Before day three of development camp for the Chicago Blackhawks began, General Manager Stan Bowman and head coach Jeremy Colliton addressed the media to discuss the week so far, the outlook of the prospect system and the direction of the franchise after an already busy summer.
Colliton, entering his first full NHL season as the Blackhawks’ head coach, has a much different vantage point of camp this summer compared to last and Bowman has made moves that seemingly have improved the Blackhawks on paper heading into 2019–20. Wednesday, they gave their thoughts on where the current group of prospects fit into Chicago’s future.
Bowman, Colliton weigh in on development camp
Bowman entered the media room to address development camp. For the first time in a while, the Blackhawks have more than a small handful of players that have high ceilings and high potential at the next level. For Bowman, he made sure to single out at least four players continuously throughout his 20-minute scrum: Adam Boqvist, Kirby Dach, Ian Mitchell and Alexander Nylander.
Big surprise, right?
For Bowman, development camp is more of an opportunity for the players participating than it is for full evaluations from the coaching staff.
“The big thing for us is to watch these kids, how much they can absorb,” Bowman said. “We’re throwing a lot of information. These are long days for them to have seminars in the morning then they come over and do on-ice work, then they do off-ice work and at the beginning of the week we have a cooking demo for them to learn how to prepare food. So, at the end of the day, it’s a full day for them. So, it’s really for them to grow their games; it’s not so much for us to watch the evaluation.”
As far as players standing out, a few comments made by Bowman on the main four players give an idea of where the organization feels the four are at currently.
“He had a good introduction last year,” Bowman said of Boqvist. “In training camp I thought he fared pretty well, got in some exhibition games. He’s taken a big step, he had a big season. … He really got his game going from November on. I think it started a little bit slow, but for him it was just adjusting to North America and becoming used to the schedule, the pace of the play, smaller ice rink, living in North America is different than Sweden. I think he just seems more comfortable when I talk to him here; he’s a happy-go-lucky guy, but he’s taken that next step.”
— Mario Tirabassi (@Mario_Tirabassi) July 16, 2019
“He’s an impressive kid,” Bowman said of Mitchell. “He’s going to be the captain at Denver (University) for a reason. He’s an articulate guy; he’s very team-oriented. You got to give him credit. He feels like there’s unfinished business and I think he’s committed to the team and committed to his teammates. He wants to lead that team and he wants to be, in his words, a difference-maker every night. I thought he had a great season last year and selfishly we think he’s ready to be a pro. … I remember talking to him at the end of the (2017) camp and I said, ‘You really opened our eyes with how far ahead you are relative to some of the other guys there.’ He was the youngest guy there at the camp and he was noticeable. Then, he comes back last year and he takes (a) step forward and here we are now. He’s very noticeable in these drills: just his quickness, how alert he is. He’s got offensive skills, but he also competes defensively. I think what we’re looking for him to do is build on that and become a dominant player like he wants to be. Yeah, we would love to have him as a pro right now, but I think he’s going to be a pro pretty soon. So, let him focus on his path. He has to believe in what he’s doing and it’s not for us to try to talk him in and out of things. Wherever he is, we’re going to support him. But, he’s ready to be a pro right now.”
— Mario Tirabassi (@Mario_Tirabassi) July 15, 2019
“It’s hard not to notice his skill level,” Bowman said of Dach. “He’s a big guy, but he’s got really soft hands; he’s got that long reach and he’s got a quick stick. He’s pretty tricky with the puck, he’s got the ability to hold it out so that guys can’t poke it away and if they try to get it he can pull it through and he’s got quick hands. And I think that’s what you notice. He skates well for a big guy. … These are all things that we liked about him when we drafted him, but when you get him here and put him up against guys that are a couple years older, he’s able to do some special things with the puck, so he’s got all the excitement to be on the ice, he’s a competitive kid, he’s focused, but he’s enjoying himself and he’s got a combination of attributes that we wish everybody had.”
“It was a great sign that he was eager to come,” Bowman said of Nylander. “It was pretty short notice when I talked to him the day of the trade and said, ‘We’d love to have you in Chicago if you can make it work.’ I think he did have a vacation plan, but he canceled that to come here, and that shows his desire to acclimate with our group right away. … His enthusiasm to be part of the group and he wants to get better—he’s very strong, but when you meet him off the ice, he just looks more developed than all these guys. He’s a big kid—he’s almost 200 pounds—so his physical strength is there. Now, it’s just trying to put it all together.”
— Mario Tirabassi (@Mario_Tirabassi) July 17, 2019
Bowman also made note of players like Mackenzie Entwistle and his willingness to embrace his role and the skills set that will create his path to the NHL.
As more of a two-way player, Bowman stated he was impressed that Entwistle at a young age (just turning 20 years old the Sunday before camp) understood what he needed to do to be his best version. Bowman also mentioned the skating abilities of 2019 second round pick Alex Vlasic and how he has kept up to pace, even as being one of the youngest and biggest players in camp.
The buzz word of both Bowman and Colliton to the media was ‘versatility’ when discussing the moves that have been made this summer. Both made the point that the roster is much different than what it looked like at the end of last season.
“We’ve really increased the depth in our group, everywhere…I think we have more versatility to our team; we have guys—we have defenders who can play either side, we have guys who want to kill penalties and defend and take that role, we have forwards who can play different positions, kill penalties, play against good players, so we feel that’s what we were missing to our team,” Colliton said, piggy-backing off Bowman’s comments on Tuesday. “I think we’ve added a little bit of physicality and an edge, which we need to have that dimension. We have to win games in different ways, and I think if you compare the roster now to the one we ended with or the one we had when I first came in November, I think we can win in different ways and we’re prepared to have an excellent season, hopefully.”
Colliton expanded on the versatility of the roster’s current outlook.
“We want to be flexible with how we can build our lineup according to who we’re playing and being able to handle certain matchups,” Colliton said. “I’d like to be a little less reliant on certain players who can only play against the other team’s top players. We’d like to use more of our group. We want to have a flow to the team where we can play at a high pace and put pressure on teams over a 60-minute period, and you need depth in your roster. … We want to have more of the group able to play against anyone, and feel like we’re going to come out on the positive end of it. And, I think, not everyone’s going to have their best game every night. So, when you have players who can play left or right or center or left defense or right defense, then we can play the guys who are going. And the lineup isn’t as static. I think we made some major headway there.”
Another key focus of the roster turnover from last year to this upcoming season is the addition in net of goaltender Robin Lehner. The move came as a surprise to many in the Blackhawks’ fanbase, as it would have seemed penciled in that Corey Crawford and Collin Delia would be the defacto starter and backup heading into the summer. But, with the addition of a quality netminder like Lehner, there comes the question of workload in net and who may be the true starter.
“There’s going to be competition, certainly,” Colliton said of the goaltending situation. “But, I think you look at the teams that have had success; there has been a share, some sort of split. … Those games that maybe the traditionally the backup is playing, we need to win those, too. So now, whoever is in the net, we’re going to get an extremely high level of performance. And if we happen to be unlucky with injuries, we have some protection there, too.”
With Crawford reaching an older age, on top of his recent injury history, one could make the judgement that the split Colliton is referring to may be closer to 50-50 than most would have expected coming into the 2019–20 season.
Colliton made a point to dismiss any rumors that may have circulated that he was ‘anti-Jokiharju’ when the trade to acquire Nylander was announced by the team.
“I only offer my assessment of the players and, ultimately, it’s Stan that makes the call,” Colliton said. “I think there’s this idea that I’m down on Henri. Not at all. I mean he played half a season as a teenager in the NHL. Probably in a perfect world we wouldn’t have had to put him in that position, where he could have been in Rockford and able to really be playing the role that hopefully he can play down the road as being a top-pair D, trying to get to that level. … When you look at our group…we have some really good defensemen coming up. They’re a little bit smaller, a little more tilted toward the offensive side of the game. (Bowman) had an opportunity to add a guy like Nylander and felt like that was the route to go.”
The roster turnover this season in Chicago could rival some AHL-level teams with the amount of new faces joining the fold and the amount of roster spots that are seemingly available for the taking. If development camp is any indication, the players who are making their next steps closer to, or on the way into, the professional ranks in the near future are not going to be handed anything.
“We want it to be difficult to make the team,” Colliton said. “For a young player, it shouldn’t be easy. They are going to have to perform at a really high level to push someone out and that’s exactly what we want. Maybe they show that they can play at our level, but it’s still not our best roster. They can go to Rockford and continue to develop. … If we do end up with an injury or we need to shake things up, we have someone who can step in and make a difference. So that’s huge. Even among the veteran guys, we have some really good players here. There’s going to be competition for—whether it’s a roster spot or ice time or roles—I think all the great teams, they have that.”