Prospect development is key to the Blackhawks’ future

  

In all great organizations, teams draft well and develop prospects to supplement their current stars and then ultimately supplant their current stars when they age out of stardom and become more of role players. The Pittsburgh Penguins did that well during their back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2016 and 2017. Good organizations have talented prospects to come up and contribute year after year until they price themselves out or the pool dries up. The Los Angeles Kings decided to focus on their prospect pool when their core aged poorly and they ran out of talent to supplement it.

The Chicago Blackhawks needed to focus on prospects for the last several years, and it finally appears that may be the approach. In mid-January, the Blackhawks brought up forward prospect Lukas Reichel to give him a two-game NHL showcase before sending him back down to Rockford as part of his development plan. Interim Head Coach Derek King described the plan as “a two-game taste of the NHL, then let him continue his development playing 20-plus minutes every night in Rockford as a ‘chance to do it right by him.'”

In addition to the approach for Reichel, Scott Powers of The Athletic is reporting that the Blackhawks are going to take a more patient approach with prospects in their system, especially the defensive ones. This new approach by Interim General Manager Kyle Davidson is a stark contrast to his predecessor’s plans for developing prospects. With the Blackhawks’ future success now hinging on drafting and developing players, it is a good sign that Davidson is not following the lead of former General Manager Stan Bowman.

Under Bowman, the Blackhawks legitimately developed two NHL prospects into NHL players. Those players are none other than Teuvo Teravainen and Ryan Hartman.

Teuvo Teravainen

When the Blackhawks drafted Teravainen with the 18th pick in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, he was viewed as a steal of the draft. Teravainen was not viewed as a “need” pick for the current team, but a pick of the future. With the Blackhawks set at the forward position, Teravainen was able to develop with Jokerit in Helsinki, Finland, for 49 in games in 2013–14. After those 49 games, the Blackhawks brought him over to Rockford for five games before giving a showcase with the Blackhawks for three games before being shut down for the year.

Bowman said at the time:

“Everyone’s a young player at some point, and they go through their growing pains,” Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s a progression. It takes time. We’re fortunate we don’t have to rush guys into spots where they may not be prepared. But every year, we’ve seen one or two young guys come in.”

Teravainen spent 39 games in Rockford the following season before playing 34 games with the Blackhawks during the regular season and all 18 playoff games. The next season, he appeared in 78 games with the Blackhawks before being sent off to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Bryan Bickell trade.

Since the Blackhawks sent Teravainen to the Hurricanes, the organization has not invested the minor-league time into prospects. Every top prospect since Teravainen has been hyped up way too much, not given time to develop in Rockford, rushed to the NHL and then given up on. Every other prospect has been jettisoned before they could develop into any type of regular NHL player.

The Bowman prospect formula

The Blackhawks’ prospect formula seemed to be the same after Teravainen. Ryan Hartman got 78 games in the AHL before being recalled to the Blackhawks. In his first full season in the NHL, Hartman scored 19 goals and 12 assists in 76 games. He appeared in all four playoff games. He regressed the following year, and instead of sending him back down to Rockford, they shipped him out of town. Hartman might have finally put it together at the age of 27 with Minnesota.

After Hartman the formula again changed, as then-top prospect Nick Schmaltz got 12 games in Rockford before being recalled. He broke out in 2017–18 with 21 goals and 31 assists. He was third on the team in points that season, tied with Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat.

After that season, Bowman was quoted regarding the plan for the team’s better young players:

“I guess I want to make it clear our No. 1 priority as we move forward is to make sure we can keep these young players — DeBrincat and Schmaltz and (Vinnie) Hinostroza and some other young players that are going to maybe join our team over the next year or two,” 

Schmaltz then became mired in a season-long slump in 2018–19, and instead of sending him down to get his game right, the organization shipped Schmaltz to Arizona for Dylan Strome and Brandon Perlini. Despite thinking Schmaltz would be a very good player in the league, it was obvious that the Blackhawks had decided it was time to move on. Now, Schmaltz has not set the world on fire in Arizona, but nobody seems to succeed down in the desert.

The formula changes again

After Schmaltz, the Blackhawks decided they need to start hyping up their prospects because the NHL team looked to be trending downward, which brings us to Dylan Sikura. Sikura was a sixth-round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Sikura went to college at Northeastern for four years, where his game improved substantially each year. Powers stated, “He has top-six upside and likely can step into an NHL lineup immediately.”

If Sikura had not signed with the Blackhawks, 30 teams would have been all over him, Powers went on to add. Bowman was quoted saying that Sikura would have been one of the Blackhawks’ main trade deadline acquisitions and would be able to help the Blackhawks into the playoffs and beyond. The internet went wild after reading this statement, predicting that Sikura would score 30 goals in the NHL in his first season. Sikura for his tenure appeared in 47 NHL games and was traded to Vegas for Brandon Pirri. Pirri is a career AHL goal scorer and is currently back with the Rockford IceHogs.

The Blackhawks were not deterred by the Sikura overhype debacle and the Hartman mistake. The Blackhawks got very lucky with DeBrincat, who has made himself a complete player while at the NHL level, having never played a single game in the AHL. After DeBrincat, the Blackhawks drafted and jettisoned off Henri Jokiharju to Buffalo. Jokiharju was playing NHL minutes with Duncan Keith before Jeremy Colliton took over behind the bench and banished him out of town.

Current prospect pool

After severely damaging their prospect pool in a last-gasp effort to save his job, Bowman shipped off Adam Boqvist, who appears to be developing quite nicely in Columbus. Before being traded, Boqvist was starting to improve in his own end.

Now, the Blackhawks need to figure out how to develop at the NHL level and Rockford because they need more than cup-of-coffee guys in the NHL. Below is some analysis of where notable players in the current prospect pool stand and how their development has been and should be handled.

Kirby Dach

While Dach is not necessarily a prospect anymore after playing 121 NHL games, he is still in the development stage of his career. In this stage, Dach has had a lot to overcome. He was not afforded very much time in the AHL due to the transfer agreement between the NHL and CHL. The agreement is as follows:

This rule is based on the NHL and CHL Agreement, which states a signed player aged 18 or 19 who was claimed from a CHL club and is not retained by the NHL club, must be assigned to the CHL junior club whom he last played for or owes a contractual obligation.

So, the Blackhawks decided to keep Dach with the NHL team instead of sending him back to the CHL’s Saskatoon Blades, where he very likely would have been dominating on a nightly basis. While it is tough to argue against the Hawks’ decision, it was a catch-22 situation for the team, as the “right” place for Dach to develop likely would have been the AHL. Dach had nothing left to prove in the CHL, but was not truly ready to play in the NHL, either. Continuing his development in the AHL and allowing him to get used to a faster and stronger game in the minors would have given him the proper opportunity to grow, rather than being forced to play above his head at the game’s highest level as an 18-year-old. In reality, very few players are truly ready to play in the NHL at 18, and the CHL-NHL transfer agreement adversely affects players like Dach in that middle ground by forcing them into a typically detrimental development path instead of allowing them to take the next step at the AHL level.

Unfortunately for Dach, he was injured in training camp and was to be sent down to the AHL on a conditioning assignment, the only way for him to play in the minors. Dach played three games in the AHL during the brief assignment before being recalled. During his rookie year, the Blackhawks qualified to compete in the postseason bubble after defeating the Edmonton Oilers in the play-in series to get in. Dach was dominant in the series against Edmonton and played well against Vegas.

After that season, the Blackhawks allowed him to play with Canada in the 2021 World Junior Championships, where he was named captain of the squad. In my opinion, it was to give Dach an opportunity to be a leader and to build confidence after a strong rookie season, however, the plan backfired when he broke his wrist during a preliminary game for the tournament.

The Blackhawks then rushed him back to the NHL to appear in 18 games in a lost season. While Colliton was hailed as being a great communicator, he really never developed anyone at the AHL or NHL level. Hopefully, the new voice of Derek King, who has been a career AHL coach, can help develop Dach more at the NHL level. King being named the interim head coach might have been for that very reason: A coach whose goal is to develop players and try to win at the same time. As The Rink’s Andy Campbell aptly pointed out, the Blackhawks did not have a plan for Dach and are now trying to develop him on the fly.

Lukas Reichel

Reichel is the gem of the Blackhawks’ current prospect pool. The 19-year-old has spent 26 games in Rockford this season, scoring 12 goals and racking up 14 assists. Now, the original plan was to give him a two-game showcase in the NHL before sending him back down, but now reports are surfacing that Reichel could be brought up again later in the season in order to burn the first year of his entry-level contract in order to make his second contract cheaper. However, one could argue that bringing Reichel up again this season would be a mistake from a development standpoint. Dobber Prospects wrote an article in 2018 stating that a first-line player averages a full AHL season and a second-line player averages close to a season and half in the AHL.

The assumption has to be that Reichel is going to be a top-six forward, and based on limited sample size, the data suggest that he should remain in the AHL for this entire season at the very least. Also, people should take note that the last five 17th overall picks have spent time in the AHL or CHL before becoming NHL players. Unlike Dach and other third overall picks, most of the time the 17th pick is either sent back to his CHL team or plays in the AHL. Reichel is also an exception to that rule because the 17th pick of late has usually been a North American player. Young European players tend to need adjustment to the North American style of play and the ice, which would lengthen their development timeline, if anything. The last high-profile player drafted from Germany, Tim Stutzle, jumped to the NHL because of the state of his team, the Ottawa Senators, and not necessarily because he was ready to play in the NHL.

Reichel will be a curious case to watch because he could outgrow the AHL very soon. But again, the question needs to be focused more on his long-term growth. Just because he CAN play in the NHL right now does not mean he NEEDS to.

Jakub Galvas

Jakub Galavs was the 150th pick of the fifth round in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. After playing in the Czech league with Olomouc, he joined Jukurit for two seasons in the SM-Liiga. This year, he was called up to the Blackhawks out of necessity and played well in his three-game call-up. King (and many of us here at The Rink) was very impressed by Galvas.

“I’ll be honest with you, I was very surprised how good he played,” interim head coach Derek King told reporters following the 4-2 win. “I knew he was pretty calm with the puck, he could skate and he can make plays and he’s a smart player, but he looked really good today. He stepped up. That’s not easy.”

After three games, he was sent down to Rockford to play 25 minutes per night and continue to develop. The Blackhawks currently have too many defensemen to have warranted keeping Galvas up in the NHL. Now, he could see more time in the NHL if the Blackhawks trade one of their defensemen at the deadline. Galvas has appeared in 25 games with Rockford this season.

Ian Mitchell

Mitchell was a victim of the Bowman formula: He was overhyped before making his NHL debut. Mitchell was a second-round pick in 2017 before joining the University of Denver.

“He dominated the games I saw at Denver this year. He’s such a good skater, very involved in the play. He [did] a little bit of everything for that team as their captain. I think it bodes well [for] how he’s going to transition to the NHL. I think his game lines up with exactly how we want to play. He’s a fun player to watch.” – Bowman on Jan. 7, 2020

When Mitchell made his NHL debut in 2020–21, playing 39 games with the Blackhawks before being sent down to Rockford for five games. Mitchell was outmatched and clearly out of place in the NHL last season. This season, he has only appeared in eight NHL games and has spent the majority of the season in Rockford.

Recent reports are saying the Blackhawks are taking a patient approach with blue line prospects such as Mitchell. Mitchell, being a second-round pick, should have started his pro career in the AHL. Second-round picks have a 25% chance of making the NHL after being drafted. Before Mitchell was drafted at the 57th pick, the last defenseman drafted at 57 was Jonas Siegenthaler. Siegenthaler spent 122 games in the AHL with 28 games in the Swiss-A league sprinkled in before making his NHL debut. Seigenthaler was drafted in 2015 and did not make his NHL debut until the 2018–19 season. Since Mitchell, two defensemen have been drafted at the 57, Axel Andersson, who is still in the AHL, and Samuel Bolduc, also still in the AHL. So, when the Blackhawks rushed Mitchell to the NHL with all the hype, they did not do him any favors. He needs to continue to play in the AHL and develop his game. Mitchell might not have the potential to be an NHL regular for a few more seasons.

Nicolas Beaudin

The Blackhawks also said they would be preaching patience with Beaudin. Beaudin was the 27th pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. Beaudin has played in 30 AHL games this season and only two games with the Blackhawks. Beaudin, who was viewed by some as being an NHL-ready prospect entering this season, might have fallen behind the likes of Galvas in the pecking order. Beaudin needs to start improving his game at the AHL to have a shot at the NHL this season. In his last NHL game, he played just 1:11 of ice time before being sent back to Rockford.

With defensemen taking longer to develop, Beaudin still has a chance to play a regular role for the Blackhawks in the future, but the team needs to start seeing some tangible results. A positive sign for the organization is that they are not giving up on Beaudin and trading him away like past prospects.

Arvid Soderblom

The only goalie prospect with projectable NHL upside currently in the Blackhawks’ minor-league system is Soderblom. Soderblom is a 22-year-old goalie who signed as a European free agent with the Blackhawks last year. Undrafted, he spent his entire career in Sweden before coming over to North America for this season. Soderblom appeared in the offseason prospect tournament between the Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild and impressed the coaching staff during that tournament.

After the tournament, Soderblom began the season in Rockford before being recalled. Soderblom drew praise from King this past week.

“He’s getting NHL shots,” King said Wednesday. “He’s seeing how we operate here, the pace in practice…and just the everyday life of an NHLer. It’s great. Eventually, he’s going to be here (permanently). We just don’t know how long it’s going to take him.”

Now, the Blackhawks are starting to up his workload as he made back-to-back starts at Rockford after being sent down. This was the first time he has made back-to-back starts in Rockford. He was sensational against the Chicago Wolves last Saturday, making 36 saves in regulation and then stopping two shooters in the shootout to get the victory. The plan for Soderblom is to play at least one more game in NHL this season according to King. His plan might be altered if the anticipated trade of Marc-Andre Fleury does in fact happen. Soderblom could be recalled to split time with Kevin Lankinen or fill in from time to time.

People should remain cautious with Soderblom. For goalies, progress does not have to be linear. Corey Crawford came up several times to get starts for the Hawks before finally becoming the full-time starter in 2010–11 after being drafted in 2005.

Drew Commesso

While Soderblom is perhaps the lone goalie prospect with NHL upside in the current minor-league system, Drew Commesso has the most upside of any Blackhawks netminder prospect.

The second-round pick of the Blackhawks in 2020 has a record of 12–8–3 with a .915 save percentage and 2.48 goals against average with Boston University. In addition to putting up good numbers at Boston University, Commesso was named the starting goalie for Team USA in the World Junior Championship. Sadly, the tournament was ended due to the COVID-19 outbreaks among teams. Despite the tournament being cut short, fans might get to see Commesso on the biggest international stage, the Olympics. With the NHL not allowing its players to travel to the Olympics, Team USA went into the college ranks to add players to their roster, which now includes Commesso.

Regardless of whether Commesso plays in the Olympics or not, Blackhawks fans should not be expecting Commesso to be in the NHL anytime soon. The path to the NHL is still long for goalies after playing college hockey. An example of this would be Boston University alum Jake Oettinger. Oettinger was taken with 26th pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft by the Dallas Stars. After finishing a three-year career at BU, he cameoed for the Texas Stars for six games in 2018–19. Oettinger then spent the entire 2019–20 season in the AHL, starting 38 games for the Texas Stars. In 2020, he got 29 games with the Dallas Stars. Despite 29 games in the NHL the year prior, Oettinger was reassigned to the AHL for 10 games this season. Oettinger finally may have found his footing in the NHL this season. He just shut out the Boston Bruins this week for his 11th win of the season.

If the Blackhawks want another example, look no further than the aforementioned Crawford. Crawford was a second-round pick, just like Commesso. After finishing up his time in the QMJHL, Crawford spent five full seasons in the AHL. He appeared in 255 AHL games before being offered the backup spot behind Marty Turco. It was not until he supplanted Turco in 2010–11 that he was locked into an NHL spot. The Blackhawks will need to be patient with the development of Commesso. It is going to take several years, and that is perfectly okay.

Bottom line

The bottom line is the Blackhawks have not been getting their prospects to develop within their organization. The Bowman-led front office did not have a development plan in place. With the new philosophy in place, that does not mean every prospect in the system will develop into NHL players; some guys might be career AHL, ECHL or European players. The fact that there are plans in place is a step in the right direction. Now, let’s be patient and wait on the results.

Center Ice Forums Prospect development is key to the Blackhawks’ future

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