brouwer backers could not have anticipated him posting 79 points (including a team-high 41 goals), good enough for second on the team in points, and among the league leaders in rookie points.

Brouwer racked up accolades in his rookie season, appearing both on the AHL All-Rookie Team, and the Second All-Star Team. Brouwer also saw a couple of short-term call-ups to the Blackhawks, appearing in 10 games, registering no points. Brouwer, who already had professional size, has shown that he also has a professional skill set. While a full-time role with the Blackhawks may still be a year away, chances are he will still see more time with the club next season.

7. (6) Danny Richmond, D
Chicago Blackhawks (NHL) / Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 194 lbs., Age: 22
Acquired: Trade with Carolina, 2006

Richmond entered his first full season with the Blackhawks organization (his third in the pros), after coming over from Carolina at last year’s trade deadline. Richmond spent the bulk of the first half of the season down with Norfolk, where he was a potent offensive threat from the blue line, racking up 34 points in 57 games, interspersed with a couple of short-term call-ups to Chicago. Richmond joined the Blackhawks for the duration on Feb. 27, picking up a pair of assists in his 18 games after his final promotion.

With great two-way ability, as well as a deceptively rugged game for such an undersized defenseman, Richmond showed that he could play and play well at the top level. He will have to learn when (and against who) to play physically next season. A full-time role with the Blackhawks, supplemented by some time on the power play is likely in the offing for the Chicago native next season. There will still be a few bumps along the road, but Richmond’s solid positioning and offensive instincts will get him out of many jams.

8. (7) Dustin Byfuglien, D – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Height: 6’3, Weight: 254 lbs., Age: 22
Acquired: 8th round, 243rd overall, 2003

This was a coming out party for Byfuglien, who had long displayed great potential, but has finally begun to put everything together. Byfuglien had a solid rookie campaign with Norfolk last year, a season that saw him also spend 25 games with Chicago. Though he was unable to crack the Blackhawks line-up out of camp, Byfuglien was not daunted upon his return to the AHL. The former 22-goal junior scorer led the Admirals in points from the blue line this season, picking up 44 points (including 16 goals) in an injury-limited 63 games, supplemented by 146 penalty minutes. His strong, consistent play was enough to warrant him a spot in the AHL all-star weekend, and a Second Team All-Star placement. He also saw occasional duty with the Blackhawks again at season’s end, picking up a goal and two assists in nine games in an up-and-down stint.

The Roseau, MN, native brings versatility, physicality, and strong offensive instincts to the table, as well as a cannon of a shot from the point. He has worked more on his conditioning since turning pro, and his progress has not gone unnoticed by management. He could still definitely stand to work on his all-around game and positioning, and could also get a bit leaner, but his skating still is not much of an issue for a man his size. After turning the corner this past season, full-time NHL duty for Byfuglien is nearing reality. 

9. (14) Nathan Davis, F – Miami RedHawks (CCHA)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 194 lbs., Age: 20
Acquired: 4th round, 113th overall, 2005

Davis is another highly-talented forward prospect in the Blackhawks system that played NCAA hockey last season. Unlike the aforementioned Toews and Skille, Davis was among the final 10 players in consideration for the prestigious Hobey Baker Award, honoring the top collegiate hockey player in the nation. This past season with Miami of Ohio, Davis improved on his already stellar numbers from his previous two seasons, notching 20 goals and 29 assists in 40 games, leading his team. Rounding out his dream season was an invite to participate for Team USA in the 2007 WJCs. He went pointless through seven games, though he gained further valuable experience, playing among professionals.

Davis brings excellent offensive awareness, as well as tenacious two-way play to the rink game in, game out. His strong puck control and his quick skating ability further complement his all-around play. A special teams threat with great upside, the Blackhawks will be anxious to get Davis into the fold shortly.

10. (10) Dan Bertram, F – Boston College (HE)
Height: 5’10, Weight: 177 lbs., Age: 20
Acquired: 2nd round, 54th overall, 2005

It was another banner year for Bertram, who for the second straight season, registered both a World Junior gold medal for Team Canada, and a Frozen Four appearance for the Boston College Eagles. Unfortunately for Bertram and the Eagles, Boston College bowed out in the championship game, this time to the Michigan State Spartans. He finished his junior season putting up eight goals and matching last year’s total of 25 points, good enough for seventh on the team.

Bertram plays with his heart on his sleeve every shift, skating hard, generating opportunities, and getting physical along the boards, in spite of his small stature. He has a goal scorer’s finish, but also takes pride in his ability in opening up the ice for his linemates. He has focused more on the "team first" aspect, leading by example, and often forgoing the shot for the sake of making a play. He also showed that he is versatile this season, as he spent much of the year playing center, when he had previously played mainly on the wing. Bertram’s blend of skill and drive make up for his lack of size.

11. (8) Jakub Sindel, F – Plzen (Czech Republic)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 172 lbs., Age: 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 54th overall, 2004

Sindel put together his best offensive season since 2002-03 (when he played with Sparta Praha’s junior team), notching 16 goals and 10 assists for HC Plzen in 50 games, good enough for second on the team. This was due in large part to a combination of seeing his ice time increase from last season (largely through getting the opportunity to play in all special teams situations), as well as his staying healthy for a full season.

Sindel has excellent skating ability, and has begun to show more of a desire to go into traffic in order to make a play. He also has strong puck handling ability and drive to the net, but has got to learn how to use his teammates more effectively. His defensive game is still progressing, but is definitely not a strong suit. He has shown in the past a willingness to come to North America to play in the past, as seen by his one-year stint in the WHL. Whether or not he would be up to the challenge once again is unclear. He is now a couple years more mature, and his offensive creativity would certainly be welcomed in the Chicago system.

12. (9) Michael Blunden, F – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Height: 6’3, Weight: 207 lbs., Age: 20
Acquired: 2nd round, 43rd overall, 2005

This was a bit of a lost year for Blunden, who had his season cut short after a serious shoulder injury. Blunden was limited to only 17 games with the Admirals, coupled with a nine-game stint with the Blackhawks. Though Blunden went pointless in his games with the Hawks, he did show some energetic play, getting involved physically. He also notched 11 points with the Admirals before going down with injury.

Blunden’s enthusiasm and physicality are integral parts of his game. It will be interesting to see whether or not his shoulder issues will throw a wrench into what is undoubtedly his strong suit. Shutting Blunden down for the remainder of the year was the right call in ensuring that he can return to camp next season as close to 100 percent as possible.

13. (16) Martin St. Pierre, F – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Height: 5’9, Weight: 187 lbs., Age: 23
Acquired: Free agent, 2005

St. Pierre had a massive season this past year centering the Admirals top line, with rookie sensation Brouwer, and (up to the trade deadline, when he was moved to the Boston Bruins) Brandon Bochenski playing his other flank. St. Pierre led the Admirals in scoring with an astounding 99 points – the most points in franchise history – and was also named a First Team All-Star.

His lack of size will always be an issue, but St. Pierre is still an adept playmaker with great offensive instincts and excellent skating ability. Unfortunately, this skill set did not translate to the NHL level during his short-term call-up. In 14 games, he notched a goal and three assists. St. Pierre will return to what will be a very busy center position in Rockford next season, with the potential for several quality young teammates vying for his ice time.

14. (19-BOS) Kris Versteeg, F – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Height: 5’10, Weight: 179 lbs., Age: 21
Acquired: Trade with Boston, 2007

Versteeg came over to the Blackhawks mid-season from the Boston Bruins in a trade for Brandon Bochenski. Bochenski had been scoring at nearly a two-points-per-game clip, so the pressure on Versteeg to produce upon his arrival was fairly heavy. Versteeg, in his first full professional season (he appeared in 14 games last season after signing a tryout contract with Providence), was no offensive slouch either, picking up 49 points in 43 games. While his goal totals did not impress with Norfolk (he picked up only four), he did manage to continue scoring at nearly a point a game.

Undersized, but full of energy and offensive creativity, his energetic demeanor got the better of him towards the end of the season, when he was suspended for four games for leaving his bench to get involved in a skirmish. Versteeg displays the quickness, good hands, and desire to make it professionally, but he will have to keep his emotions in check.

15. (15) Igor Makarov, F
– SKA St. Petersburg (Russia)
Height: 6’1, Weight: 183 lbs., Age: 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2006

Makarov had an up-and-down season playing for SKA, his first full season in the Russian SuperLeague. After a quick start to the season, Makarov notched what turned out to be more than half of his season’s goal total in the first couple weeks of the season. Makarov ended up in the doghouse after running into serious inconsistency issues in late November, which lowered both his ice time and his spirits. He was rejuvenated after playing for Russia at the WJCs, picking up six points in six games. Makarov regained his form after returning to SKA, and finished with seven goals and two assists in his rookie season. Makarov has great speed and skill, but will have to maintain his focus and keep his effort level high before Chicago gives him a longer look.

16. (18) Simon Danis-Pepin, D
– Maine Black Bears (HE)
Height: 6’7, Weight: 217 lbs., Age: 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 61st overall, 2006

Danis-Pepin, a massive sophomore blue liner, had an excellent developmental season this past year for Frozen Four finalists, the Maine Black Bears. He did not garner much playing time in his rookie campaign, but did not look out of place playing with Maine this year, serving as the youngest player on the team, despite being a sophomore. He began to utilize his offensive instincts more efficiently, making safe plays with the puck. A good skater for his size, with strong defensive-zone coverage and a willingness to use his size and reach advantage to contain the opposition in his own end, Danis-Pepin is on the right track developmentally. With a couple of departures from the Maine blue line, Danis-Pepin will be given a larger role next season.

17. (17) Colin Fraser, F – Norfolk Admirals (AHL)
Height: 6’1, Weight: 1987 lbs., Age: 22
Acquired: Trade with Philadelphia, 2004

Fraser cracked his first NHL game this past season, in his third season as a professional. Unfortunately for him, his stint was limited to only one game. He spent the bulk of the season playing a checking line role with Norfolk, where the hard-nosed pest centerman picked up 12 goals and 24 assists in 67 games, along with 158 penalty minutes, good enough for third on the team in that regard. Fraser does not have great offensive ability, and if he is to make the jump to the next level full-time, he will have to do so on the back of his tenacious work ethic and knack for getting under the skin of the opposition.

18. (nr) Evan Brophey, F
– Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
Height: 6’1, Weight: 203 lbs., Age: 20
Acquired: 3rd round, 68th overall, 2005

Could Brophey be this year’s Troy Brouwer? Brophey was the runaway scoring leader for his Plymouth Whalers in his overage season, picking up a stellar 107 points in 68 games, including 36 goals. The 20-year-old came into camp with renewed focus, after having been challenged by the coaching staff to show more consistency. Brophey kicked his game into a new level from the get-go, utilizing his strong skill set more regularly, often carrying the Whalers on his back. Brophey’s Whalers ran the table in the OHL playoffs, dropping only four games along their way to a league championship, to represent the OHL in the Memorial Cup in Vancouver. Brophey notched 23 points in the playoffs, tied for the team lead. Brophey will make the jump to the professional ranks next season.

19. (nr) Petri Kontiola, F – Tappara (FIN)
Height: 6’0, Weight: 198 lbs., Age: 22
Acquired: 5th round, 196th overall, 2004

Once a late-round afterthought, Kontiola has emerged as a prominent scoring threat in Finland, leading his Tappara squad in scoring with 12 goals and 47 points in 51 games. He was a member of Finland‘s World Championship silver medal-winning squad, scoring a pair of goals and five assists in nine games. The 22-year-old Kontiola is a dangerous playmaker who utilizes his teammates very well, choosing to make the pass over the shot. He is still rather slight, and could stand to add some more muscle before he considers coming across the Atlantic. Chicago still has another year to consider what to do with the talented Finnish centerman.

20. (nr) Niklas Hjalmarsson, D – HV71 (Sweden, Elitserien)
Height: 6’1, Weight: 196 lbs., Age: 19
Acquired: 4th round, 108th overall, 2004

Hjalmarsson is the third of three new entries onto the top 20 list. The Swedish 19-year-old defenseman brings a punishing brand of physical hockey to the table, complemented by a sound two-way game from the point. He picked up two goals in 37 games with HV71 this past season. He was also a participant for Team Sweden in the WJCs, where, oddly enough, he trumped his Elite League point totals, notching the same two goals, coupled with an assist. The physical defenseman will make the move to Lulea next season.

Off the list

James Wisniewski, D — The former fringe prospect made the jump to Chicago full-time this season, graduating shortly before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Bryan Bickell, F — Bickell was seemingly lost in the shuffle with Norfolk for much of the season, running into consistency issues through much of the season. Still, the energetic forward warranted a late-season call-up, in which he notched two goals in his first three NHL games.

Tony Lagerstrom, F — Lagerstrom split last season between Sodertalje’s under-20 team, and their second division club. After posting nearly a point a game in the junior level, the shifty forward picked up only one assist in 33 games with the big club.

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