Blackhawks 2002 draft evaluation

By John Jaeckel

Under then-GM Mike Smith, the Blackhawks chose nine players in the 2002 NHL Draft, with a heavy emphasis on both defense and European prospects. The results were mixed at best, though one exceptional player has emerged from this draft class, as well as another solid contributor on the NHL level.

The nine players drafted have played a total of 280 games in the NHL, averaging a solid 42.2 games per pick.

Anton Babchuk, D, Elektrostal Jr., Russia, Round 1, #21
NHL games played:  96
Current NHL status: NHL Player
D.O.B.: 05/06/1984

The Hawks expressed some pleasant surprise on draft day 2002 that Babchuk was still there at pick No. 21. Allegedly, teams had passed on Babchuk because of attitude questions. But Smith, always the fan of Russian prospects, felt these were not major concerns.

Babchuk was signed by the Hawks in 2003, and had a solid season at AHL affiliate Norfolk in 2003-04, with 22 points and a plus-nine rating. He was an AHL all-star that year, and also appeared in five games with the parent club, picking up two assists. In 2005-06, Babchuk began the year shuttling between Norfolk and Chicago. In his Hawk appearances, he showed the potential (size, puck skills, big shot) that endeared scouts to him in his draft year. But he would also show a propensity for errors and awkward play. And the attitude questions persisted.

It was not a total surprise when new GM Dale Tallon shipped Babchuk to Carolina in January of 2006 for defense prospect (and Chicago native) Danny Richmond and a fourth-round pick. Some felt at the time that Carolina GM Jim Rutherford had robbed the Hawks, feelings only compounded when Babchuk actually took the Stanley Cup home to his native Kiev later that summer. Babchuk’s numbers that season were five goals and five assists for 10 points in 39
NHL games, and a minus-seven rating.

Yet, the following season for Babchuk in Carolina was perhaps indicative of why Chicago had given up on him. Assigned to Albany (AHL) by the ‘Canes in February of 2007 because of inconsistent play, Babchuk refused to report. He was then suspended by Carolina the following day. He did eventually report to Albany, and was recalled by Carolina less than a month later. His Carolina statistics for 2006-07 were two goals and 12 assists, for 14 points in 52 games and a minus-six rating.

A recent Raleigh Press-Observer story reports that Rutherford is shopping Babchuk around the NHL, hoping for a second-round pick in return. But even the hometown paper doubts that he will receive that in return as Babchuk apparently plans to play in Russia next season.

Duncan Keith, D
, Michigan State, CCHA, Round 2, #53 overall
NHL games played: 163
Current NHL status: NHL player
D.O.B.: 07/16/1983 

As disappointing as Babchuk has been, Keith, a blazing fast rearguard compared often to Phil Housley, has arguably played as well or better than most players selected ahead of him in 2002.

Keith is actually an interesting contrast to Babchuk. Unlike the 6’5 200-pound Russian, Winnipeg-native Keith weighed only 168 pounds when drafted (even that perhaps generous). All scouts concurred that his skating was phenomenal, but they differed on his eventual NHL role, or if he had one at all. Some felt Keith was simply too small to ever compete in the league. Others felt his future was as a wing (as he also possessed above average puck and passing skills). And still others felt he was a natural power-play quarterback.

Keith left Michigan State midway through the 2002-03 season and played for the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL. Signed by the Hawks in 2003, Keith reported to Norfolk that fall. He has been a regular on the Hawks’ blue line since 2005-06, often skating nearly 30 minutes a night.

A rare athlete and a true gym rat, Keith has also hit the weights and the protein powder, slowly transforming his 6’0 frame to a solid 185 pounds. His VO2-max, a metric of blood-oxygen use and overall cardio-vascular durability, is said to be truly exceptional, similar only to that of Lance
Armstrong. And despite his size limitations, Keith will drop the gloves at times with much larger opponents in defense of teammates.

With the NHL rules changes prior to the 2005-06 season, Keith has become an incredibly valuable commodity since he can skate well enough to join the offensive play, but still get back against the opponents’ rush. Keith is also a top-notch penalty killer.  He has played the most NHL games of all the Hawks picks with 163.

In spite of all this, Keith still has room to improve. He tends to over-handle the puck in his own zone at times. And some believe he could conceivably score more as he grows more comfortable with his role.

Alexander Kojevnikov, LW, Krylja Sovetov, Russia, Round 3, #93 overall
NHL games played:  0
Current status: NHL Bust
D.O.B.: 04/12/1984

Big, fast and gifted with nifty moves and a lightning-quick shot, Kojevnikov was once the most highly-touted offensive prospect in the Hawks organization. The Hawks helped bring him over to the QMJHL for the 2003-04 season. But starting with Val D’Or and later moved to Quebec that season, Kojevnikov struggled with cultural adjustment to North America.

Kojevnikov later matriculated to the Hawks ECHL affiliate at Greenville. He still showed flashes, but was never able to put it all together into a cohesive package. Along the way, he suffered an apparently serious concussion that supposedly affected his play a great deal, and he never came close to achieving his potential while playing in North America. He was subsequently released.

Matt Ellison, RW, Cowichan, BCHL, Round 4, #128 overall
NHL games played: 43
Current status: NHL Prospect
D.O.B.: 12/08/1983 

Ellison has been an over-achiever at every level of play in hockey. Smallish, but highly competitive, he doesn’t excel at any particular area of the game. But his fierce will endears him to both teammates and fans alike. Playing for Red Deer (WHL) in 2002-03, he was CHL Rookie of the Year. He later played at Norfolk and briefly for the Blackhawks before being traded to Philadelphia, along with a third-round pick, for Patrick Sharp and Eric Meloche.  He was recently traded again to the Nashville Predators.

James Wisniewski, D, Plymouth, OHL , Round 5, #156 overall
NHL games played: 69
Current NHL status: NHL Player
D.O.B.: 02/21/1984

Like current Blackhawk defense partner Keith, Wisniewski was a real find in 2002. He had outstanding numbers as part of a strong Plymouth squad in the OHL, culminating with being named CHL defenseman of the year in 2003-04. Also in 2004, the Canton, Michigan-native was a key member of the World Junior champion U.S. squad.

Still, he had his doubters. As one Michigan-based scout put it: "he’s a star in the OHL. But his skating flaws and other physical limitations will be exposed in the  NHL."  Since that time, however, Wisniewski worked hard, both at Norfolk in the AHL and with Hawk skating coach, former Olympic gold medalist Dan Jansen, to improve his game.

Wisniewski shuttled between Norfolk and Chicago in 2005-06, and really began to come on in late-season NHL appearances that year. In 2006-07, he and Keith were the Hawks defensive mainstays, until Wisniewski tore an ACL in March. He is expected to make a full recovery. Barring further significant injury, Wisniewski’s toughness and sound two-way game could cement him a role on Chicago’s blue line for years to come.

Kevin Kantee, D, Jokerit, Jr., Finland, Round 6, #188 overall
NHL games played: 0
Current status: NHL Bust
D.O.B.: 01/29/1984

Kantee is an American who chose to play junior hockey in Finland. He was not signed by the Blackhawks and has remained in Finland to play in the elite league there. A stay at home defender, the most Kantee has scored in a season was five points. 

Tyson Kellerman, G
, North Bay, OHL, Round 7, #219 overall
NHL games played: 0
Current status: NHL Bust
D.O.B.: 01/18/1984

Kellerman played for four different teams in four seasons in the OHL. He later played collegiate hockey for two seasons in Canada. Small at 5’10, 160 pounds, Kellerman got somewhat lost in the shuffle of a fairly rich pipeline of Hawk goaltending prospects over the last few years, including Craig Anderson, Corey Crawford, Michael Ayers and Mike Brodeur. He is no longer a Blackhawk prospect.

Jason Kostadine,  RW, Hull, QMJHL, Round 8, #251 overall
NHL games played: 0
Current status: NHL Bust
D.O.B.: 10/22/1983

American Jason Kostadine made a name for himself in junior hockey as a competitor and fighter. Once considered a possible NHL enforcer, Kostadine’s skill level never advanced to the point where he would have been considered a serious NHL prospect. Over three seasons in the QMJHL, Kostadine averaged six goals, 12 assists and 201 PIM per season. He has bounced around the ECHL the last few seasons after leaving juniors.

Adam Burish, RW, Green Bay, USHL, Round 9, #282
NHL games played: 9
Current status: NHL Prospect
D.O.B.: 01/06/1983

Former Wisconsin Badger Burish is a gritty penalty-killing specialist who might have a fourth line role someday with an NHL club. He was a fixture last season for Norfolk, picking up 21 points and 146 PIM over 64 games, and will likely play a key role at new AHL affiliate Rockford, if not earning some time with the parent club as well.

Notes: Hawks sign four prospects

In a fairly busy off-season thus far leading up to the June 22 NHL Draft, the Blackhawks have signed five draftees to professional contracts: Jonathan Toews (round 1, 2006), Evan Brophey (round 3, 2005), Petri Kontiola (round 7, 2004), Niklas Hjalmarsson (round 4, 2005) and Adam Hobson (round 7, 2005).

The signing of the much-heralded Toews should come as no surprise. Many observers felt that Toews more than held his own playing with and against NHL stars in the recent World Championships, helping lead a Canadian team to a championship for a third time. Toews’ performance and demeanor have further cemented the opinion that he projects as a top line center or wing and potential NHL all-star. Toews will play in Chicago this season.

Similarly, Brophey’s signing was not unexpected. He had an outstanding final season at Plymouth of the OHL, helping lead the team to the CHL finals in Vancouver. Brophey will contend for a roster spot with the Hawks, but at his age and experience level, is more likely to center a line at Rockford next season.

A highly intriguing prospect, Kontiola’s signing has been rumored over the last couple of seasons. Kontiola is an elite passer and set-up man. Some of his play-making can only be described as magical. His skating is only average, but he has good size and uses it well to guard the puck. He is also an above-average puck handler. It will be interesting to see how well and how quickly he adapts to North American play. Also, the scoring prowess of his linemates could greatly impact his production. If he plays with a shooter like Jack Skille or Troy Brouwer, he could put up very good numbers. Kontiola will most likely play at Rockford in 2006-07.

Hjalmarsson emerged this past season with a stellar performance at the World Junior Championships, where he distinguished himself with a big point shot, a strong two-way game and some vicious open-ice hits. Of all the Hawk prospects playing in the tourney, Tallon went out of his way to cite Hjalmarsson.

A bit of a surprise was the signing of Hobson, coming off an injury-plagued final season in the WHL. Hobson has never been an elite scorer. He has good size at 6’0, 205 pounds and uses it as a punishing body-checker and defender. He is the kind of “lunch pail” performer many teams like to have on their bottom two lines: a player who knows his role and responsibilities,
but has the skill to contribute something offensively.

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