Top Shelf Prospects: Chicago Blackhawks
Earlier this week I launched “Top Shelf Prospects” a look at the top prospects for all teams in the NHL. So far I have looked at the Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames and Carolina Hurricanes. Continuing along our alphabetical journey through the NHL, we have the Chicago Blackhawks. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2012 draft, as there have been no games since the draft, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2012-13 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick. A player who was either drafted in the 4th round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL.
Top Prospect: Brandon Saad, LW
Born Oct 27 1992 — Pittsburgh, PA
Height 6.01 — Weight 202 — Shoots Left
Selected by Chicago Blackhawks round 2 #43 overall 2011 NHL Entry Draft
When Brandon Saad joined the Saginaw Spirit at the start of the 2010-11 OHL season, he was looked at as a potential top 10 pick in the 2011 NHL draft. Things started out well enough for Saad, he wasn’t dominating the league in the way many expected, but he wasn’t playing poorly either. He still looked like a sure fire top 15 pick around midseason. Things unraveled in the second half and Saad was picked by the Blackhawks in the 2nd round of the draft, at 43rd overall. In fact, Saad was Chicago’s fourth pick of the draft. Now today many teams are kicking themselves for passing over Saad, and he is looking like a possible candidate for steal of the draft. Saad is Chicago’s best prospect and has rocketed past the three players who were taken ahead of him by the Blackhawks, Mark McNeill, Philip Danault, and Adam Clendening. This isn’t a knock against any of those three players, this is an acknowledgment of how good Saad has been over the last year. A simple explanation for Saad’s poor second half in 2010-11 has emerged. He simply had never played that many games at that many minutes at that high a level before, and he didn’t have the stamina to work through the rigours of a full OHL season. This shouldn’t be a surprise, many young athletes hit this rookie wall in the CHL, AHL, and even the NHL. Considering the way he dominated and was actually stronger down the stretch in the OHL this season, the issue now appears to be far in Saad’s review mirror.
Saad had an outstanding year in 2011-12 and he even started and finished that year with the Blackhawks. He had an outstanding training camp and even earned a spot on the big club playing two NHL games before being sent back to Saginaw. He would dominate in the OHL with 76 points in 44 games, and a further 17 points in 12 playoff games. After Saginaw was eliminated in the playoffs he would return to Chicago and play two games for the Hawks in their first round playoff loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, even recording his first NHL point, an assist.
Saad is the prototypical power winger that every NHL team craves. He has good size and is not afraid to throw his body around on the forecheck. He wins a ton of board battles and is not afraid to take punishment and go to dirty areas to score goals. He is a great skater who uses his speed, agility, and balance to beat defenders wide and then take the puck hard to the net in creating scoring chances. Saad already possesses an NHL ready shot and a quick deceptive release which he is able to use to score goals both on the rush, and by setting up in the offensive zone. He is also an underrated playmaker with good vision and passing skills. Saad has the complete package, in addition to the offensive skills I’ve talked about, he’s a solid two way hockey player and has even been an effective penalty killer for Saginaw.
Saad has a legit chance to crack the Blackhawks lineup this coming season. If he comes into camp and blows everyone away again there is quite simply no way they can keep him off the team to start the year. Even if he doesn’t make the NHL, Saad has nothing more to learn in the OHL, and its fortunate that due to his late birthday (October 1992) the Blackhawks could choose to send him to the AHL this season. Either way expect Saad to be in a Blackhawk uniform sooner rather than later.
#2 Prospect: Mark McNeill, Centre
Born Feb 22 1993 — Edmonton, ALTA
Height 6.02 — Weight 210 — Shoots Right
Selected by Chicago Blackhawks in round 1, #18 overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Mark McNeill was the Blackhawks’ first selection in the 2011 Entry Draft. He is a big talented centre, who can play an effective game in both ends of the ice. McNeill is at his best working the puck down low on the cycle game. He has excellent size, and very good puck protection skills. He is able to control the puck below the goal line and then use his excellent vision to create a scoring chance for a teammate, or use his strength to cut to the net and bury the puck with his soft hands in tight. McNeill also has a decent wrist shot and a good release, which he uses to rack up the goals.
McNeill also has a well developed defensive game. He is a conscientious back checker, and understands positioning in his own end of the rink. He has shown the ability to help his defence and contain opponents down low and in front of the net. A good penalty killer as well, McNeill cuts down passing lanes, and is willing to block shots.
McNeill has been questioned about his intensity and consistency, and a slow start to his 2011-12 season didn’t help matters. He really struggled out of the gate for Prince Albert, but eventually found a groove and finished the season strongly. The fact that he finished with less points in 2011-12 than he did in 2010-11 is one cause for concern as the stat sheet doesn’t show a progression. On the ice though, McNeill actually did show progression and played the best hockey of his junior career down the stretch, after that slow start. For a player his size he can still play the game with more of a physical edge than he currently shows, and needs to learn to bring his best effort every night. The talent is definitely there, though. The Hawks have an opening at Centre, so if McNeill comes into training camp and blows everyone away, he might make the team. However, it is far, far more likely that he is sent back to the WHL for another year to work on his game.
#3 Prospect, Jeremy Morin, Forward,
Born Apr 16 1991 — Auburn, NY
Height 6.01 — Weight 189 — Shoots Right
Selected by the Atlanta Thrashers in Round 2 #45 overall of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Traded to the Blackhawks in June 2010
Jeremy Morin is a talented young sniper who is capable of playing all three forward positions. He was the centre piece of the package acquired by the Blackhawks in the trade that saw Dustin Byfuglien go to Atlanta following the 2010 Stanley Cup win. Morin has soft hands, excellent stickhandling ability, and a great wrist shot. His wrist shot is especially deadly because he has an absolutely outstanding release. The quickness with which he is able to get his shot off and fire the puck on net is extremely impressive for fans to watch, and makes his shot difficult for goalies to stop. He has high level hockey IQ and is often in the right position ready to take a pass from a teammate and riffle off that wrist shot. Morin also has good offensive vision and creativity.
The biggest issue holding Morin back right now is his skating. Well I wouldn’t call it a liability, his top end speed, acceleration, and balance are all remarkably average. He does have some good agility and is able to use his shiftiness to get a step on a defender at times. Overall his skating stride is unorthodox and will need some work before he’s known as a good skater, but Morin’s skating really won’t hurt the Blackhawks either.
Morin is extremely close to being NHL ready and could make the Hawks squad with a good camp. Even if he doesn’t make the big club right away, he will need to be ready, as he’d be one of the first AHL callups in case of injury. Morin’s natural ability to put the puck in the back of the net makes him a player the Hawks will find impossible to ignore very soon.
Sleeper Pick: Andrew Shaw, Center
Born Jul 20 1991 — Belleville, ONT
Height 5.11 — Weight 180 — Shoots Right
Selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in round 5, #139 overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Seeing as how Shaw played 37 games and recorded 23 points for the Blackhawks last season, it might be a bit of a stretch to call him a sleeper. However it is quite remarkable that a 2011 5th round pick (after being passed over in both the 2009 and 2010 NHL drafts) would be able to make the team that quickly and play the way he did for Chicago.
Shaw is a prototypical pest, who works hard all over the ice to get under his opponents skin. He plays a tough, physical brand of hockey and does not let his height get in the way of playing that style. Shaw crossed the line and earned a three game suspension for his hit of Phoenix goalie Mike Smith in the first round of last years playoffs. He will need to learn to dial it down a little, and how to be an agitator while staying on the good side of the line, and not getting his team into trouble. A defensively responsible player, Shaw gives it his all and works hard in all three zones. Shaw also has offensive gifts such as decent hands and crisp passing which should help him to provide secondary scoring from a bottom six role in the NHL.
Given his play in Chicago last year, and the Hawks general need for help at centre, its hard to imagine Shaw not making the team out of training camp. It was a really astute pick by the Blackhawks to get a player who can contribute this quickly in the 5th round of the draft.
After winning the Cup in 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks found themselves in Salary Cap Jail due to some of the large contracts they had signed and the performance bonuses reached by some of their young players such as Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in leading them to that victory. This situation forced them to trade away key contributors to the cup winning squad such as Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, and Andrew Ladd, among others. In doing so the Blackhawks accumulate a bevy of draft picks and prospects. The Hawks have really built a deep system in this way. They were also extremely fortunate in having players like Saad, and Teravainen fall to them where they did, but even if they were lucky in these instances, their scouting staff still knew to take advantage of that luck when other teams didn’t.
This report focuses on Chicago’s forwards and Saad, McNeill, and Morin are their top three prospects. They also have guys like Brandon Pirri looking like he is NHL ready, Philip Danault coming off an excellent junior career, and Kyle Beach still trying to put it all together with his great physical tools, and become a productive player. While Forward is clearly an area of strength for the Hawks prospect pipeline, they have not neglected their young defence. They stole Nick Leddy from the Minnesota Wild in the Cam Barker deal, and he’s already contributing at the NHL level. In the minors and the college ranks, defencemen such as Dylan Olsen, Adam Clendening, and Stephen Johns have also shown a lot of promise. They also have decent goalie prospects in Kent Simpson, Mac Carruth, and a possible draft day steal in Brandon Whitney. Overall the Hawks have one of the deepest and best groups of prospects in the NHL. With much of the 2010 Stanley Cup winning core still intact, this group should soon replenish the depth the Hawks lost that summer and help the team be ready to make more runs at Lord Stanley’s Legendary Cup.
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