The-Rink is taking an in-depth look at the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect pool. However, unlike many other outlets that rank prospects in list form, The-Rink will be using tiers to express the quality of each prospect and their potential at the NHL level. Leading up to the season, The-Rink will reveal the tiers in reverse order, starting at the lowest tier and working toward the top.
Our series continues today with tier four, defined as a prospect seen as a bottom-six or extra forward, third-pairing or extra defenseman or fringe goalie.
As explained in the introduction piece, each eligible prospect in the system was rated by our staff panel before ultimately being debated to agree on a tier. Each prospect’s original rating average is listed in parentheses after their name, along with a brief synopsis of why they fell in the tier they did.
Players are listed in order of original rating average, with any ties being sorted alphabetically by last name.
Evan Barratt (3.5)
The 2017 third-round pick was one of the players our panel had the hardest time coming to a consensus on. Some felt Barratt is capable of converting his offensive firepower at the collegiate level to the professional ranks for a middle-six role, while some felt he will be nothing more than a serviceable depth piece in the NHL. Either way, Barratt brings a combination of skill and sandpaper the Blackhawks could use in their lineup down the road. The Bristol, Pennsylvania, native will return to Penn State in 2019–20, where he ignited for 43 points in 32 games last season.
MacKenzie Entwistle (3.667)
Since being acquired in the infamous trade that saw Marian Hossa’s contract dealt to Arizona, Entwistle has established himself as one of the Blackhawks’ most solidified prospects in terms of their future role. The 2017 third-round pick of the Coyotes has embraced the idea of being a bottom-six player at the NHL level and has adjusted his game to suit that role. After winning back-to-back OHL championships on the Hamilton Bulldogs and Guelph Storm and enjoying a breakout showing at the World Junior Championships, Entwistle will turn pro in 2019–20 to join what will likely be a youthful Rockford IceHogs lineup.
Aleksi Saarela (3.833)
Saarela joins the Blackhawk organization this season after spending the last two in Carolina’s system. Originally a 2015 third-round pick of the New York Rangers, Saarela was part of the trade that saw Eric Staal leave the Hurricanes at the 2016 trade deadline. Since then, Saarela has spent the majority of his time playing for the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL, where he and his team won the Calder Cup last season. Saarela’s big shot helped him score 30 goals in 2018–19, but he likely will not reach a level like that in the NHL. If Saarela wants to have a lengthy NHL career, it will likely need to be in a depth role. Saarela will be given a chance to crack Chicago’s opening night lineup, but is more likely to start the season in Rockford to adjust to the Blackhawks’ system.
Josiah Slavin (3.833)
Slavin was another polarizing player among our panel members. With votes as high as tier two, he clearly is a player who has quickly grabbed the attention of some panelists despite being a seventh-round pick in 2018. Slavin’s rise in the USHL over the last two seasons and showings at the Blackhawks’ development camps have led some to feel he has the tools needed to be a legitimate contributor at the NHL level, playing a simple, but effective, pro-style game. Slavin, who is the younger brother of Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin, possesses a strong work ethic and displays leadership on and off the ice, which have helped his development thus far. The Erie, Colorado, native will head to play at Colorado College, where he will likely spend at least two years before turning pro. While he still has some developing to do, Slavin could very well turn out to be a diamond in the rough and have a successful NHL career, whether as a middle-six player or a depth option.
Dennis Gilbert (4)
Gilbert is a perfect representation of a few players who our panel feels can be a solid NHL player, just likely not in a Blackhawk sweater. The Notre Dame product provides the physicality Chicago’s blue line pipeline lacks, but very well might not have a clear path to NHL ice time with all of the other young defensemen in the system who have higher upsides. Drafted in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Gilbert turned pro in 2018–19 after three seasons with the Fighting Irish. The Buffalo, New York, native played in 63 games for Rockford, where he racked up 14 points, to go along with one game for the Blackhawks. Our panel was in full agreement Gilbert has the tools to be a reliable and rugged stay-at-home defenseman in the NHL, but most felt that would be elsewhere.
Matthew Highmore (4)
Highmore is a bit of an interesting player in the group because of his circumstances. Most of our panel feels he has the tools needed to be an everyday bottom-six center in the NHL. However, injuries have hampered Highmore thus far in his career, washing out the majority of his 2018–19 season. The undrafted free agent signing played in 13 games for the Blackhawks in 2017–18, but managed just 12 games in 2018–19, all with Rockford. Despite his injury issues, Highmore has proven to be an effective scorer at the AHL level, posting 52 points in 76 games over two seasons with the IceHogs. Hopes are 2019–20 can be a fresh start for Highmore, but he will need to earn a spot in Chicago, as there is a slew of other players who could very well beat him out for depth roster spots.
Kevin Lankinen (4)
The undrafted free agent signing came over to play in North America for the first time in 2018–19, splitting time with Indy in the ECHL and Rockford in the AHL. While he posted decent numbers with the IceHogs (2.50 goals against average and a .910 save percentage in 19 games), Lankinen took the world by storm for his native Finland in the World Championships, backstopping the Finns to the gold medal with sparkling numbers of a 1.50 goals against average and a .942 save percentage. His efforts quickly caught the attention of many in the Blackhawks’ fanbase, but he needs to show that ability on a consistent basis for an extended period of time for our panel to place him in a higher tier. Lankinen is expected to return to Rockford for 2019–20, where he will get a chance to show if he is truly the lights-out goaltender he was at the World Championships or if his heroics were just a flash in the pan.
Niklas Nordgren (4)
The 2018 third-round pick of the Blackhawks is an intriguing prospect because of his ability to score. However, his size is a bit of a question mark, as is his skating, which will definitely need to be improved if he wants to translate his production to the game’s highest level. Unlike the majority of prospects in the system, Nordgren has been limited in his participation in prospect camp over the past two summers, as he was injured early in the 2018 camp before being an off-ice participant in 2019. Nordgren has split time between HIFK’s main Liiga men’s team and the organization’s U20 team over the last two seasons. The Helsinki native tallied 26 points in 28 games between the two teams in 2018–19 and will return to HIFK for 2019–20. Nordgren’s development will be worth keeping an eye on, as he could become a scoring threat in the NHL if he pans out.
John Quenneville (4)
The cousin of longtime Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville, John was one of three prospects to receive an identical rating from each member of our panel. Acquired earlier this summer in exchange for John Hayden, Quenneville will enter camp looking to earn a full-time job in the NHL for the first time. The 2014 first-round pick of New Jersey played in 33 games for the Devils in his time with the organization, spending the majority of that time playing for the Albany Devils in the AHL. After racking up 39 points in 37 AHL games last season, Quenneville appears ready to take the next step, but might have a hard time grabbing a roster spot in Chicago. Regardless, Quenneville should be able to be a decent depth piece at the NHL level in the future.
Michal Teply (4)
Teply will be another intriguing prospect to keep an eye on as his career progresses. Selected in the fourth round this June by the Blackhawks, the noted playmaker will come to North America to join the Winnipeg Ice for 2019–20 after being chosen fourth overall by the Ice in the CHL Import Draft. The Czech Republic product posted 21 points in various Czech leagues in 2018–19 before racking up six points in four playoff games for the Bili Tygri Liberec U19 team. Teply has been a mainstay on the Czech Republic’s international teams growing up, representing his country in various tournaments in each of the past three seasons. The big-bodied winger will need to work on his skating and adjust to the North American game, but, if he can do those things, seems like he can be a depth contributor in the NHL.
Lucas Carlsson (4.167)
The 2016 fourth-rounder made the transition to North America in 2018–19, playing 69 games with Rockford and tallying 33 points, after a lengthy career in the Brynas organization in Sweden. While generally known to be an offensive defenseman, Carlsson is capable of holding his own in his own end. Of course, being part of an impressive blue line pipeline in the Chicago system, Carlsson might have a hard time cracking the Blackhawks’ lineup in the future. Multiple members of our panel believe he has the tools needed to be a regular depth defenseman in the NHL, but would likely only be able to realize that potential in a different organization. As one panelist noted, Carlsson feels a bit like Ville Pokka in the sense he might be too good for the AHL but never be able to make it in the NHL given the situation he is in. The Swede is expected to return to a stacked blue line in Rockford in 2019–20.
Tim Soderlund (4.167)
Soderlund’s skill set lends itself to a bottom-six role, which is likely what he would need to be in order to have an NHL career. While Soderlund has looked good at both ends in his time playing in Sweden’s SHL over the last three seasons, he has not stood out much at Chicago’s prospect camps since being selected in the fourth round in 2017, though that is not an end-all, be-all setting. Soderlund will join Rockford for 2019–20, where he will get his first taste of the North American game. Sometimes compared to fellow Swede Viktor Arvidsson, Blackhawks fans should be cautiously optimistic about Soderlund’s future. If he can translate his game to North America, he should have a chance to establish himself as a reliable depth player capable of chipping in offensively from time to time.
Alexandre Fortin (4.333)
Once the “golden boy” of the Blackhawks’ prospect camps, Fortin has a well-known story that has led him to the professional ranks. Unfortunately for Fortin, it sometimes seems like he just is not getting the opportunity he needs to establish himself at the NHL level. After struggling with injuries in his first professional season in 2017–18, the undrafted free agent signing split time between Chicago and Rockford in 2018–19, posting consistent numbers at both levels. Fortin tallied three goals and three assists in 24 games for the Blackhawks and doubled his totals in 47 games with the IceHogs. Fortin has speed to burn, but the rest of his game will need to catch up to his feet in order to put it all together. Though there is still time for Fortin to earn himself a regular NHL job, he might be passed over for other options as time progresses. Fortin is another player who may be better off starting fresh in another organization to get the most out of his career moving forward.